Roselle Park, N.J., with a population of 13,000, is one square mile where registered Democrats outnumber Republicans by more than two to one. My name is Joe DeIorio. I was born and raised in Roselle Park, and I served as its mayor for 16 years.
In the closet.
Being “out” in local public office in the 1990s and early 2000s seemed unacceptable. The stigma surrounding being gay was so strong, I thought there was no other option. Being gay was always considered something bad, something immoral, from my childhood days, school and then as an adult. Those same messages persisted over and over.
Still, while I was working on improving my town, national issues like the Defense of Marriage Act and “don’t ask, don’t tell” became topics of conversation.
When New Jersey Gov. Jim McGreevey came out in 2004, it pushed me further in. My struggle to maintain my public image came at a high personal cost, preventing me from being who I truly was. With every reelection race I ran, I faced increasing fears of being outed. The opposing party threatened me directly and indirectly.
In 2011, I completed my term of office, believing I would never run again, to focus on living freely and starting over. Slowly, I was taking a chance on being myself, being out, without being fully out. It would be one of those chances that lead me to my future husband, Thos Shipley.
Thos and I met while bicycling 300 miles, raising money for an HIV/AIDS charity. He was out early in life. We dated during my last years in office. Still protecting my public image, I introduced him as “a friend.” That was unacceptable to Thos, and it was the last time I would use that term.
While I wanted to live in New York City, Thos, having lived in Manhattan for 25 years, wanted a house, a backyard, with practice space and access to the city. Where would that home be?
It occurred to us that my hometown really had all our needs and more. What it didn’t have was a former mayor who was out of the closet.
Eventually, finding our home in my hometown became a reality. It was incredible to find neighbors who were overwhelmingly accepting and welcoming, even some who didn’t know me as “Mayor Joe.”
We married in New York City in 2013. Our home state of New Jersey refused to recognize our marriage. So we channeled our righteous indignatio, into the fight for marriage equality in the state. Together we went as far as rallying on the steps of the U.S. Supreme Court. Our activism did not end there, but, it did get a little closer to home.
We lived happily as a married couple without being politically involved locally. Eventually, however, politics reared its ugly head. Knowing a change was needed, my husband, with the odds against him, stood up and ran for local office.
In 2015, after much sweat and effort, Thos Shipley made Roselle Park history twice, becoming both the first African-American and first openly gay person to be elected to Borough Council.
Two years later, knowing that I could truly be a positive force for my hometown — and finally be able to do so while being true to who I am — I asked the voters of Roselle Park to elect another openly gay man.
We expected that my opposition would try to exploit the fact that Thos and I would be a married couple serving togethe,r and that’s exactly what they did. The Roselle Park Democratic Party targeted us with an onslaught of politically charged literature and accentuated the word "husband." Some of the Democratic campaign handouts read “Our Priorities” are not “theirs.” While I do not believe it was intentional, whether intentional or not, their use caught the ire of many local voters who saw “dog whistle” campaigning.
Election Day, as it always does, came with surprises. One voter greeted me and thanked me for running as an “out” Republican. He remembered me as mayor growing up in town, and as an adult he would also become an “out” Republican. Ironically, later in the day, a lesbian voter would scold me: “How can you be gay and Republican?”
The biggest surprise (to some, at least) was that in a year where New Jersey’s statewide and local elections brought in a wave of Democratic victories, my hometown community broke the tide, made history, and elected me, a Republican, to join my husband on council as the first gay married couple to serve in municipal office together in New Jersey and possibly nationwide.
It was clear — the love and acceptance we garnered from our neighbors and friends made it clear: Our priorities were their priorities.
Serving together has brought us a few new challenges.
Some of the challenges are small — avoiding a slip during a council meeting and calling each other by our pet names, rather than Councilman DeIorio or Councilman Shipley. Other challenges are larger. People automatically assume, since we are married, that we will think and vote alike. As most married couples will tell you, that couldn’t be further from the truth. That much was evident on the first day we served together, when we voted differently on a local appointment. Of course, we agree on many things as well, but our differing opinions make our marriage stronger and more passionate.
Outside of the council chambers, we challenge ourselves to follow our individual passions. Thos is a jazz performer, and I pursue filmmaking and event planning.
We find joy in our many friends and supporters, regardless of political party, ethnicity, or status, that we have met along the way, and the long-lasting friendships that have been created. As mentors to our high school gay-straight alliance, it’s an honor to demonstrate that they too can be openly gay leaders in our community.
In the end, my husband and me serving together in local elected office is about acceptance. That acceptance applies to the LGBT community as well.
As a community, we rightfully demand that those outside the LGBTQ community accept us as individuals, regardless of who we are or who we love, and treat us with the same rights and privileges as theirs. Within our community, however, we tear each other apart.
If we don’t accept one another due to personal beliefs regarding politics, religion, or even our appearance, how are we any different from those who don’t accept us outside our community? We need to practice what we preach, and work together across political lines on our common goals. Acceptance isn’t about being in lockstep on every issue — it’s about caring enough to hear one another out, having a dialogue, and moving everyone forward to a better future.
I’ll leave you with a bit of wisdom about acceptance I picked up from a great adviser who helped me through my coming-out process. He said, “Just be present. Showing people who you are and who you love can be the greatest positive impact for the LGBT community.” He was right.
JOSEPH DEIORIO is a member of the Borough Council of Roselle Park, N.J., along with his husband, Thos Shipley.