Talking Politics with Todd Hill-Jones

Recently I had the opportunity to sit down with Todd Hill-Jones to talk about coming out, his election as president of the Stonewall Democrats of Dallas, and the political landscape for the LGBTQ plus community. 

In addition to his new role as President Todd has also done work with Public Policy and Political Affairs, Todd’s experience also includes work with The Urban Institute in their Housing Finance Policy Center, founding and running a political action committee, volunteering, managing, and consulting on political campaigns at all levels of government from City Councils to Presidential elections. 

At what point did you go, Hey, I’m different from others?

I started feeling different from other people very young. I can vividly remember at five, six, seven years old this sense of, I feel different. I think differently; I act differently. And then, you know, as I aged a bit more into my teens, I definitely began to suspect that there’s something more, and I just didn’t know quite what it was. 

Tell me a little bit about when you came out, what it was like for you. 

I’m a big believer that you have a biological age, which in my case is 40 years old. And then you have your gay age or the age in which you came out, which in my case is 21. So I came out actually at the age of 19. 

I’m fortunate that my family, for the most part, really did embrace me and my truth. I thank my mother for that. I realized that not every LGBTQ+ person has that type of experience in America, particularly in the U.S. South. So my experience is a positive one in that my family embraced me. 

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Todd shares with me the story of how it was his mother that pushed him out of the closet one morning in 1999, how it was both shocking and emotional but that his mother embraced him, told him it was going to be ok and quoted the line from Shakespeare’s Hamlet “to thine self be true.” He also shared how his Aunt and Grandmother gave him exposure to “Gay Culture” by watching movies with him like Pricilla Queen of the Desert and Too Wong Foo, creating an open and accepting environment.

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You were recently elected president of the Stonewall Democrats of Dallas. What made you want to take on that role? Have you always been politically active?

Oh, yes. I’ve been politically active, and I noticed that I wanted to be involved in politics since I was young. I’m a recent graduate of the LBJ school of public affairs and went through their executive master in Public Leadership program. A distinguished faculty member, the late Congresswoman Barbara Jordan used to say at the beginning of her classes “The first most ethical thing one can do is to be on time.” I looked at Stonewall and our nation, what’s going on, the challenges that we’re facing as a community. As I did all of that contemplation, I thought to myself, you know, what ways can I contribute to mobilizing, energizing, and inspiring people? And I looked no farther than the Stonewall Democrats. I felt like right now is the time to be on time and show up for history’s calling. 

Hearkening to what Barbara Jordan would say. I felt it was my time to try to inspire others to be on time and address what I think are historical challenges facing our community. And I’m thrilled that I did it, that I ran, and that the membership elected me with 72% of the vote. We have a lot of work to do despite having allies in Washington, DC, with president Biden and vice president Harris. 

What set’s Texas apart from other states in terms of the challenges we face?

When you look at Texas, we know that we’re surrounded by a sea of red with every statewide office in Republican hands. And, of course, both the legislative branches, the house, and the Senate, are in Republican hands as well. So we’re still in the minority here in terms of Democrats and Republicans. We know Republicans are relentless in marginalizing and legislating their hate against LGBTQ plus people. I just felt that if not now, then when, and I felt like this was the right opportunity for me to step up and provide some leadership as we moved into 2021.

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Advocating for LGBTQ+ issues, the Stonewall Democrats is a caucus within the Democratic Party operating through individual chapters in thirty-six states. It’s origins date back to 1971 with the Alice B. Toklas Memorial Democratic Club of San Francisco, the first registered LGBT Democratic club in the nation. In 1975, the first Stonewall Democratic Club in the country was established in Los Angeles.

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You’ve been involved in public policy and government affairs throughout your career. Has that prepared you in a particular way to take on this role?

It was Ann Richards who inspired me to get involved politically. I saw her keynote address in Atlanta in 1987, and I knew when I heard her speak, even at that young age, that politics was something I had a great interest in. So I really focused on pursuing that political path, and my government affairs work taught me a lot about the process and how legislation is crafted and passed. It taught me a lot about politics that I didn’t already know.

I also learned a lot about how legislation is designed, implemented, and assessed. I had the good fortune of having legislation passed in Congress, which required a great deal of advocacy in both the House and the Senate to get that legislation through. I take great satisfaction in the government affairs work that I did in Washington, knowing that I had a positive impact on people’s lives in some capacity. 

