An Interview with José Cisneros

Treasurer José Cisneros is San Francisco's highest out LGBTQ citywide elected official. ( Source )

Treasurer José Cisneros is San Francisco's highest out LGBTQ citywide elected official. (Source)

In 2004, then-Mayor Gavin Newsom appointed openly gay Latino José Cisneros Treasurer of the City and County of San Francisco. A year later Cisneros stood for election and in 2006 was sworn in for his first full term. He's held the position since. During his time in office, Cisneros created the San Francisco Office of Financial Empowerment which launched a pioneering initiative called Bank on San Francisco as well as Kindergarten to College, a program that automatically opens a college savings account for every child that enters the San Francisco public school system at kindergarten.

Having attended the same small Western Michigan high school as Treasurer Cisneros, it's been inspiring to see someone with an upbringing similar to mine be such a strong advocate for post-secondary education, the underbanked and working class families, and to see him do so as an openly gay man.

Because of the leadership role he plays as an out LGBTQ member of the San Francisco city government, I sat down with Cisneros earlier this week to discuss same-sex marriage, slain activist Harvey Milk and the need for more LGBTQ individuals to assume positions of leadership in business.

CL: What are you up to these days? 

JC: There's a lot going on in my office right now. Our responsibility is growing because voters passed a measure last year to replace the old business tax in San Francisco with a fairer but more complicated type of business tax and in order to implement it we have to build a whole new system that includes showing 10,000 additional tax payers how to file and pay it. We have to implement it on time and it all has to happen in the next one to two years. As of now I think we're off to a great start and we have a lot of city departments supporting us. 

My office has also created several financial empowerment programs, one of which is called Kindergarten to College, which opens a $50 college savings account for every child attending kindergarten at a San Francisco public school. The savings account is opened automatically by the city and it doesn't require a parent's signature or any paperwork. The goal of the program is to get families to save over the 12 years that their child is in school and we've raised private money to match any funds they put away. Additionally, we just received word that very soon a U.S. senator is going to announce his support for this type of program and he'll be using Kindergarten to College as a model.

CL: How is what you're doing making a difference in the LGBTQ community? 

JC: While my job isn't one that necessarily impacts the LGBTQ community directly, I think it's important for the community to have openly gay individuals in leadership positions. It reinforces the fact that we're here, we're a strong part of the community and what we're doing is important.

I'm currently on the board of directors for the League of California Cities and in September I'll be named its first ever openly gay president. While I don't think that in itself is a big deal, I think it's significant because it continues to cement our important presence in local communities and at a state and national level.

CL: Are there any areas that you believe are lacking in terms of fostering LGBTQ leadership?

JC: I think there has been a lot of progress made in politics as we see more and more elected officials come out as gay or run for office as openly gay candidates, which is important because it educates an entire community and gives a lot of visibility and hope to the gay members of that community. I also think there's been a lot of progress in the entertainment industry with people like Anderson Cooper and Ellen DeGeneres coming out. But I think we need to see more of that progress in every aspect of our lives.

One area in particular is in corporations. Where are all of the openly gay CEOs? Where are all of the openly gay board members of Fortune 50 companies? I think corporate America, in many ways, lags behind many other areas in our culture in terms of LGBTQ progress. Whether they're a small startup or an established company, we don't see enough gays and lesbians taking on important roles in open, successful, visible ways. A lot of these companies offer things like partner benefits, but are they really delivering when it comes to putting LGBTQ people in positions of leadership to really reflect those values?

CL: Are there any corporations that you think are doing a good job of putting LGBTQ people in leadership positions?

JC: Well, it's hard to point a finger at a Google or a Starbucks and say "When are you going to put your gay CEO in place?" and I don't really think it's about that. I think it's about seeing a cultural shift. There's no finger to point at any one company, but there is a question to ask of every company: What are you doing to deliver on fairness and equality for all members of society?

CL: What LGBTQ issue are you most passionate about? 

JC: I know it sounds timely, but I think same-sex marriage is the most important issue in the LGBTQ community right now. We all deserve the right to marry and it looks like we're finally making progress on a resolution to it. 

