In “The Campaign Within: a Mayor’s Private Journey to Public Leadership,” former Tempe Mayor Neil Giuliano opens the book by writing about the experience that forced him to go public with his sexuality. Courtesy: Magnus Books
“A person on the city council specifically told me about the sexual preference of one of the members on this council. And they are quite different from mine, and they are quite different from the person who gave me this information.”
The speaker at the lectern just twenty-five feet away paused, staring at me, waiting for my reaction. There was none. Years of practice — four on the city council and two more as mayor of Tempe, Arizona — had helped to perfect my “poker face” at public meetings. but while I knew my face betrayed nothing, my insides were in turmoil.
I had known for a long time I would one day have to face the music for having spent my career — my whole life — dividing my world into neat boxes. In one box, I was a dedicated public servant who seemed to have no personal life and who lived the life of a solitary bachelor. In the other world, I indeed was a gay man.
Initially, I kept those worlds separated by thousands of miles. the journey of them uniting at last was long and arduous, for reasons you’ll come to know. It was an internal campaign; longer and tougher than any I had ever had for public office. for all of my carefulness, for all of my compartmentalizing, the rumors and whispers were growing louder and could not be ignored for much longer. While I had known for years that this moment would one day arrive, nothing in that knowledge had truly prepared me for the profound shock and terror that welled up inside me on July 18, 1996, when Fritz Tuffli stood up and directed his innuendos at me, in person and broadcast live on our Tempe 11 TV channel.
Another person rose to speak. I don’t remember who it was or what he said. when that person was done, I knew I couldn’t sit in that room another minute. I seized the moment and quickly stated, “Seeing no other members of the community wishing to address the council, the meeting is adjourned, thank you,” without taking a breath or inserting proper grammatical pause, and provided a harder-than-usual rap of the gavel. I sat frozen in self-conscious fear, nearly immobilized by the conflicting emotions spinning inside me. I wanted to look at my colleagues, but I didn’t want to see the angst and frustration in their faces. I wanted to run out of the room, like a frightened child, but I knew that was the last thing I could afford to do, or would do.
In fact, I had to do just the opposite. I had to move slowly and deliberately and behave calmly and professionally. somehow, I had to find it in me to even smile a bit. I knew everyone was watching me. I was the mayor.
Ready or not, the day was imminent when what I had long hidden would be made public. what should I do? what could I do? what did I want to do? As inevitable as it was, I should have thought of a plan for coming out of the closet as a gay man. I hadn’t. this was 1996; there weren’t a lot of openly gay elected officials yet, and no mayors outside of gay enclaves such as West Hollywood or Wilton Manors, Florida, that I knew of anyway.
Tempe was about to become the largest city in the United States with an openly gay mayor and remain so for nearly six years. I might have been even more fearful had I known that fact. As the mayor, an elected official and public person, proclaiming my gay identity openly was walking into the void of the political unknown. As a young, moderate Republican in Arizona (becoming a Democrat would take place later) and elected to a non-partisan local office, I would be like a piece of raw meat lowered into a shark tank.
I would come up with a response, a plan. somehow, I would figure out how to survive this. but at that moment, all I could think about was getting out of town. I showered, quickly packed a single carry-on bag, and headed to the airport, hours early. I sat in the boarding area alone with my arms folded across my chest and a baseball cap pulled low over my eyes, lost in my thoughts.
Thirty years peeled away as I waited for my flight in Sky Harbor airport, slumped anonymously in a black plastic chair. my mind slipped back to my earliest memories of the journey I had traveled, the one I was still on, to the beginnings of my beginnings and the first moments that I knew I was indeed “different.”
Giuliano later discusses his family’s roots in New Jersey. his parents and siblings moved to Arizona in 1973, and he stayed behind to finish high school. He moved to Arizona the following year and enrolled at Arizona State University; during his first year on campus, an incident foreshadowed where his life would go.
One of the real highlights of my socially isolated freshman year took place four days before my eighteenth birthday, on October 22, 1974: meeting Barry Goldwater and Ted Kennedy when they spoke on campus. the next day, there was a photograph on the front page of the campus newspaper of me getting Ted Kennedy’s autograph. It’s framed in my home office, nearly thirty-eight years later, a moment captured forever that I get to relive every time I glance at it.
