The Passionate Pragmatist

Mario Acosta-Vélez is taking steps toward a stronger community

When the wheels of Washington’s gay community are turning, it seems that Mario Acosta-Vélez is never far away. Perhaps it’s his presidential post at the city’s gay and lesbian political stalwart, the Gertrude Stein Democratic Club. Or it could be his position on the D.C. Human Rights Commission. Both posts have put the 37-year-old Acosta-Vélez front and center.

Then again, his past affiliations offered other avenues of community outreach, be it his time as a board member with Genta Latina de Ambiente (GELAAM) or serving as executive director of the Latino Civil Rights Center. It’s all just the tip of the iceberg for one of gay D.C.’s most ardent community builders and networkers.

”I don’t know if I’m a ‘master’ of networking, but it comes naturally to me,” he admits with a smile. ”I’m extremely comfortable with the role.”

But while every community has its collection of ever-present personalities, the D.C. gay community couldn’t ask for a more personable one than Acosta-Vélez. Collectively, the community has acknowledged as much, naming him a Capital Pride Hero in 2006.

”That is one of the greatest honors I have received in my entire life. What’s more important to me is that I hope when people recognize the work we do in this way, it inspires others to follow, to get involved, to find their passion and to make a difference in the community.”

There’s no doubting that Acosta-Vélez has found his own passion.

METRO WEEKLY: The GLBT community recognizes you for your work with the Gertrude Stein Democrats, the city’s Human Rights Commission — community activism in general. You were just away on business — what do you do professionally?

MARIO ACOSTA-VÉLEZ: I was in Denver working on a very important project. Five years ago, I started an independent diversity-consulting practice, through which I’ve worked with non-profit organizations and agencies to address issues of diversity, civil rights and how government can be more responsive to issues impacting Hispanic communities, immigrant communities. Recently, I’ve been doing a little bit of LGBT [consulting] as well.

The project in Denver involves immigrant integration. Part of the work I do as a consultant is assisting public agencies to become more culturally and linguistically competent in designing and providing services to minority and immigrant communities. That’s a big part of what I do.

There is always a need for government agencies to be more responsive, especially here in Washington, D.C., where you have large Hispanic or immigrant communities whose needs are constantly changing and increasing.

I always look at it this way: The government has a responsibility to ensure that all communities have equal access to the services they’re entitled to. This is an area that will always require people with expertise — consultants and others — to assist this process.

MW: What were you doing before this, professionally?

ACOSTA-VÉLEZ: Let’s go back to how I arrived in Washington.

MW: Let’s just go all the way back. You were born in Puerto Rico?

ACOSTA-VÉLEZ: Born and raised. In Rio Piedras. It’s one of the oldest towns in Puerto Rico, and a major college town.

I’m from a big family — 10 children. I’m No. 9. I’ve always been very close to my brothers and sisters. I talk to my mother every week. We talk about everything, pretty much. My father is a very reserved, serious person. He doesn’t talk too much on the phone. I have two sisters in New York. I visit them once or twice a year. My family has always been very accepting and loving. I first came out to one of my sisters when I started college in 1987.

MW: What was the start of your civic involvement?

ACOSTA-VÉLEZ: In high school, I was very active in leadership. I was the president of my class, and I was the president of the student government. And I was person who initiated that — there had been no student government. I was involved in a lot of things that I actually do now: fundraising, developing policies, working with the teachers. It was an interesting period, but I never really worked in gay and lesbian issues when I was in high school.

MW: Did you know you were gay when you were in high school?

ACOSTA-VÉLEZ: Oh, yes, I knew.

MW: Were you struggling with your orientation?

ACOSTA-VÉLEZ: No, I was not struggling with it. I thought it was hard for a person to be gay in high school. It was not an easy experience. However, my fears about people finding out or calling me names or being a victim of physical or verbal attacks, that never really stopped me from pursuing what I wanted: being president of my class, being engaged in leadership.

And one of my passions in high school was theater. I did a lot of theater, a lot of work that involved arts.

MW: Who were some of the characters you played in high-school theater?

ACOSTA-VÉLEZ: Believe it or not, I was attracted to very strong characters who were not the good guys in these plays.

MW: You were the villain?

ACOSTA-VÉLEZ: Yeah. I don’t know why, [but] the theater teacher thought that onstage I projected a strong image and had this ability to play these characters that are very different than who I am as a person. And I really enjoyed it.

MW: So you don’t really have a villainous streak?

ACOSTA-VÉLEZ: No, no. But I was part of the theater club for three years. I think since I was in first grade I looked for opportunities to be in front of the class. Whenever the teachers were asking for volunteers for something, I was always the first one to raise my hand. One of the things I love to do is communicate. It’s a skill I was able to build in theater. It played a very important part in who I am today. It helped me build a sense of confidence as a public speaker in working with communities, individuals and elected officials. It helped me establish a foundation of not being afraid of being a public figure. It helped me embrace civic involvement.

