Shane Cohn was never looking to be Harvey Milk.
Milk was the legendary San Francisco politician who harnessed growing political power in his predominantly LGBT neighborhood in the 1970s and became an activist for gay rights so vocal and well known that they made a movie about him.
Cohn says his goal, as St. Louis’ first openly gay alderman, was simply to help his neighbors tend to the issues that affect everyone, such as safety, youth development and making the community a better place. Besides, he says, the 25th Ward is not like Milk’s Castro neighborhood in San Francisco, which is predominantly LGBT.
“My ward is one of the most diverse and inclusive communities in the entire St. Louis region,” Cohn said. “So, it’s not a predominantly LGBT community like the Castro, but I will say there are immigrants, LGBTQIA, people of every different racial and ethnicity background you can imagine that live on every single block in my ward.”
And those are the people who elected Cohn and have kept electing him for a decade. Now, 10 years in, many things have changed, but one notable item has remained the same.
“I’m still the only openly gay or LGBT representative in city government, so I wouldn’t exactly say we’ve made huge strides,” he said. “I think the city has made a number of advances, legislatively and from a policy perspective. Having a seat at the table has certainly made a difference in terms of changing some of the conversation and dialogue that takes place.”
His place among those wielding the power in St. Louis has become an important one. Being the only LGBT member of the Board of Aldermen makes him the “go to” conduit for any issue involving gays, whether it’s in his ward or not.
“Even recently the issue around Pride and the inclusion of uniformed officers in the parade has been a hot topic in the community, so I had to bring together some people even as late as this past Friday to bring in some of that community dialogue and try and move things forward if I can.”
And although he doesn’t brag about it, he succeeded. Enough common ground was found to allow for a solution, with Mayor Lyda Krewson announcing that uniformed officers would march in the parade. Some LGBT people weren’t happy about it, but that’s politics.
“We are disappointed, we are frustrated, we are angry,” Amy Jade, a spokesperson for the Metro Trans Umbrella Group, told KTVI-TV about the deal Cohn helped broker.
A conversation with Cohn reveals both the half-empty and half-full versions of the figurative glass that is St. Louis, but tends to strike the optimistic note more often. The fact that he has not been joined in elective office by any other openly gay politicians seems to disappoint him a bit. But when asked if he was surprised by it, he found a silver lining to the cloud.
“St. Louis politics is a fickle friend,” he said with a smile. “I’m just happy and really excited that this last election cycle we had, I believe it was four openly LGBTQIA candidates running for alderman. None of them won, but I think it’s really a strong testament that we had that many people. I think it’s the largest number we’ve ever had in the history of the city running at the same time.
“This is a really tremendous advancement that we’ve had as a city, that people are starting to feel more comfortable, and whether that’s by virtue of my presence in City Hall or other openly LGBT electeds that represent either municipalities or state government in our region, I think it’s a really awesome testament to our community getting more involved in wanting a place at the table.”
That comfort level is also something he said had been a big part of conversations surrounding this weekend’s PrideFest. Cohn, who said he began the process of “coming out” in the late 1990s, is thrilled to see Pride become one of St. Louis’ premier civic events.
But there is a caveat.
“I don’t think that that means we should forget that there are still those individuals that show up who are potentially risking their job, or risking the place that they live, if they’re seen there. And so, while people are making strides to come out and be themselves, that doesn’t minimize the risk or the fright that they might be feeling by attending the event.”
Helping those people is another item on the list of things he’d like to see improve.
But, transitioning back to the positive, he said that as a young volunteer back in the 1990s and early 2000s, the idea of PrideFest’s growing into a community centerpiece never crossed his mind.
“I honestly never thought it would get quite as large as it is today, and we also have more than one festival as well.”
Looking forward, he talks more about conversation than legislation. Cohn is someone who wants to see everyone have, as he likes to put it, “a seat at the table.” What does he see as St. Louis’ most important issues?
“Being more understanding of our communities of color, our immigrant communities, and of our brothers and sisters in the trans population are definitely areas of awareness, education, understanding, respect that we need to make some serious advancement on.”
He said he realized these weren’t things you could accomplish by passing an ordinance.
“Even just having policy discussions and including people,” he said. “Intentionally making movement to include people in those conversations that otherwise wouldn’t be there is a really important step toward making those types of decisions and policies.”
He said those types of open dialogues over his ten years in office had made a dent. He summed up both the progress and the need to go farther in just a few words.
“I think, from a policy perspective, St. Louis leads the state of Missouri; but the state of Missouri is far behind other places, particularly on the coasts, where communities are much more open-minded and progressive toward issues across the spectrum of social justice,” he said. “But in the Midwest, St. Louis is certainly a beacon for those in the LGBT community.”