Years and years later, as ASU’s Director of Federal Relations and while mayor of Tempe, I would have many opportunities to chat with Senator Goldwater, including when the drama surrounding my sexuality was being played out in the local newspapers.
“Hello, Mayor,” he said at an ASU-sponsored Barry Goldwater Night in 1996. “I’ve been reading about you.”
“Yes, Senator, some interesting things going on.”
The senator nodded and then added, “Don’t let those bastards get you down, Neil.”
“No, Senator,” I said, “I won’t,” and the conversation shifted to other subjects.
That would be the last time I spoke with him.
A couple years later, in June of 1998, while still the mayor and director of federal relations at ASU, I was one of the lead staff in charge of coordinating Barry Goldwater’s funeral at Grady Gammage Auditorium on the ASU campus. Among the political attendees were former Vice President Dan Quayle, former first lady Nancy Reagan, and seventy members of the U.S. Congress who arrived from the airport in the nicest buses in Arizona. the event, to be broadcast live on C-Span, had to be perfect, and in addition to the funeral itself, I wanted the visual to be as patriotic and respectful a tribute as possible. I checked with city staff and we installed brackets on every street pole along Mill Avenue in downtown Tempe, so that the streets where people gathered to watch the motorcade could be lined with American flags.
During his time at ASU, Giulano continued to grapple with questions concerning his sexuality. a humiliating experience at school left him shaken and bewildered.
During my sophomore year at ASU, I was in a communication class of more than 200 students, which also included weekly breakout groups of fifteen. one day we did an exercise requiring us to be blindfolded one at a time while other students gave instructions. It was an exercise in using one’s other senses. when my turn came, I put on the blindfold and waited. the blindfold wasn’t tight, and I could still see a bit through it. I caught two guys in the class who had that macho confidence and style to which I secretly aspired pointing at me. neither of them could see my eyes, but I saw one of them mouth the word repeatedly, “Fag. Fag. Fag.”
The other one raised his pinkie finger and flicked his hand back and forth. my classmates were smiling and suppressing their laughter. my ears started ringing immediately, and a burning heat flashed through my body. I could barely breathe.
What had I done? what did I say? How could they possibly know anything about me? I’m not a fag. I’m never going to be a fag. I’m not anything. just leave me alone in that department.
I was terrified.
Later, as his isolation and confusion grew, he began to think of taking drastic measures.
I would be like this my entire life. my friends in Circle K and in church would never accept the real me. And why should they? what was I anyway? I would never amount to much. I would only disappoint family and friends.
These were the thoughts running through my mind. It suddenly didn’t make sense to continue a life with nothing ahead of me but emptiness and loneliness. If I died, people could remember me for the good I had done up to that point. no one had to know I was gay. the burden of being different would be forever lifted. the bad things I had done would be erased, too. those other kids from my youth. Were they as messed up as me? Because of what I had done? I understood and believed in forgiveness, I truly felt God loved me, but I doubted I could meet the expectations of God and the people in my life for long. my path was becoming clearer, and it wasn’t one I could alter.
I felt the rush of air as cars flashed through the intersection at forty to fifty miles an hour. a pick-up truck rumbled by, then a smaller import car. the walk sign changed green for me to cross, but I just stood there, alive but vacant inside. the walk sign flashed red. Then stayed solid red. Cars began whizzing by me again, and I inched closer to the curb. the light changed again; I could cross the street. but I didn’t.
I was ready to do this thing. I had only thought about it a few times, in the dark of night as I fell asleep wondering if I would ever feel right and fit in. the light changed again, and the cars started up. I was standing so close to the street that half of each foot hovered off the curb. Cars were visibly moving left to avoid what, I’m sure they thought, was another drunken college student, too wasted to realize he was crossing against the light.
A delivery truck whizzed toward me. I started counting in my head.
Seven, six, five…
When I reached one, I would step off the curb in front of the truck and this miserable life would be over. I shifted my weight.
The truck closed in. everyone would think it was an accident.
I started to step off the curb. I was ready to spring into the truck’s path. In an instant, the pain and confusion would finally stop. just a white space of calm where that voice would no longer have any relevance or power to ever torment me again. All would be peaceful.
