Tucson LGBTQ+ advisory group goes silent

Problems getting members in the same room means commissions haven’t been meeting and queer people have been left without a voice in city government.

Tucson LGBTQ+ advisory group goes silent
A pride flag waves over IBT's on Fourth Avenue in Tucson on Oct. 20, 2023. Credit: Michael McKisson

Tucson’s only city commission to address LGBTQ+ issues for residents hasn’t met for more than a year. That gap has made space for local leadership to sidestep discussions, concerns and solutions from a historically marginalized community.

The Tucson Commission on Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgender Issues, created in 1998, acts as the official advisory body to the mayor and city council. It was an active commission that hosted fundraisers and held monthly meetings with community members to discuss the impacts of statewide legislation, as well as published annual reports on queer issues that the city could address. 

The last time the commission’s actions were visible to the public was in March last year. Members sent a letter to the mayor’s office and city council denouncing two state bills — one keeping trans girls from playing in youth school sports, and the other banning some medical care for all transgender youth. At the time, those GOP-led bills were headed to then-Republican Gov. Doug Ducey’s desk. He signed both into law. 

A few months later, the Tucson commission stopped meeting altogether, despite scheduled meetings listed through the end of the year. Recorded minutes or activities related to the meetings also haven’t been uploaded to the commission’s website since 2021. 

Since the commission hasn’t met with people in the city or discussed broader issues among the community, Shay Thomas and Ashley La Russa, co-founders of the queer event management group Queer AF, have held group sessions for LGBTQ+ people. They gather to discuss the needs, solutions and problems within Tucson’s queer spaces. 

“It's important for the government to just take heed and listen — listen to the community,” Thomas said. “It’s not all on them, but we need resources.”

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In the time period that the commission hasn’t met, there have been a number of critical issues that many on the ground feel haven’t been properly addressed: the Republican legislature pushed transphobic and anti-LGBTQ+ legislation, the surge of the MPox (formerly known as Monkeypox) virus last summer, and increased violence against people within the LGBTQ+ communities across Arizona. 

“It feels weird that we aren't meeting,” said Kyle Snowden, who was appointed to the commission last August, but has yet to attend a meeting since one hasn’t been scheduled. 

Snowden has focused on on LGBTQ+ healthcare. He said the Mpox spread was a lost opportunity for the commission to meet and discuss solutions. He’s worried about the future of the commission being able to make critical decisions: “There's always the potential that there'll be another issue like that,” he said.

Snowden said that since he started in the position, he’s emailed other commissioners to see when they could meet. At one point, he reached out to the city clerk’s office, which manages city commissions. 

“I tried asking them when we would meet and just was never told,” Snowden said in a phone interview. 

After following up twice with board members, he eventually gave up: “It seems a little complacent,” he said. 

Snowden asked the city clerk’s office if the commission was still active. 

“Is this board decommissioned?” he wrote in an email that was shared with LOOKOUT and Arizona Luminaria

The office’s response centers on an issue of bureaucracy that isn’t unique to the GLBT Commission alone. 

Staff in the city clerk’s office said the failure to get the commission meeting was because of city regulations that require commissions meet in person, not virtually. 

During the pandemic, some were able to change those rules, as was the case for the GLBT Commission which voted to meet virtually. But since in-office work has resumed, many appointments have left their positions or moved out of their wards. Others have simply not shown up, making it difficult to establish a quorum (a required number of commissioners present) before meetings can take place.

“There's an undercurrent where the process of meeting and who can meet and how they can communicate with each other inside and outside of meetings, Snowden said. It sort of makes it more difficult to meet.”

The result, according to people in the city clerk’s office, is a number of commissions failing to meet and provide city leaders with community input on various issues from climate to workforce development. LOOKOUT called and sent e-mails to the clerk’s office to get comment on the issues regarding commissions meeting, and did not receive a response. 

According to data gathered from the city’s website, at least 12 commissions haven’t posted agendas or had meetings since 2022. A third of the city’s commissions haven’t met since the beginning of summer. 

Two of the GLBT Commission’s seats are vacant, which means the members have not been able to reach their quorum. The positions are appointed through a ward leader. 

The two seats missing belong to appointees from Wards 2 and 5, run by Paul Cunningham and Richard Fimbres, respectively. 

Fimbres could not be reached by phone by the time of publication. 

Cunningham said that he wasn’t aware that the seat was vacant until LOOKOUT and Arizona Luminaria called to inquire about the board.

“This was not brought to my attention until I spoke with you,” he said.

“We have to have that commission in full effect,” he said, adding that he has a “personal point of pride” in making sure his commission appointments are filled. 

Cunningham, through a text message, later confirmed that Jessica Patrick, a development manager at Sonoran Prevention Works, was appointed to the commission as late as March of this year. However, online the position shows as vacant. Cunningham said he wasn’t sure why the position was empty.

In a phone call, he said the position would be filled by the end of the month: “We’re going to get on it right away.”

Patrick, who uses they and she pronouns, couldn’t be reached through their work email or calls to their office.

There is an opportunity that the quorum issue may be solved, at least for some of the commissions that haven’t met. The city council recently passed a resolution that would allow members to meet remotely or in a hybrid setting.

Until then, community leaders on the ground said there is a gap in how the community is represented in its government, 

“If we’re not having conversation, that is a problem,” said Rebecca Wicker, treasurer of the Tucson LGBT Chamber of Commerce. “We’re not above any of the horrible things that we see happening in communities across the country, and just because that hasn’t happened on a large scale here, doesn’t mean we’re above it. And just because our mayor gets it, doesn’t mean the rest of the city does.”

 There’s room for education, she said.

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