Jay Fisette has just one request. He's happy to talk about his recent election to the Arlington County Board, his 7 1/2 years as director of the Whitman-Walker Clinic of Northern Virginia, his various civic activities, anything -- yes, including his sexual orientation. But please:
"What I really want to avoid is a coming-out story. . . . I don't want to be labeled and identified as the gay -- the gay guy."
Fisette, 42, who will be sworn in today, is Virginia's first openly gay elected official. His resounding victory in last month's election is being interpreted variously as a personal triumph, a healthy sign for gay people, politics as usual in Arlington -- and a big leap forward for "extremist special interests." But mostly the first three.
Still, he has concerns, which he articulates calmly: "It is clearly an element of who I am. But it's too easy to compartmentalize or ignore the rest of the person. . . . Some people don't even read the other words if they see that word. Or some people don't write the other things if they hear that story."
He's through now. G.N. "Jay" Fisette Jr. -- health care administrator, public servant, Arlington booster, gay guy -- is taking questions. When Fisette and his partner of 14 years, Bob Rosen, were newly together, Rosen's nickname for him was Robin Hood. And indeed, he speaks with undiluted idealism. He's looking forward to his four-year board term, he says, because "it gives me a place from which to do good." Of his work at Whitman-Walker, he concludes, "We squeeze so much energy and so much commitment out of people. But we all get something back from it."
Which is not to imply that he's unacquainted with life's practicalities. After all, he runs a clinic with a $1.6 million budget and a staff that has grown from "five or six" to 25 during his tenure.
"He's done a great job out there," says Rosemary O'Rourke, Whitman-Walker's chief operating officer and Fisette's boss. "There are very few people who can manage an organization with the kind of complexities of this one."
Fisette's experience shows up in his conversation, which is larded with terms like "advocacy," "personal growth" and "network," the verb. It's the end of a workday in his upstairs office, and he's discussing his recently announced decision to leave the clinic early next year.
The $20,000-a-year county board post, though not technically a full-time job, will demand a disproportionate share of his energy in the next few months, he says. Then, too, "I believe in knowing when it's time to go to the next thing . . . and allow for an organization to grow in a different way with some new leadership." He says he'll start looking for another job, probably part time, sometime after the county budget is resolved in the spring.
Fisette says that when he was growing up in the Pittsburgh area, his parents never instilled a lot of ambition to "be something." But nonetheless he has a long history of taking the lead. "If there was an identity I had in college, it was the jock,' " he recalls of his years at Bucknell University in central Pennsylvania. "I was captain of the water polo team -- seventh-ranked in the country -- and captain of the swimming team."
Later, he muses, "I liked being the captain. . . . The role of team leader or big brother was one I really enjoyed. People went to you for advice or support, and you had an ability to help guide or assist."
After graduating with a degree in political science, Fisette was waiting for a Peace Corps posting in 1979 when he received an offer to be varsity water polo coach at the University of Pittsburgh. The job carried the added incentive of free graduate study, so he took it. Then, abruptly, Pitt dropped water polo and he "took three years off."
He doesn't seem the type to take three years off, but it turns out he kept busy. The first year and a half was spent in San Francisco, where he came out. He makes what can be a tortured and inching process sound like a miracle of efficiency.
He hadn't really become aware of his sexual identity until his senior year in college. "Coming out," he says, "was a very easy transition. To me it was not a risk because the issue was honesty."
After that came a year traveling in Europe and a return to Pitt for a master's degree in public and international affairs. It was 1983 and he headed straight to Washington -- or, rather, Arlington. He began seeing Rosen within three months -- a second miracle of efficiency.
Fisette took a job at the General Accounting Office but soon concluded that the government "was not a great place for me to grow." By 1987 he was volunteering at Whitman-Walker and taking a seat on its board.
It's tempting to posit that when he's not leading, he's volunteering. He is president of the board of the Arlington Arts Center, sat on the county's Fiscal Affairs Advisory Commission for four years and is an active member of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Arlington. The reviews are good.
"He's provided absolutely essential leadership for the arts center and helped us completely turn around," says Carole Sullivan, the center's executive director. "The arts center was in pretty bad shape financially. . . . He got me out meeting people, literally took me by the hand and said, Here, you need to know these people and need to go these places.' "
Sullivan, a widow, also tells of the time Fisette showed up at a swim meet to cheer on her young son. "He goes the extra mile for a lot of people," she says.
A Democrat, Fisette made his first run for the county board in a 1993 special election, losing narrowly. Carrie Johnson, a campaign volunteer and a member of the Arlington County Planning Commission, speaks of "the tremendous grace he showed, and the maturity, when he didn't win. For him it was challenging. He didn't take it as losing by 206 votes, which a lot of us did, but as almost winning."
By this year, she adds, he was "a well-known, well-liked candidate." He sailed into office with 62 percent of the vote.
Even his opponents find some good things to say.
B. Daniel Blatt, president of the Log Cabin Republican Club of Northern Virginia, a gay group, says, "Jay is a true gentleman -- but he's a Democrat gentleman."