In February 2004 I had the opportunity to perform weddings when Mayor Newsom defied all laws and said performing marriages for any couple that wants to get married is the right thing to do. A number of people, myself included, volunteered to go to City Hall where we got sworn in and started officiating weddings. I think I performed nearly three dozen weddings in one day. Couples waited for hours and hours for the chance to get married. It really hit home for me when I married couples who had been together for more than 30 years. They looked at me and said they never thought marriage would be possible in their lifetime. They were so overwhelmed with just the possibility that they would have a chance to be legally married. It was thrilling to be part of.

CL: Is there one particular story that sticks out in your mind from that day in City Hall? 

JC: I witnessed something interesting with a few of the couples I married that day. Many of them had been together for a very long time and knew each other very well. They'd had long-standing, loving relationships and you'd think they'd come to the ceremony with a different outlook than, say, a young couple getting married. But what really pleased me on a number of occasions was to see that even with a very long-time couple, once we began the actual ceremony and started saying those well-known, traditional words, these very solid, mature couples would get incredibly emotional. There were tears and reactions that I bet none of them expected and maybe that their family and friends had never seen from them before. It was wonderful to have had the opportunity to see those real moments of matrimony and how it could take long-time couples through the same emotions that anyone, even young couples, might have. I came to love and cherish the opportunity to witness those beautiful moments and I look forward to performing weddings again when same-sex marriage is finally legal in California.

CL: Can you name the one person whose contribution to the LGBTQ community has inspired you most? 

JC: The first person that comes to mind is Harvey Milk. I know that seems like an obvious choice, especially here in San Francisco, but I'm choosing him for a different reason than most people would, I think. I'm choosing Harvey because he wasn't a flawless character, he wasn't superhuman and he wasn't really any more noble than any of the rest of us. In fact, he was ordinary in so many ways. But by being brave and by being open he was able to make such a difference. 

The thing about Harvey that really hits home with me is that all of us have the opportunity to do what he did. We don't need to be the president or the mayor or even an elected official, we can make a difference in our own communities and in our own small networks just by being who we are. Any of us can be the next Harvey Milk in terms of impacting how people around us look at the world.

CL: If you had to recommend book, movie or song with an LGBTQ bent, what would your recommendation be? 

JC: One movie that I think people don't pay much attention to anymore is The Boys in the Band. For as harsh and as full of stereotypes as it is, the film speaks to a time in our recent history when the world was very different for gays and lesbians. Although I wasn't yet an adult in the era that the movie portrays, I remember as a young person what it was like to be gay and it was very different than it is now. I was never attacked or beaten up or harassed for being gay, but as a young adult sharing my reality with family and friends, I certainly got reactions that were as harsh as "If you're gay you're dead to me." or "If I'd known you were gay back then I would have cut you off and had nothing to do with you." I don't, in any way, blame those people because they were a product of the times they were living in, but you always hope that people who encounter that kind of reaction would stand up to it and, if pressed, would fight against it. I didn't always.

I think it's a real testament to how much things have changed in the last 30, 40, 50 years that most people today don't have an inkling of how dramatic it was to be gay in our country. The Boys in the Band gives us a glimpse into that world and shows us how harsh it was and how it drove people to such extreme behaviors because they were so outcast and so discriminated against.

CL: What do you hope for the LGBTQ community? 

JC: I want progress to continue for our community. I want equal tax treatments, marriage opportunities, employment, adoption, child rearing, everything. I want full acceptance, full equal rights, equal treatment under all laws in all 50 states just as it is for heterosexuals. We've come so far in terms of equality based on race and on gender, but we need to make that same progress based on sexual orientation. We've come a long way in a short amount of time, undoubtedly, but we have to get to a place where people feel comfortable, socially and culturally, with gays and lesbians. We should follow Harvey Milk's advice to be out and open so that people can see that we're no different and our laws shouldn't be either. That's where we have to get to and that's what I hope for.

To connect with José Cisneros, follow him on Twitter.

Previous interviewees in this series have included LGBTQ athletes, authors, businesspeople, entertainers and politicians. For a complete list, click here.