MW: And I’m guessing you never got in trouble.

ACOSTA-VÉLEZ: Not really, no.

MW: You said you began coming out when you started college in 1987. Tell me about that.

ACOSTA-VÉLEZ: I went to the University of Puerto Rico in Rio Piedras, which is the same town where I lived, and started in political science.

When I was in college, I was out and I was comfortable with that, but I noticed there were many other students who were struggling with the coming-out process. So I joined a group of GLBT individuals, and two professors as facilitators, to create a coming-out support group. Part of the work I did there was to speak at university forums and in classes about the importance of coming out and how to create a more accepting environment at the university.

MW: So once you were at college, you were very, very out. Were you ”the gay guy” on campus?

ACOSTA-VÉLEZ: I wouldn’t say the gay guy. There were many of us involved in the group.

It was a rewarding experience. Those were my early days of GLBT activism.

MW: Do you have any involvement today with GLBT youth?

ACOSTA-VÉLEZ: I’ve not been involved in GLBT-youth issues because of my involvement in other areas. I have to be strategic about how I use my time. But I do think GLBT-youth issues are extremely important.

For someone like me, who had a tough time in high school — being in theater, being visible in so many ways — I was the target of a lot of negative attention. It was never violent and I never let it stop me. But today we still see GLBT students facing harassment and discrimination in many ways.



Acosta-Vélez

MW: What took you away from Puerto Rico, and eventually to D.C.?

ACOSTA-VÉLEZ: While I was finishing my master’s in public administration, I was given the opportunity to come to Washington for a graduate internship at the Office of Civil Rights Policy at the U.S. Department of Agriculture. That was the summer of 1993, after I was admitted to graduate school at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. I was on my way from Puerto Rico to Amherst.

This opportunity was really a defining moment in my life and subsequent career. I didn’t know until that time that I had an interest — a passion — for civil rights and diversity issues. I had the opportunity to work with a lot of experts on civil-rights policy, and I learned a lot about the issues impacting communities.

I went to Massachusetts to pursue my second master’s degree, in American government and political science, but every summer I came back to that office to work as an intern. When I graduated in 1996, I moved to Washington on a permanent basis.

MW: What was your first impression of Washington?

ACOSTA-VÉLEZ: I loved it. I don’t know exactly how or why, but when I first came here in 1993 I fell in love with this city. There was a sense of community, especially in the GLBT community, that I didn’t feel in Puerto Rico.

MW: Now that you’re firmly planted in the district, just how involved are you?

ACOSTA-VÉLEZ: I am the president of the Gertrude Stein Democratic Club. I am on the executive board of the [American Civil Liberties Union] of the National Capital Area. I am the vice-chair of the D.C. Human Rights Commission. I’ve been approached by several organizations to join boards or become a member, but I’ve decided that these are the areas where I really want to focus right now so I can be more effective.

MW: As a gay Latino leader, do you plan to become more involved with Latin@s en Accion, or a similar Latino GLBT organization?

ACOSTA-VÉLEZ: I was a consultant to [the D.C.-based national Latino GLBT organization] LLEGÓ, but I was never a member of the board.

When I moved to Washington in 1996, I became executive director of the Latino Civil Rights Center (LCRC). It was a great opportunity and another defining moment in my life. The work I was doing focused almost exclusively on civil-rights issues impacting the Latino community in Washington, D.C. I was doing a lot of advocacy work with the mayor and the City Council. One of the things I noticed was the lack of emphasis on Latino GLBT civil rights as part of the overall Latino civil-rights agenda. That’s when I first contacted LLEGÓ. I introduced myself as the openly gay executive director of the LCRC and said I wanted to collaborate to build bridges between the GLBT Latino community and the Latino community in general. That year, 1997, they invited me to be a keynote speaker at their national conference, which happened to be in Puerto Rico. I addressed the membership about the importance of building this bridge. I wanted to see a national Latino LGBT group collaborating with national Latino organizations. Unfortunately, years after that, LLEGÓ closed.

MW: How big a blow was that to the Latino GLBT community?

ACOSTA-VÉLEZ: It was a huge loss for many of us. It was a very, very important organization that was providing needed advocacy and community development in many cities in the United States and in Puerto Rico. It was very painful for organizations that were depending on the support from a national organization.

MW: How important is it that we get a new, national, Latino GLBT organization?

ACOSTA-VÉLEZ: It’s extremely important. I think there is a group that was created informally after the collapse of LLEGÓ, evolving, hopefully, into a formal, national organization. I have expressed my interest to several individuals, letting them know I’m here if someone wants to get me involved.

