When he came out as gay at age 21, Josue “Josh” Pierre recalls that he endured a period of depression and met with a psychologist who asked him what troubled him the most about coming to terms with his sexuality.
“That question forced me to think deeper into it,” Pierre, who is currently the male district leader in Brooklyn’s 42nd Assembly District, said during a recent interview with Gay City News. “I thought about how hard I had to work growing up to get to that point. I told him, ‘Because of this, I will never be a partner at this firm and I will never be a US senator.’ Those were my aspirations and goals in life.”
Now 37 and proudly out for well over a decade, Pierre isn’t yet vying for the US Senate, but he is running for State Senate. The Flatbush Democrat is mounting a primary challenge against longtime incumbent Kevin Parker in the 21st Senate District, which encompasses portions of East Flatbush, Flatbush, Midwood, Ditmas Park, Kensington, Park Slope, and Windsor Terrace. The primary election is slated for June 23 of next year.
Pierre, who has lived in Flatbush since moving to the US from Haiti as a young child, would make history by becoming the state’s first out gay black state senator and the first out black lawmaker in the history of his home borough. As it stands, the State Legislature is rather short on LGBTQ representation: Brad Hoylman of Manhattan is the lone out gay member of the Senate and Manhattan’s Deborah Glick and Daniel O’Donnell and Rochester’s Harry Bronson are the only three out LGBTQ assemblymembers. They are all white.
Pierre is running to address issues like housing, education, and transportation, but he especially drilled down on the importance of housing reform throughout the interview. The affordability crisis, he said, is one he has grown to understand more intimately through his work volunteering for campaigns and engaging with constituents since he was first elected as district leader in 2016.
Housing woes are directly linked to other issues, Pierre said, in ways that bolstered his decision to take on an entrenched political figure who has risen to become majority whip in the upper chamber. Pierre is joining the growing field of progressive candidates vowing to reject money from big-money interests and corporate PACs because he wants to keep his focus on constituents.
When asked why he’s taking on Parker, Pierre said, “If you’re getting a lot of money from real estate groups or energy interests that don’t want to see green energy, or from groups that don’t want to see a certain level of affordable housing protection for working class people like the people who live in Flatbush and East Flatbush, then it becomes harder to do your job.”
He continued, “I also believe that a lot of people go into politics with good intentions and have a lot of energy, but not everybody is Bernie Sanders, not everybody continues with that strong energy, and over time they become part of a system that prevents progress instead of pushing for it.”
Although Pierre, unlike his opponent, does not have 16 years in office under his belt, he is embarking on his campaign armed with a well-rounded political résumé. He has served on the Democratic County Committee, chaired his local community board’s Land Use Committee, and worked as the Brooklyn borough director for City Comptroller Scott Stringer, among other key posts throughout the last decade.
He is also involved in several LGBTQ political clubs: He’s on the board of Brooklyn’s Lambda Independent Democrats — “that’s my home LGBT club,” he said — and is a member of Jim Owles Liberal Democratic Club and the Stonewall Democratic Club of New York City. He also sits on the board of the Stonewall Community Development Corporation, a non-profit that works to improve housing opportunities for LGBTQ seniors in the city.
“The housing crisis affects everybody — more disproportionately people of color and working class people — but I’ve met enough LGBTQ seniors to tell you it’s hitting the community pretty hard,” he said. “So I’ve given my time and money to [Stonewall Community Development Corporation], I’ve helped to recruit other board members, and I’ve voiced my concerns around policy and where I think the organization should be.”
Pierre’s presence in the State Senate would provide representation on issues that are unfairly affecting queer people of color. He is supporting the work of DecrimNY, which is the coalition geared toward decriminalizing sex work, and he said it is “super important” to stand behind that movement.
“It’s very similar to the decriminalization of marijuana,” he said. “What we do have now is a system that disproportionately punishes one segment of the population. With decriminalization of sex work, the end result is that we’re not punishing the people who are in that workforce. They’re the ones really bearing the brunt of it.”
He also voiced conditional support for passing the controversial bill to legalize gestational surrogacy, which passed the State Senate this year but stalled in the lower chamber amid concerns raised by Glick and other female assemblymembers about the rights of women who would carry the babies. Pierre said he shares that concern, noting, “It’s critical that we do it in such a way that we protect women and the rights of women.”
On a broader front, Pierre believes the state can and should play a significant role in bolstering healthcare for folks, especially with the Trump administration continuing to chip away at Obamacare. Pierre has seen the issue play out in front of his eyes, with residents in his home neighborhood resorting to emergency rooms because they can’t afford healthcare.
Of the New York Health Act, a proposal to bring universal care statewide, he said, it “is what we have to move towards. Over time, it will reduce the costs because not only are we getting people to do more preventative care and preventing high costs, but as a bulk buyer we would be able to purchase at lower rates.”
In the early stages of his campaign, Pierre has started mobilizing volunteers to aid his candidacy and folks have reached out to offer support. He stressed this confidence that the people of the district and the LGBTQ community will back him in his historic bid.
Whether homophobia becomes an issue during the campaign is yet to be seen. Pierre said he has not experienced much explicit homophobia while navigating the political world since becoming district leader, but he acknowledged there have been times when people have told him that his sexual orientation has been a reason why he has not been invited to events.
“No one has done it to my face during the time I’ve been an elected leader, but nobody has said I don’t understand the community issues because of this and no one can deny that I’ve lived the community issues,” he said.
Among his biggest fans, unsurprisingly, is his partner of 13 years, Corey Weaver, who Pierre said encouraged him to run for district leader in the first place and has helped quell his fears about serving as an out gay elected official.
“He has always been supportive of me as I’ve gone through this process,” Pierre said. “He was one of the people who encouraged me in addition to my friends and community members who tell me I have a lot to offer to the community. [Weaver] is currently disabled but I hope to have him on the campaign trail with me at some point.”
Whether or not Pierre emerges victorious during the looming primary competition, he hopes his candidacy can serve as a beacon of hope for kids at a time when diversity of political representation remains, in many settings, merely an aspiration. And, no matter the result of his campaign, he has already proven to his 21-year-old self that he can succeed in politics as an out gay man.
“I’m living my truth now,” Pierre said. “I think there are kids coming up right now who want to live their truth. I think particularly among young black queer youth we know for a fact there are higher levels of suicide. I think being a public figure, a professional, and being somebody who is out and proud and a professional who is respected in my community — I got re-elected twice to the role of district leader — I think that is going to inspire young people and let them know they can reach their maximum potential, whatever it is they decide to do in life.”