Although Blatt makes clear his political reservations about him, he sees certain pluses to Fisette's victory. "By being such a decent guy, he shows that gay people are not these perverts who lurk in back alleys," he says. "If you're from the religious right, Jay Fisette is the worst-case scenario." The Boys in the 'Burbs It's 11 o'clock on a Saturday morning, and Fisette and Rosen have slept in. Cheerfully, they devour a breakfast of cereal plopped with yogurt while waiting for the coffee to brew.
Their house, a fixer-upper when they bought it 10 years ago, is airy and comfortable. At the far end of the family room, which they added on, are piles of paper and boxes, office machinery, assorted detritus of the campaign and a "Keep Abortion Legal" sign. Their Labrador, Snapper, meanders from room to room.
Rosen, 42, is the quieter of the two at the outset. Asked whether he's the family introvert, he smiles and says, "No, I'm just being nice because it's his interview."
Rosen is president of Healthy Companies, a Washington consulting firm, and the author of "The Healthy Company" and "Leading People." He started out as a practicing clinical psychologist in the early '80s, but says, "I think I just liked business and liked business people -- fast-moving, action-oriented."
Part of Rosen's work is to study the methods of successful executives, and it takes him around the world. Asked about this year's travels, he begins ticking off countries. When the total reaches 12 on four continents, Fisette breaks in cheerfully: "Okay, that's enough!"
Fisette's political arrival has brought changes for his partner as well. "At a time when my work life was becoming intensely global, my personal life and my home life were intensely local," Rosen says. "Jay was running a local campaign and I wanted to be here."
It was more than that. "In my work world," he says, "the gay issue was never an issue." Some people know, some don't, and "I just did my job and did it well."
But "someone once said to me that the more successful you are, the more responsibility you have to . . . be authentic." And so, although he preferred not to be photographed, he readily agreed to an interview, adding, "I know what the right thing is."
Sitting around the coffee table, they tweak each other regularly. When Fisette leaps up for some literature on the virtues of Arlington, Rosen smiles and rolls his eyes.
The campaign, too, had its playful side -- two mailings to dog owners took the form of letters from Snapper. "They got a lot of votes," Rosen says, laughing.
There's a knock at the door, and Snapper races indignantly to the front of the house. As Rosen hurries to see who it is, Fisette is asked whether they have trouble finding time together.
"It's a working couple," he says. "It's probably not a whole lot different from most couples that work." The Politics of Identity
"We have no disagreement at all about what the ultimate goal is," Fisette says. He's talking about sexuality and public life.
Rosen steps in: "To make it a non-issue."
When Fisette lost his 1993 race, opinion varied as to the reasons -- low voter turnout, unfamiliar name, homosexuality. Whatever they were, by this year they had evaporated. And members of both major parties in Arlington insist that sexuality has no political significance, at least in what may be the most liberal jurisdiction in the state.
Says Johnson, the planning commission member: "He has made it relatively unremarkable for Democrats to vote for a candidate who is gay -- or at least to vote for him. . . . This is called public education." Adds Rhonda Buckner, president of the Arlington Gay and Lesbian Alliance, "Jay didn't run as the gay candidate. But people knew he was gay and looked at his positions -- how he would lead the county -- and that's what counted. Perfect."
Arlington Republican Chairman Henriette V. Warfield sees Fisette simply as part of "the Democratic machine" that has run the city for years. She has plenty of objections to it. Of him, she says, "He's a puppet. Nothing wrong with him, nice guy. . . . The fact that he's gay is irrelevant."
And even before he dismisses Fisette as "just another Democrat," Arlington Republican Party press spokesman Tom Brooke insists that the party was not involved in a late ad campaign on behalf of Fisette's opponent that attacked him because he's gay. "Anyone who tells you that is wrong," he says.
In the years after the Stonewall riot, gayness became for many the defining fact of a life, at least in the public sense. Now we are into a second wave: men and women who consider it a crucial part of them -- not secret, not shameful and not the whole story.
Andrew Sullivan, the openly gay former editor of the New Republic, welcomes the shift. "I think we have the first generation of people whose sexuality is not that huge an issue," he says. Citing the D.C. Council seat won this month by Republican David A. Catania, he adds, "Gay people are being stereotyped less and less into one political party, which is also a breakthrough."
A theory is suggested to him: Twenty years ago, an openly gay candidate would have run on the fringe. Ten years ago he might have been a single-issue politician. And then there's today.
"I think that's true," he says, "except that 10 years ago there were almost none." Never Stopping
Fisette is off to a meeting across town. It started five minutes ago. "Isn't this awful?" he asks. "Maybe if you write about it, I'll get better."
He's been sounding a familiar theme: the virtues of his adopted home town, a "very special place" with an "incredibly wonderful quality of life."
As he pulls up to a red light, a late-model car with Virginia plates roars through the intersection. Stunned, he turns to his passenger and asks, "Did you see that?"
Hardly the kind of behavior you'd expect in an ideal community, he's told. He's laughing. "I guarantee you," he says, "that's never happened before." CAPTION: "Coming out," says Jay Fisette of his sexual orientation, "was a very easy transition. To me it was not a risk because the issue was honesty." CAPTION: Fisette, right, with John Devaney of the Whitman-Walker Clinic of Northern Virginia. Fisette will step down as director of the center early next year. CAPTION: New Arlington Board member Jay Fisette at home with his Labrador, Snapper.