Something stopped me. I froze, and the truck barreled past, blasting its horn and whipping wind across my face in its diesel wake. I started shaking, no longer able to control my body as the realization of what I had almost done filled my mind.
When the intersection cleared, I darted across and ran all the way back to my apartment making sounds that were equal parts sobs and screams. I got to my apartment safely, and thankfully my roommates weren’t home.
The next morning, I caught my face in the mirror just as I had a thousand times in my life.
I stared into the eyes in the mirror — my own eyes — and said it for the first time out loud.
“This is the way it is. I’m gay. “
In 2000, Tempe attempted to stop city employees’ United Way donations from going to the Boy Scouts due to the organization’s discrimination policy against gays. That move led to an effort to recall Giuliano.
I was in my last term. I thought my days of campaigning were behind me. I had donated $10,000 of my remaining campaign funds toward an effort to build a new performing and visual arts center in Tempe. Aside from it being a cause I believed in quite passionately, I was sure I wouldn’t need the funds. As they say, “If you want to make God laugh, tell Him your plans.” I’m sure God was laughing as I assembled a team and marshaled the troops. I had to raise money all over again. I was running for mayor yet again, thanks to the recall effort. I was amazingly fortunate that nearly all of my previous campaign team and volunteers immediately regrouped. we organized fast.
This would be a different campaign. I had to choose my tone and words carefully. I was angry and annoyed by all of it. but the democratic process had advanced and as the sitting mayor I was determined to respect it even if, in my view, this tool of democracy was being misused. I was determined to retain and demonstrate my integrity and maintain the dignity of the office I held. I felt that was extremely important, not just politically, but as the right thing to do for the community.
According to Arizona recall election law, to remove an incumbent from office someone must run against the incumbent. If the recall is successful, that person assumes the incumbent’s seat. Strategically, for me that meant that the first order of business was to keep any strong, credible candidates from entering the race. a strong challenger might just give the recall movement the weight and depth it needed to transform from a nuisance to something much more serious. this wasn’t a public effort at all. Instead, it involved asking for the support of friends — and even former adversaries. As it turned out, I needn’t have worried. Smart, political savvy, and educated people in the community knew the recall effort was not about my overall performance as mayor. They knew the recall wasn’t about the Boy Scouts — or any of the other seven issues listed in the recall petition. They were much smarter than that.
Several former top city employees were approached by the recall leaders and asked to run, including a few who had been recently replaced by the interim city manager. the recall leaders hoped that those former employees had an ax to grind against my administration; they were wrong. They then turned to a former mayor, a very respected leader in the Mormon Church, and just about every former elected official in the community. All of them turned down the opportunity. While many of them disagreed with my views on the Boy Scouts and United Way, they did not see that disagreement as a reason to throw me out of office. Ultimately, only a part-time actor agreed to represent the recall and run for mayor. He wasn’t fanatical over the Boy Scouts issue, but he was the only person they could convince to take on the part, and he could act. after all, the entire effort was political theater.
As the recall battle began in earnest, another problem cropped up. my one-time-opponent-then-supporter Barbara Sherman had become an opponent again, perhaps because I refused to accept and take her positions on many of the issues of the day. she and eight of her followers challenged the legal validity of the voter-approved mayoral term increase from two years to four years. They claimed the vote was illegal because of an alleged missed deadline for a required election publicity pamphlet mailing. In may of 2000, Proposition 100 had passed by a vote of 9,155 votes in favor and 5,650 against. It had not been a contentious issue, no one really campaigned for or against it; it was just put on the ballot by the city council, without my participation or vote, and left for the citizens to determine. And they had.
But this group wanted the mayor’s seat open in two years and not four, so it aligned for Councilman (Hugh) Hallman to seek the office at the end of his four-year council term. In fact, he filed paperwork, started a campaign, and prepared to run for the office just in case his friends’ court case was successful.
I sought out Andy Hurwitz, a well-known and respected attorney in Arizona, to represent me. I had been told he understood these issues well and might be willing to help.
“Sure, we’ll defend it,” he said. “They don’t have a case. this is just a distraction.”
