Rufus Gifford, the gay man who became a television celebrity while serving as President Obama’s ambassador to Denmark, decided when Obama’s successor was elected that it was time to come home and fight.
“Like so many people, I was blindsided” by the election of Donald Trump, Gifford recalled in a recent phone interview with The Advocate. On November 9, 2016, the day after the election, he was hosting a reception for hundreds of people in Denmark.
As he mingled with them, “I saw really how sad, how devastated, how concerned they were about the future of the world,” he said. “It was then I knew I had to come home and step up my level of service.”
For Gifford, stepping up means running for Congress from Massachusetts’s Third District, located in the northeastern part of the state. He’s in a crowded field – 10 candidates in the Democratic primary, to be held next Tuesday, vying for a seat left open by the retirement of Niki Tsongas, also a Democrat. The only candidate in the Republican primary is businessman Rick Green. But the district is heavily Democratic, so whoever prevails in the Democratic primary is likely to win the general election in November.
The top issue facing not only the district but the nation is “basic economic justice,” Gifford said. There is wage stagnation and significant economic insecurity in the district, he said. His proposed remedies for that include creating jobs in renewable energy, promoting infrastructure projects, increasing education funding, and fighting for a living wage.
Like most Democrats, he’s also for expanding health care, preserving the social safety net, reproductive freedom, paid family leave, pay equity across gender lines, immigration reform that protects Dreamers, and stricter gun laws. But he won’t forget the LGBTQ community, he promised.
“It’s been my life’s work to fight for LGBT equality,” said Gifford, who’s been out since age 18 (he’s now 44). “I will always, always, always be fighting for full equality.” LGBTQ rights, he added, are inextricably linked with other social justice issues. He’s endorsed by the LGBTQ Victory Fund and the LGBTQ Equality PAC as well as by several local and national elected officials.
He was a high-profile representative of the community during his four years as ambassador to Denmark. Before that, he was a senior aide to Obama; earlier, he had worked as a consultant advocating for progressive causes, as a volunteer and then staffer on John Kerry’s 2004 presidential campaign. and as a producer in the entertainment industry.
When he met with Obama shortly before he moved to Denmark, “he essentially said, ‘Go be you,” he recalled. Gifford expected his gay identity to be a nonissue in that progressive country, but that wasn’t quite how it worked out.
“What I found was exactly the opposite – there was an obsession with my sexuality when I arrived,” he recalled. The Danes’ attitude wasn’t condemnatory, but just interested.
Gifford heard that gay ambassadors from other countries didn’t take their partners to public events, but he did. He and his partner, veterinarian Stephen DeVincent, became a well-known couple. They married in 2015 at Copenhagen City Hall, where the world’s first legal same-sex civil unions were held in 1989.
Interest in his life was such that a Danish TV station did a prime-time documentary series on him, Jeg er Ambassadøren fra Amerika (I Am the Ambassador From America). The series began in 2014, earned him Denmark’s equivalent of a Emmy, and made him recognized throughout the nation.
He realizes what his fame as an out gay man means to young LGBTQ people. “I still get notes from kids around the country,” he said. He remembers being a young gay kid who felt he’d never amount to anything.
He came out to his parents when he was a freshman at Brown University; his roommate had persuaded him to do so after seeing how depressed his secret made him. They have become champions of LGBTQ equality, but at first they feared for him, not seeing a “road map to happiness” for him, he recalled.
But he found that road map, having had a productive career and his relationship with DeVincent. Both men are Massachusetts natives, but they met in D.C. in 2009, when Gifford was working for Obama and DeVincent was doing a State Department fellowship. “Now we’ve seen the world together,” Gifford said.
Now they may go back to D.C. together. A recent poll showed Dan Koh, a former aide to Boston’s mayor, leading the Democratic field with 19 percent, with Gifford and Barbara L'Italien, a state senator, tied for second at 13 percent. It’s “a race that could still go several different ways,” according to Massachusetts’s Lowell Sun newspaper.
Just this week, after his Advocate interview took place, Gifford was the subject of an anonymous attack ad that spliced together clips from the Danish TV series, emphasizing how much of his life he’d spent away from Massachusetts. The ad, in the form of a Twitter video, was soon removed from the platform for violation of copyright. Gifford did an online video of his own responding to the ad, saying it took the clips out of context and represented a troubling level of negativity. He promised to stay positive throughout the campaign.
“One of the reasons I am running for office is actually to fight just the tone and the tenor of the politics coming out of Washington,” Gifford said in his video response. “Are we going to be any better than Donald Trump, if we resort to negative, personal attacks in our primaries?”
In his Advocate interview, Gifford said he’s feeling good about his chances but is taking nothing for granted. “People are so frustrated by the state of politics,” he said. “We need to build trust back into the system.” Massachusetts Democrats will decide next week If he’s the best candidate to do that.