The GLBT community, nationally, we are getting visibility in many ways. But I feel that our community is being left behind, because we don’t have a visible, effective advocacy organization at the national level. There are organizations out there like HRC, the Task Force and many others that can provide some type of advocacy on issues impacting Latino GLBTs, but it’s not the same as when you have your own organization run by and representing LGBT Latinos.

MW: With Latin@s en Accion, specifically, you have assisted them?

ACOSTA-VÉLEZ: I’ve acted more as an advisor. I didn’t want to get involved as a board member, because of my many responsibilities with other groups. I want to make sure I don’t over-commit myself. But I’ve promised [Latin@s en Accion President] Ruby [Corado] I’ll be available to help the group increase its visibility and knowledge about how to work with the city’s government. They know they can come to me for assistance in that way.

One of the things we’ve been talking about recently is how to increase access for HIV and AIDS prevention in the Latino GLBT community. Ruby and I have been talking about how to increase funding for the organization. Another thing we did, in collaboration with another group, is the Latino GLBT History Project. It was initiated by José Gutierrez, who has been documenting the history of our community for many years. I became active in that project because I do believe in the importance of documenting our history.

MW: Most of the local gay community probably best identifies you as the Stein Club president. Why did you want to serve?

ACOSTA-VÉLEZ: The Stein Club was one of the clubs that supported me, along with [the Gay and Lesbian Activists Alliance of Washington, D.C.], when I was nominated to join the D.C. Human Rights Commission. I became a member and started going to the meetings [in 2002]. I was asked by [then-president] Kurt Vondran to become the secretary of the club. At the time, it wasn’t in my plan to become president. Then I started learning more about the legislative advocacy part of the work — working with the City Council, monitoring legislation, identifying issues — and decided to run for president.

Serving as president of the Stein Club is a great responsibility. The GLBT community represents a very vibrant and strong political bloc in our city. The role of the Stein Club is to facilitate [the GLBT community's] involvement and provide a consistent and independent voice. That’s also a passion of mine.

MW: While your club endorsed Linda Cropp for mayor, Adrian Fenty won the election. Does that diminish the club’s clout in the new administration?

ACOSTA-VÉLEZ: It was amazing to see how hard candidates — not only for mayor, but for City Council — worked at getting our endorsement. I think they realize the power and importance of the GLBT vote and the role the Stein Club plays in this process.

When the club’s endorsed candidate does not win, that should not be seen as a loss for the club, but as an opportunity to start building a relationship with the candidate who won. We have a new mayor who has been, and is, supportive of GLBT rights. We have worked with him when he was a City Council member, and we recognize his strong support for the community. We really look forward to working with him as mayor, and with the new City Council.

The club is a very passionate organization. It was incredible to see how our members were supporting different candidates. That shows we have diversity of thought, of expertise, of experience, of interest, within our club, which makes it so rich.

Going back to the question of non-endorsed candidates winning office, I want to emphasize that it is not a disadvantage in any way. In fact, we’ve already started working with the Fenty administration through his GLBT transition team. We submitted a list of recommendations that were identified by our members. I see this as a positive development in terms of how we’re going to be working with the Fenty administration.

MW: What were the Stein Club’s recommendations to the Fenty administration?

ACOSTA-VÉLEZ: One of the main recommendations was about appointments of qualified GLBT members to the administration, especially at the highest levels, including deputy mayor. We would like to see an openly gay member of the cabinet that is not necessarily director of the Office of LGBT Affairs — that’s a given.

Another recommendation is the appointment of the director of [that office] in the first 90 days [of Fenty's administration] as a permanent appointment. It wasn’t until the end of 2005 that it became a permanent office, through legislation led by Councilmember Jim Graham (D-Ward 1). The Stein Club was extremely active in ensuring passage, because we believe in the importance of having a permanent office, through which all members of the GLBT community can work together to provide input and exert some influence in determining public policy.

MW: Do you have any interest in directing that office?

ACOSTA-VÉLEZ: [Laughs.] No. No. I’ve heard my name was mentioned in some conversations about it. It’s flattering that some people think I would have the skills and qualifications to do this important job, but I’m not interested in it. When I speak so passionately about the role of this office, it’s not that I’m interested. I’m not.

MW: What other recommendations did the Stein Club submit?

ACOSTA-VÉLEZ: There was another recommendation on an issue that has been around for a long time: diversity training throughout government. What we want to see is not just implementation of generic training that has been used in the past across the city government. Now is the time to create comprehensive, customized, GLBT-diversity training that can include the input and participation of the community.

MW: Returning to the passion of Stein Club members, one 2006 ANC candidate offered some passionate criticism of the club’s lack of support for gay ANC candidates — particularly of those who are Stein Club members. Where does that stand today?