Ultimately, all this small group of dissatisfied people accomplished was to waste time and taxpayer money in service to their own political motives. Pretty transparent, but fine, we dealt with it.
Within days of learning of the plans for a recall election, we held a rally, and even with only a few days’ notice, hundreds of people attended to support me, including former Republican Arizona Attorney General Grant Woods and five of the six city council members. we received letters of support from Senator McCain, Governor Jane Dee Hull, and others who were going to stand with me against the threat of removing me from office, and read them to the assembled crowd. we had hoped that such a strong showing of support from a wide array of community leaders might convince the “recallers” to drop their misguided campaign, but they were determined. And so it continued.
After the recall petition signatures were counted and verified, the recall election was scheduled for a day that would change us all: September 11, 2001. That tragic day would put into sharp focus just how trivial the entire year-long recall effort truly was.
In many ways, the period from October 2000, when the recall process started, through to January 2002, when the Arizona Supreme Court ruled on the voter-approved term extension issue, was more stressful for me than the events leading up to my public statement coming out as a gay man. It was a prolonged and continuous battling, week in and week out. As I reflect back now on what was accomplished during that time period, however, I have to acknowledge those difficulties made me a stronger leader and taught me a great deal about other people.
His mother maintained a supportive relationship with Giuliano through the years, as he came out and later headed the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation.
On December 5, 2005, I was in my Manhattan office when I saw “Mom” flash on my cell phone caller-ID. I took the call and stood by the window, looking out toward the intersection of 29th Street and 6th Avenue. nothing prepared me for what she was about to say.
“They did all kinds of tests and the doctor told me it’s liver cancer, and I’ve had it for a while,” she said calmly. “It doesn’t look good, Neil,” she added.
“What do you mean, ‘It doesn’t look good?’ what did he specifically say?”
I needed a moment to think about how to react and what to say. I could hear the fear in her voice, she was afraid, as was I, but I had to somehow be the solid one for her.
She added that the doctor was going to review the tests and she was to go back to see him the following day. I said something reassuring like, “We’ll see what he says then, it will all be okay” to which she said, “There’s nothing they can do, Neil.”
Once off the call, I phoned my sister Kim, who had been with her at the doctor’s office and was now in another room away from Mom, and she laid it out clearly: “He said it was stage four liver cancer. And he said she has about six months.”
“Pain medication, he said the cancer was already wide-spread, so surgery isn’t an option. He doesn’t think chemo would increase that timeframe, and Mom said she doesn’t want that anyway.”
“Jesus, how is she doing?”
“She is pretty calm, scared. He gave her some pills to sleep and said they will help her rest.”
“Okay, well, I will get there right away,” I offered and we ended the call.
A few times in my life I have experienced this weird warm sweat break out everywhere at once — my body’s physical reaction to a very extreme situation. I was a bit overcome and just sat there in my office with my mind racing, backward and forward in time. Feeling so sad and worried, and pretty darn helpless, too. I wouldn’t cry until later that night, back in my small studio apartment a couple blocks from the GLAAD office.
My mother had a wry sense of humor. Her response to the news was classic Jackie: “Liver cancer? Not lung cancer? I should have kept smoking and drank more.”
She took the horrible news much better than the rest of us. we asked if she wanted to do anything special in the next few months, but she insisted she didn’t want anything; no final family trip or anything like that.
“I just want us to all be together for my last Christmas,” she said. “That’s all.”
My last conversation with her came in between her whispered “Hail Marys” late one evening after I had helped her get to and from the bathroom and settled back in her bed, caring for her as she had for me when I was a child. she was on painkillers, but otherwise fairly alert, not overly emotional, resigned to her fate.
“Can I ask you some things?” she said to me.
I wanted to appear strong, stay in control, so as to not open the floodgate of her emotions in a way she would not be able to manage in addition to the physical dying process, which was well underway.
“Anything,” I said with a smile, holding her hand.
I hoped she would not raise anything from long ago, which for me was long over and just didn’t matter any longer, but I had read once if someone dying wants to talk about anything, you should let them, so I would go wherever she wanted to go with the conversation.
“Are you happy you took the gay job?” That’s what she called my work with GLAAD: the gay job.
