story by Chellie Bowman | photo courtesy of Michael Hansen
“Openly gay environmentalist running for Jeff Session’s old seat.” Bold categories, high emotions, incendiary blurbs. That Michael Hansen, born and raised in Memphis, is now the first openly gay person running for statewide office in Alabama, is garnering lots of attention and support is no surprise. But Hansen was just a concerned citizen like us, who took a leap of faith, taking things into his own hands.
Hansen has a long history of challenging the status quo – he works as executive director of the health and environmental advocacy organization GASP, has a been working for LGBT rights locally in Birmingham for many years, and moreover, came forward with a powerful story last year. In November of 2016, Michael and his brother went public about abuse they endured by a youth minister when they were kids, and the subsequent attempts by the church to cover it up. It empowered him to run for office, he said, and that in itself has generated in him a sense of peace and inner strength.
Hansen has cultivated this strength in running a campaign that he describes as an unapologetic defiance of what Alabama politics is supposed to be. Over the phone he firmly asserts “I am unapologetically who I am.” And Hansen means this in more ways than one. Apart from running as an openly gay man in a historically conservative Southern state, he also believes that people are longing for authenticity, “for someone authentic, who speaks without obscurity and ambiguity.” Something that is in complete opposition to Trump and his administration’s “alternative facts”, political obviations, and double speak.
It is just that kind of duplicity that Hansen offers voters an alternative to. He actually decided to run for office when he heard that former Chief Justice of the Alabama Supreme Court Roy Moore, a “prolific homophobe”, had decided to run for the seat. Many of us Tennesseans know of Moore because of his history of anti-LGBT actions. In 2003 he was removed from his position as Chief Justice for refusing to remove a Ten Commandments monument (that he commissioned) from the court, and in 2015 once re-elected he attempted to block probate judges from issuing marriage licenses despite the Supreme Court ruling that overturned the state’s ban on same-sex marriage and was then suspended—and ultimately forced to resign—from the court.
Hansen described Moore as issuing “some of the most vile and bigoted opinions from the court about LGBT people.” By launching his campaign in response to Moore’s, he wanted to show the gay community in Alabama that “we need the courage to stand up to bullies – whether they’re at your school, work, or the Senate. That representation matters. We need elected leaders who are like us, who know what it’s like to grow up as a gay kid in the South.”
Indeed we do. Hansen’s experiences growing up in Memphis and in the South – and the complicated relationships we have with our families and religion – are something to which many of us can relate. Although Hansen left Memphis around a decade ago to pursue graduate school in Tuscaloosa, he still has emotional connections to the city. His parents and his sister and her wife still live here. He comes back often and concedes that he is impressed every time by how much Memphis has grown. In portraying his upbringing, Hansen discloses that his family “grew up relatively poor and in a pretty diverse neighborhood. And my parents are conservative, Southern Baptist Republicans. And when I look at someone like Jeff Sessions or Roy Moore who use the Bible as a weapon I think it makes people like my parents look bad – and other Republicans and Christians look bad, this weaponization of faith. My parents are two of the best people I know, they’re always helping others and doing their part. Just because we don’t see eye-to-eye politically doesn’t mean we love each other any less. And I think that’s the story of most Southerners.”
In the current political climate in which Trump and the recent election has divided families and friends, Hansen represents a progressive, pro-LGBTQ candidate who also, however, understands the nuances and complications of living gay in the Bible Belt. He represents the change we need, but as a political newcomer and “gay kid from the South” he also has the context and the insight to represent us. When asked what he had learned since starting the campaign, Hansen mentioned how exhaustive and hindering campaign finance laws and regulations were, stating “the system is set up for wealthy people to run.” His campaign and those of other grassroots candidates rely on donations from private citizens like us to support them. Since our interview Hansen himself has taken a pledge not to accept “contributions from the oil, gas, and coal industry, instead prioritizing our families, climate, and democracy over fossil fuel profits.” This is the kind of authenticity he was talking about, that he represents, and that we need.
In response to specific LGBT legislative concerns, Hansen relayed that he is focused on getting the Equality Act – which adds sexual orientation and gender identity/expression to the Civil Rights Act – passed to prevent discrimination towards LGBTQ citizens in employment, housing, education, etc. Additionally, Hansen is deeply concerned about the systemic lack of hate crimes being acknowledged and reported in Alabama, citing the murder and assault of several trans people in Birmingham alone last year.
To learn more about Michael and/or donate to his campaign check out his website hansenforalabama.com/.
**Since this story was initially published Hansen lost the primary to fellow Democratic candidate Doug Jones, and has selflessly and genuinely thrown all his effort into Doug’s race against Roy Moore in the general election. He continues to fight for social equality and environmental justice in Alabama.**