We made significant advances under the Obama administration, the end of don’t ask don’t tell, gay marriage, to name a couple things, but it’s no secret that the Trump administration was openly hostile towards the LGBTQ+ community. Do you feel like the last four years have set us back?

I think, in some ways, yes. And maybe other ways, no. I think in some ways, maybe the jury’s out a little bit. I will say, your description of hostile is spot on and it may be a bit of an understatement. Over the last four years, the Trump administration assaulted the LGBTQ+ community and the progress made toward equality that we saw in the Obama Biden administrations. 

I will say though, if you look at surveys and data polling, despite the Trump administration and his Republican allies going after the LGBTQ+ community, rolling back regulations, and overturning policies, et cetera, it doesn’t seem that public opinion amongst Americans has changed. We’ve seen a pretty steep trajectory in favor of equality for LGBTQ+ people. It seems to me that support has held steady, if not hardened over the last three to four years as we’ve been under assault from Trump and his Republican allies. I think all of that bodes well for what’s coming next, in terms of where we pivot as a community, even with our current  allies in the white house. 

I agree with you in that respect. When I was growing up, we did not have the representation that we have today, but now we are part of society’s fabric in a way I never imagined. We’re all affected by the political decisions that are made in Washington and the last four years certainly made me realize how fragile that is in terms of our rights and where we stand. 

What do you see as the biggest challenges for our community at the local, state, and national level?

I touched on it earlier. We’re in Texas; we’re surrounded by a Republican majority at the statewide level. And then also, of course, at the legislative level. So, you know, we’re under assault. Just in this most recent legislative session that was gaveled in, we’ve already seen a number of pieces of legislation that are anti LGBTQ+. Legislation around transgender teens and sort of criminalizing progress towards transgender teens being able to affirm who they are. You have an HIV criminalization bill out there. There are efforts in the legislature to block LGBTQ+ families from pursuing foster care and adoption in Texas.

There’s a lot already filed, and there’s obviously more to come. I mentioned Barbara Jordan and making sure that the first and most important ethical thing one can do is be on time, and I think history is calling us to get involved. 

Tip O’Neill is famous for saying all politics is local. And I firmly believe that policy that happens in Washington certainly impacts our lives, but what happens at the local and the state level actually impacts our lives even more.

So what does that mean for us as we go forward?

When you think about what that means for us and how we as a community move forward I think there are several things we should be thinking about doing. In this most recent election cycle, in 2020, we saw a huge amount of folks elected from our community to higher office. It was a record amount, almost 500 plus LGBTQ+ people that were elected across the ballot in 2020. So that’s great progress, and we need more. 

We need the next Stacey Abrams to come from our ranks to really help us progress towards turning Texas blue and the other Southern States blue like Georgia. We need to double down on training in terms of making sure that we’re grooming the next leaders, school boards and city councils, and those lowest levels of government up to the legislature, Congress, et cetera, et cetera. 

I will also say in terms of the legislation that’s beginning to be filed in Austin. We’re fortunate to have an LGBTQ caucus now in the Texas legislature. And in Dallas County, we have two members Jessica Gonzalez and Julie Johnson that are members of that caucus. That caucus is going to be important, and the allies that support the caucus are going to be important in pushing back on whatever legislation is filed. Paying attention to what’s going on in Austin, showing support for the LGBTQ caucus, and then us as a community doing our part to be advocates, to be voices in this process.

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According to the LGBTQ Victory Fund, more than 1,000 LGBTQ Americans ran for office in the 2020 election cycle. Overall, 43 percent of LGBTQ+ candidates who made it to the general election won their races. Still, Texas lags in representation, given its size and population.

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From my perspective, it seems that activism in our community has changed and is much different today than it was when I came out. While we have gained more than I ever imagined, those gains can easily be taken from us as we have seen over the last four years. How do you see activism in our community?

The North star that we as a community were pushing towards was marriage equality. By 2015, when we finally achieved that really big goal I think there was a bit of listing in terms of what’s our next big achievement. What’s that next big goal? What’s that North Star? I think the answer is there are a lot of stars that need our attention. I think multiple things are going on in our society that help align us with other communities and diverse populations.

For example, the black lives matter movement that we saw last summer across the nation and here in the Dallas Fort Worth area; a number of LGBTQ+ people participated in those rallies and protests. I think you’re seeing a blending of diverse communities to help each other out. If we have learned anything over the last four years, it’s that if we work together, we can make progress together. And that makes it harder for our opponents to push back on us, to roll over us. 