Mom was not the most sophisticated activist, but she had become quite a defender of her gay son, the mayor, over the years since I came out in 1996.
I remembered during the recall how she jumped into the debate and educated some of the senior citizens in her community in Peoria, Arizona, when they started popping off about me. she told me later, “These crazy old people here think you’re just out to recruit more gay people, and I told them your father and I raised four kids and recruited all of you to be straight. It just doesn’t work that way. you are who you are.”
For all her defense of me, Mom hadn’t really understood what I was embarking on when I decided to become the president of GLAAD. At the time, she just said, “If it makes you happy — and if it’s important–you should do it.”
So in response to her hesitant inquiry, I told her, “Yes, I am happy I took the gay job. It’s important and fun, too.”
“Do you really think people will change and you’ll be treated like everyone else some day?”
“I’m sure of it,” I told her. I elaborated, telling her how I thought it would just take more time for people to realize no one chooses to be gay. the more people like her spoke out, as she had for me, the sooner that day would come.
Then she asked the question that only a mother on her deathbed could get away with — and the one that turned me into her little boy once again: “Do you think you’ll find someone to love, who loves you, so if you get sick, you won’t be alone?”
God, I thought, I don’t know. Lasting success in the intimate personal relationships department had been elusive, as much as I wanted it to occur.
Through some tears I told her I would try, maybe it would happen someday, and that I would be fine no matter what, and not to worry about me.
“Okay,” she said. “I hope so, Neil. I hope so.”
As the leader of GLAAD, Giuliano began to move in circles that were quite different from the world of Valley politics.
The annual GLAAD Media Awards are without question the most star-studded events benefiting the gay rights movement, once called the “Gay Oscars” by a Hollywood publication.
The executive producer role I held was one of oversight and direction, not day-to-day details and implementation. for the latter, I would enjoy a tremendously professional and top-notch team throughout my four seasons of the shows. Having run and staged large-scale public events while at ASU, and participated in many as mayor, I understood their work very well. And my exposure to people of great visibility, importance, and influence from all professions had prepared me for meeting the likes of Janet Jackson, Ellen DeGeneres, Jake Gyllenhaal, and other stars at the pinnacle of success in the entertainment world.
A special moment happened at the 2008 GLAAD awards when I was backstage with a brilliantly successful film director and fashion designer who was a big supporter of the organization. Tom Ford is even more attractive in person than in the gazillion photos of him all around the planet. Remaining professional was vital, but given the opportunity to be otherwise, I would have fallen from grace. no doubt.
“Can I tell you something, and you promise you won’t feel bad?” he said to me as he put his hand on my shoulder and looked right at me.
“Of course,” I mumbled, already nervous and worried that something that should have been done for him or his husband fell apart. I was already preparing to apologize when he said, “I understand that you’re wearing the same suit that you wore last year.”
That caught me off guard. I was so relieved that was all he was worried about that I laughed a bit and smiled at him.
“I run a non-profit,” I replied. “Of course I’m wearing the same suit.”
“We’re going to take care of that,” he said, and then we were interrupted. It was time for him to step out on stage again for the closing part of his presentation.
I was flattered and blushing. after all, this was the man who had almost single-handedly brought the House of Gucci back from financial irrelevance.
A few weeks later someone called from his store on Madison Avenue to arrange a time to take measurements. to make a story of multiple fittings and measurements short, I have an amazing custom Tom Ford suit thanks to his generosity and kindness.
That generosity extended to every detail — I was told that Tom had selected the fabric and style.
When at the final fitting the tailor asked me if I preferred a flat hem or cuffs, the store manager leaned in to inform him, “Mr. Ford prefers cuffs.”
Okay then. If Tom Ford prefers cuffs, then cuffs it would be.
It’s a gorgeous suit — so gorgeous that I could not wear it with my $145 Cole Haan dress shoes. I had to upgrade to a pair of Ferragamos and a Prada shirt and tie. I wanted very much to buy my accessories from his store, but the staff person there suggested I diversify the look, and the only thing I could really afford in the store was a small leather billfold. I bought it and carry it every day. It’s so well made that I’ll probably be carrying it the rest of my life.