What do you picture when you hear the words "Sheriff of Dallas County"? If the answer is something male, white and macho, look at the photo above and think again, for it shows the current occupant of the position - a pretty remarkable 66 year old openly lesbian Latina woman named Lupe Valdez.
This is just one fact I learned from watching Cindy L. Abel's gloriously inspiring documentary "Breaking Through", which is released on DVD and VOD today. The film tells the story of numerous openly LGBT elected officials in the USA, or rather, allows them to tell their own stories. Abel's documentary is deceptively simple, consisting of interviews with a wide variety of officials. But what makes it so important, and so inspiring, is just how wide that variety is.
One has to assume this is no accident. Often when we talk about gay rights, we fail to talk about the fact that gay man often make advances before gay women, or that white LGBT people get a better deal than their counterparts of color, or that many of the most successful LGBT people in society were born into privilege. And that LGBT banner can often hide the fact that bisexual and trans people are erased from the conversation entirely.
Not so in Abel's documentary. While she has secured interviews with the most high profile LGBT elected officials in America, namely former member of the House of Representatives Barney Frank and current Wisconsin senator Tammy Baldwin, she does not build her entire film around these names (excellent though their contributions are). Instead, she shows how being an elected official is possible for LGBT people of every kind, whether that is through Kecia Cunningham, an African American bisexual woman and city commissioner and Mayor pro tem of Decatur, Georgia, or Joan Garner, an African American lesbian Commissioner of Fulton County, Georgia, or Judge Phyllis Frye, the first transgender judge in the USA (in Houston, Texas, no less). And the list goes on.
Then there is the aforementioned Lupe Valdez, an extraordinary woman whose story is one of the highlights of the documentary. Like so many other people featured, Valdez is proof that Americans can be prepared to put aside their prejudices in favor of being represented by people they truly believe will fight for them. What Abel does so well is communicate how LGBT people are if anything more qualified than anyone to stand up for those least represented and respected in legislature, because of the barriers they have already had to face in getting there.
The diversity on display is far from a question of ticking boxes. It has a clear and powerful effect in showing that a career in public service is no longer automatically closed to anyone on account of their orientation or demographic make up. Of course, the film remains honest about the huge amount of prejudice that exists in the US. But it puts a highly convincing case to the viewer that it is no longer acceptable for LGBT people wanting to serve their country to use that as an excuse not to be open about who they are.
As Tammy Baldwin says near the film's end, "It matters that a young person can say 'There's been an openly gay person elected to the US Congress. Maybe there are limitless possibilities for me when I grow up'". Her point - and by extension, Abel's film - is both inspiring and challenging to audiences as a result. Baldwin's final point is perfectly representative of this duality:
"I think there's a tendency to wait for the magic day when we can all of a sudden be out in the open, yet we're the ones who make that day. If you want to see the day where you can have a picture of you and your partner on your desk at work, then put the picture of you and your partner on your desk at work, and you will live in such a world. You don't wait for that day to come. You make that day".
Feeling inspired? Then find out all about how you can watch "Breaking Through" by clicking here.