I think now we’re picking up many causes as a community, not just our own community. For example, income inequality, the pursuit of homeownership, addressing gender wage gaps, making sure that our transgender brothers and sisters have the same justice and protection under the law that we feel we should. We’re bringing a lot of causes together, and we’re working together more. There’s a lot of new tools. There’s a lot of new platforms. So making sure that we’re embracing all of these tools as we evolve and push for these things only strengthens our ability to get the change that we want.

Certainly one of the challenges we have faced is around LGBTQ+ couples and even singles adopting children. You and your husband are fostering a child right now and are certified to adopt. Have you faced any challenges as you worked through the system and that process?

I think we were both a bit surprised with the ease in which we, as an openly gay and interracial couple, were so welcomed. You know, we never once felt sort of ostracized or, in any way, discriminated against through the process of pursuing foster to adopt certification. 

Texas is a good example of a state with a lot of abused, abandoned, and neglected children. They need loving homes. LGBTQ+ families are fully capable of providing loving homes. So, denying LGBTQ+ families the ability to pursue foster care, adoption, surrogacy or anything of that nature that allows us to build families is only harming children. It’s a disservice to those kids out there that need loving supporting families. 

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Thanks to a number of court rulings, same-sex couples’ adoption is legal in all 50 states, yet the fight continues. Despite federal rulings, it is the states that set their own rules regarding private adoption. Almost a dozen states allow private adoption agencies to deny service to members of the LGBTQ+ community.

In January 2020, the Governor of Tennessee signed a bill allowing religious adoption agencies the right to deny services to same-sex couples. In October 2020, the Trump Administration made arguments to the Supreme Court support of religious adoption agencies denying service to the LGBTQ+ community despite not even being party to the case being heard.

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How can people who are perhaps not politically active, but want to do something, want to be more involved in the community get involved?

If they are inclined to be involved politically, or even if they’re curious or want a better understanding of politics and the process of how they could sort of plug in, they can check out the Stonewall Democrats of Dallas at http://www.stonewalldemocratsofdallas.org

There are sister chapters in other Counties as well. Tarrant County has one, of course, Austin and Harris County, you know, the large counties in Texas generally have them. If there’s a political inclination, that would be step one. Step two, whatever your passion is, get involved. There’s likely an organization that exists for whatever you’re passionate about. Plug in, get information, volunteer your time, make a financial contribution. There are tons of social media platforms that allow for that type of involvement. I think advocacy has actually gotten easier in a lot of ways. The third thing is, you know, consider running for something or consider taking ownership of a campaign or becoming a staff member in a campaign to influence policy. There’s any number of ways to contribute to someone’s campaign or run their own. Be that candidate who eventually gets to the table to address some of the issues we talked about today. That’s what I would encourage someone to do. And don’t do it alone, bring your friends, it’s important to make sure that we’re bringing people with us as we get involved so that everyone is working together so we can achieve the same objectives.

I know you’ve got a lot on your plate right now, but what do you aspire for in the future? Do you have a plan?

Yeah, I’m a goal setter. My husband’s a goal setter. I think that was a big attraction to each other. We’re ambitious people. Right now, I’m 100% focused on my position with Stonewall and being president of the organization. There’s a lot of work we’re doing, and I’m motivated by that. I’m also a big believer in terms of leadership that I’m always looking over my shoulder and reaching my hand back to make sure that I’m bringing forward the leaders of tomorrow. 

I’m a big believer that every decade, you should be evolving as an individual. My resume demonstrates that I’ve evolved a lot in my career; that I’ve done things. And there always seems to be a pivot every 10 years. I’m at 40 now, by 50, who knows, the sky’s the limit. I want to be successful in whatever field of work I’m doing. I’m in higher education right now. So if I’m continuing on that path, I want to continue to Excel. I mentioned I went to the LBJ school, where I earned an Executive Masters in Public Leadership. I’m seasoned and ready to take C-suite opportunities and lead. That’s what I see myself doing, continuing to lead. If that means at some point a move to the political realm of things outside of doing what I’m doing now with Stonewall. I’ll answer that call, but right now, I’m happy doing my work with Stonewall.

Todd, thank you for such a great conversation!

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Get more information about the Stonewall Democrats of Dallas from their website: 

http://www.stonewalldemocratsofdallas.org

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