As an openly gay, African-American, disabled Marine Corps veteran with more than three decades of service—to my country, the State of Wisconsin, and to fellow veterans—I am deeply honored and thankful to Governor Evers for the opportunity to continue doing what I love; to serve veterans, deliver benefits and services veterans have earned, tell their stories, and honor their contributions. Representation matters. Having a seat at the table matters. Governor Evers understands this and appoints qualified individuals with diverse backgrounds to serve in his administration.
I was born and raised in Madison. I grew up poor, on public assistance, in a single parent household, the oldest of six children. I realized early on that I wanted more out of life and would have to make good choices and receive a good education if I were to achieve my goals. I charted a path, determined to succeed, while at the same time feeling confused about who I was as a person, sexually. I wondered if this unseen conflict would create roadblocks in my life.
I struggled with my sexuality for years—from high school until I was 30 years old. Like so many others, during my high school years I knew I was different… I did not feel the same attraction to the opposite sex as the other guys in my class. I was confused, felt alone, and felt there was no one I could talk to about my feelings for fear of being ridiculed, teased, beaten up, or worse yet, hated by my family and friends for being different. I suppressed my feelings and continued to live my life as a “normal” teen, following all the expectations of society, my family, and religious beliefs.
It was not until I joined the United States Marine Corp in 1983, stationed in San Diego, that I realized there were more people just like me—in the community and among the Marine and Navy Sailor ranks. Still, fearful that if others learned about my feelings I might be dishonorably discharged, I continued to remain silent, not wanting to accept the reality that I might be gay and a disgrace to my family and friends. I was determined that I would not let that happen to me.
I served on active duty at the Marine Corps Recruiting Station in San Diego, later assigned to 3rd Landing Support Battalion in Okinawa, Japan, and then the remainder of my time at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, in 8th Engineers Support Battalion. I value my time in the Marine Corps. It taught me lessons I carry with me throughout my life, lessons of leadership, perseverance, strength, and the value of serving a cause greater than myself.
After receiving an Honorable Discharge from the Marine Corps, I returned to Wisconsin to begin my studies at UW-Madison, but because of societal norms, I continued to struggle with my feelings. I immersed myself in my church, attending daily, praying that these feelings would be taken away, so I could live a “normal” life, get married, have kids and a successful career, and live “happily ever after.”
In 1992, after years of struggle, I decided it was time to accept my sexuality and embrace the person I had always been. It took me three years, however, to tell my family and friends, “I am Gay.” To my surprise, it was not an issue for most of them. My mom, with a smile on her face, simply said, “I know.” My dad responded, “Well, I don’t understand how a man can be attracted to another man, but you are my son, and I love you.” And for the rest of my family and friends it really didn’t matter, I was still the same person they loved.
While at UW-Madison, I earned both my Bachelor of Science and Master of Science degrees and began my 28-year career in state government, at the Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development (DWD). During my tenure at DWD, I served in several leadership positions including as Deputy Division Administrator in the Divisions of Employment and Training and Family Supports and as Bureau Director of Management Services, in the Division of Vocational Rehabilitation.
In 2010, I was offered an appointed position with the WDVA by then-Secretary Ken Black. In my interview I said to him, “Mr. Secretary, there is one thing you should know—I am openly gay and have no intentions of going back into the closet.” I knew that if appointed, I would become the first openly gay man to serve in a WDVA senior leadership role, and I did not want that fact to become an issue for the Secretary or the Department. To his credit, Secretary Black said it was not an issue for him, and he had no reservation in appointing me to the position.
At WDVA, I remember looking at a wall with a row of framed pictures of former and current WDVA Secretaries who had served between 1943 to 2010. I noticed there was only one African-American Secretary. As I looked at that picture, I saw myself, and thought—someday I can become Secretary. Years later in 2019, Governor Evers appointed Mary M. Kolar as the first woman Secretary. And in early 2023, I was appointed as the first openly LGBTQ Secretary. Moving forward, my hope is that others will see themselves in the row of WDVA Secretary photos and think, as I did, someday, I can become Secretary. Representation matters.
In 1995, my husband Todd and I met at a dance club at the Hotel Washington while students at UW-Madison. After 16 years together, and with the legalization of gay marriage in some states, we were legally married in 2011 and shortly thereafter, decided it was time to raise a family. At that point, we had a long-established and committed relationship, successful careers, and were in a good financial position. Together, we had built a solid foundation on which to raise children. Initially, we thought of adopting internationally, but considering the cost and that we are two gay men, we didn’t think it was possible. Realizing there were children within our own Dane County community that needed stable, loving families, we decided to become licensed foster parents with the hope of eventually adopting. Shortly after being licensed in 2013, our first son, Derrion (2) arrived, and in 2016 our second son, SJ (17 months) arrived. We have since adopted them both. Becoming a father and raising our two sons is truly the greatest experience of my lifetime.
I have been fortunate. Looking back on the path I set for myself as a young child, none of the road blocks I had feared of being gay and not being able to live a “normal” life, get married, have children, have a successful career, and live life “happily ever after” materialized. With each passing day, I am grateful for the opportunities and individuals in my life who assisted me in achieving my goals and making my dreams become my reality. And with each passing day, I am aware of the responsibility we each have to be true to ourselves, and by doing so, create the community in which we wish to live, making it better for us, those around us, and those who dream of a better life and opportunity in their future.