ACOSTA-VÉLEZ: I saw it as an important concern raised by a member of the our club who wanted to see the club endorse individuals in ANC races — in particular, to support his campaign. It’s a valid concern.

As president, I followed the endorsement plan approved by our membership back in March. Our membership wanted to focus on the mayoral race, the City Council race and other citywide races. There was also a growing concern among our membership that the club should not be engaging in nonpartisan races — including ANC races — because of the possibility of the club endorsing a non-Democrat. And that is another valid concern. We are a Democratic club, and we should be endorsing Democrats.

But in the concern raised by [this ANC candidate], there was an important point: There were a number of openly gay individuals running for ANC. As president, I felt we needed to do something, even though we couldn’t do an endorsement or provide financial contributions. Only endorsed candidates can get financial contributions, as stipulated by our bylaws. That’s why I sent out a press release to our full membership informing them of the number of openly gay individuals running for ANC, to encourage them to learn about the campaigns and support them in any way they could.

We need to have a discussion with our members about how the club can support openly gay individuals running for ANC. An integral part of our mission should be to encourage openly gay individuals to run for office. This is an important discussion we need to have at the club level.

MW: The Stein Club is arguably the most powerful local GLBT political organization in the city. But what about GLBT people who aren’t Democrats? Is there a way for them to access the club’s influence?

ACOSTA-VÉLEZ: Anyone can join our club. It’s not required that you be a Democrat. However, in our last meeting, members raised this issue asking whether our bylaws should specify that only registered Democrats living in the district should become members of the club. That’s a discussion we will probably have at the March meeting. It’s a good discussion to have.

In terms of working with the GLBT community in general, whether people are Democrats or not, the organization has always worked to address issues important to the GLBT community. When it comes to endorsements and elected candidates, yes, we focus on Democrats. But when it comes to issues that impact the overall community — whether it’s HIV/AIDS, employment discrimination, whatever — if there is an impact on the GLBT community, we look at the community, not at partisan implications.

We welcome input from anyone who understands the issues. The club has always been open to participation of all members of the community.

MW: Dropping politics and all your community involvements for a moment, what do you do with whatever time you have left?

ACOSTA-VÉLEZ: Volleyball is a passion of mine. I’ve been playing since I was in high school. In the summertime, you’ll find me playing in Rehoboth. I go there almost every weekend and play beach volleyball with a group of friends. We’ve been doing this for years. In the winter, on Sunday afternoons, we play ”wallyball.” I love this sport. In a racquetball court, you set up a net. The ball is smaller and lighter. It’s more difficult. It’s faster.

I also like to exercise at the gym. I love going to movies.

MW: What sort of movies?

ACOSTA-VÉLEZ: This is a secret that I may as well tell, as it’s becoming more and more evident: I’m a hardcore Broadway fan. I love musicals.

MW: So you’ve see Dreamgirls?

ACOSTA-VÉLEZ: Of course. Three times. It’s one of my favorite musicals. The songs from that show are amazing. I love the acting. The story is wonderful.

Broadway musicals tell a story in a very creative, fun way. Dreamgirls talks about rejection, fighting for what you believe in, facing adversity — I see very serious topics in it. At the end, the characters find happiness. This will sound clichéd, but all the work that we do in the community in trying to advance GLBT rights, the right to pursue happiness as openly gay GLBT individuals, I see that related in the story.

MW: Do you sing?

ACOSTA-VÉLEZ: No.

MW: Do you dance?

ACOSTA-VÉLEZ: I don’t want to sound arrogant, but I think I’m a very good salsa dancer. I used to go to Chaos on Thursdays to dance salsa. I haven’t been in a while. I guess I’m trying to diversify some of my interests. But I need to go back. I dance salsa the ”New Yorican” — that’s Puerto Ricans born in New York — style. It’s a very aggressive, fast way of dancing. I want to say I’m pretty good at it.

MW: Let’s hope your future includes a return to salsa, then. What else might it include? ”Mayor Acosta-Vélez”?

ACOSTA-VÉLEZ: Oh, that’s too big to think about. I feel that Washington is home. I do like the city and the work we’re doing here, and the potential for becoming an even greater city with our newly elected leadership. I’m very optimistic about this process. I feel myself part of it. I’m still in the process of reflecting on what I want to do next. I want to continue to contribute to the community, but I want to also elevate these contributions to a city-level contribution. I want to explore the possibility of joining the government, in terms of an appointment or high-level policy position that will allow me to have greater impact on how programs and services are developed. Or, I would probably like to think about whether [running for] elected office is part of what I want to do.

Follow Will O'Bryan on Twitter @wobryan.

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