That's the most important piece of advice state Sen. Jeremy Moss (D-Southfield) said he would give an LGBTQ+ person considering a run for office today. The 10-year veteran of Michigan city and state politics knows a thing or two about being yourself: When he first ran for Southfield city council in 2011, Moss wasn't out publicly. He called running as an openly gay candidate back then a "risk" and a "liability."
"We've come a long way," Moss told Pride Source. "And I think anybody who is LGBTQ recognizes that. We are a community that definitely does not take for granted the struggle up until now."
These days, not only is Moss open about his sexuality, he uses his platform as Michigan's first openly gay state senator to bring attention to critical LGBTQ+ issues. That includes speaking on the state Senate floor in recognition of World AIDS Day and in celebration of Pride Month and sharing his thoughts on Coming Out Day, just to name a few.
As Moss demonstrates every day, serving in office openly is not only possible, it is critical. Representation matters.
"Representation is important on many fronts," Moss said. "It signals to the [LGBTQ+] community here in the state of Michigan that they have a voice in the process." That means someone who understands their conditions, understands their lived experiences and understands the unique challenges they face.
Representation also matters in the lawmaking process. "We can actually have some serious gains," Moss said. "We can convince the other side of [our] issues and gain momentum for the issues that impact us."
And sharing one's lived experience means sharing commonalities like the need for good schools and clean water. "As a gay person in the neighborhood, I care about roads," Moss said. "I care about housing. I care about the same economic conditions that my neighbors care about — and I'm gay. And I think then people start to realize it's not the only driving factor of why I want to serve."
Moss noted how important it is to bring an LGBTQ+ perspective to issues that his colleagues might not otherwise have recognized as important to the community.
"When I'm in a workgroup with folks on housing and then I can bring up housing discrimination in the LGBTQ community, it really opens eyes and opens hearts," Moss said.
Just as "normalizing" LGBTQ+ representation in elected office is beneficial to the political process, it also means that as more members of the LGBTQ+ community see success is possible, the more candidates run — and win. It's known as a "virtuous cycle."
Moss' entry into politics at the city level "certainly prepared me for Lansing," he said. Some call this "building the bench." It's the way down-ballot races like county commission, city council and school board can serve as a pipeline to greater representation — and power — at higher levels of office.
"Where decisions about us are being made, we deserve to have a seat at the table," Moss said. "Whether it's on a city council or whether it's on a school board, those decisions impact LGBTQ residents and students throughout the state."
That's not to say Moss' time on city council was just a stepping stone. It gave him a greater perspective on the disconnect between the state and the needs of municipalities, something Moss is just as passionate about addressing today.
With one term on city council, two in the state House and currently in his first term in the state Senate, Moss knows what it takes for an LGBTQ+ person to launch a winning campaign. Running openly is key, but that's just the beginning.
Political mentors are "absolutely" important, Moss said. "I can call up Brenda Lawrence at any given moment and just kind of share with her what's going on in Lansing," Moss said, referring to the current congresswoman and former mayor of Southfield. "I can elicit her feedback. I can confide in her some of the issues that I'm dealing with. It makes me a better legislator.
"It has propelled me to reach back out," Moss added. "It also has propelled me to reach back to others who are looking for mentorship." One of those individuals is Jason Hoskins, Moss' legislative director and current Southfield city councilmember, who is also openly gay.
Beyond being out of the closet, "be prepared and be comfortable to share your lived experience," said Moss. In doing so, campaigning can also be a way to advocate for the LGBTQ+ community meaningfully.
"I think that the more we talk about issues that everybody can embrace and everybody can get behind, it's a foot in the door," Moss said. "We're not that different…and we're not looking for special treatment because of who we are. But we're also not going to accept anything less than equal protection under the law."
Moss had other tips, especially for first-time candidates who consider a candidacy cost-prohibitive.
"Knocking doors costs really nothing," said Moss, who is known for tirelessly going door to door. "It costs shoe leather. It costs sweat equity. But other than that, it costs time. Knocking doors doesn't require this big robust bank account." Another advantage to door knocking is that it enables a candidate to meet their neighbors and listen to their concerns, one on one.
Yet mailers need to be printed and mailed, and those are costs any campaign will incur. Moss recommends asking 100 people for $100 each, which can mean asks that are sometimes uncomfortable. "It's a combination of investing money and investing energy," Moss said. "And I think both of those are key components to winning a race."
Moss reflected on his 10 years in office. He said he's not remarkable or special because he's the first out person to serve in the Michigan Senate. "I just happened to be first," he said.
"I think a lot of bigotry is fueled by ignorance and the way that you dispel that ignorance is to inform," Moss said. "So, being the first person at that mic to advocate for Pride Month or, maybe even more consequentially, advocate for Elliott-Larsen reform, that finally has gotten Republican support for the very first time in both chambers, is important."
It's been a long journey for Moss — and for the LGBTQ+ community. "We've seen so much progress. But out people help build progress, [and] progress helps build more out people who run. It's a good cycle.
"I attached myself to this Harvey Milk quote," he continued. "And I really think it's applicable that ‚Äòcoming out is the most political thing you can do.' Coming out to your family, coming out where you work, where you shop, where you eat is the best way to break down myths and dispel stereotypes and lies. For everybody's sake, when you run as an openly gay candidate, I think it makes a huge difference."