This week we had the pleasure to speak with newly elected Montclair Councilor-At-Large, Peter Yacobellis. Yacobellis’ accomplishments are far-reaching, including being involved in planning the 2009 March on Washington, the founding of Trevor NextGen, and the battle for marriage equality in the states of New York and New Jersey. However, the origin of Yacobellis’ story may be found at the beginning of his career, when he was in basic training for the United States Air Force. Yacobellis came out to his drill sergeant in basic training, at which point he was discharged from the armed forces. Speaking on this, Yacobellis said, “They put us all together and paraded us around base to shame us for a good five or six days, in our own little special group, before putting us on planes and sending us home”. It was at this point, after being discharged from the armed forces because of his sexuality, that he decided to go back to college and study political science and business. Speaking on the effects of his experience in the Air Force basic training, Yacobellis said, “It started a lifetime of service for me”. That lifetime of service has extended far beyond his fight for equal access to the ability to serve one's country with Yacobellis now being a prominent activist within the queer community.
Within his life of activism, Yacobellis has always seeked one clear goal: social inclusion, within all levels and systems of society. This came first with his protesting of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” which banned queer involvement in the military. Speaking on the problems within the law, Yacobellis said, “It telegraphs what our values are, not just to our country but to the whole world”. This desire to show the queer community that they were valued led Yacobellis to his involvement in the planning of the 2009 March on Washington which was instrumental in the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”. Later, this ideal of social inclusion led Yacobellis to his involvement in the founding of Trevor NextGen, the largest queer activist network in the New York metropolitan area. Trevor NextGen was founded to combat the epidemic of bullying and suicide within the queer community. Speaking on that, Yacobellis said, “So the gay rights movement had been really defined first by AIDS, then by marriage, but no one was really paying attention to suicide prevention, bullying or homelessness to the extent we should. Those need to be our priority in a post-marriage world.”. After the suicide of Tyler Clementi of Ridgewood, New Jersey, many started to recognize just how socially excluded the queer community was. Speaking on this shift, Yacobellis said, “They were just finally recognizing that it was an epidemic before we started talking about that. We were the vessel, we were the channel”. This ideal of the social inclusion of the queer community has led Yacobellis’ further endeveours within activism, which has eventually led him to running for Montcalir Councilor-At-Large.
Within his race for Montclair Councilor-At-Large, Yacobellis has clearly laid out the need for queer legislation within the city of Montclair, despite its seemingly liberal policy. Speaking on this need, Yacobellis said, “The Human Rights Campaign scored Montclair, which is a very progressive community (it is, I live here), I believe it was 77 points out of 122 possible points on the Municipal Equality Index”. Looking into the short-comings of the Montclair political system for queer community members, Yacobellis created a comprehensive LGBTQ+ policy proposal, which stands as part of his larger political platform. This policy proposal includes many queer protective measures such as expanding non-discrimination law to include gender identity, as well as the mandating of transgender-inclusive healthcare. In addressing these protective measures, Yacobellis said, “It’s important that everybody be treated equally, that everybody have equal rights under the law, and benefits. I believe that there should be no daylight, no difference, in how we treat anybody regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity”. Yacobellis’ queer platform is not only important to the city of Montclair but to all cities looking to become inclusive spaces for the queer community. We should take Yacobellis’ policy proposal as an example of what may be done. We do need to ask the question that never seems to be asked: on the municipal level, how are we protecting the queer community.
At the end of the day, Yacobellis preached an incredibly important message for queer activism in the state of New Jersey: get involved on whatever level you can. Often we look to the federal level. We look to those battling it out for the presidency or for Senate and House control. Yacobellis, however, is a supporter of involvement within the lowest, most local level: the municipal government. Speaking on local involvement, Yacobellis said, “What’s not easy to do is investigate what’s going on in your own backyard, and that’s what I’ve done”. Now, we shouldn’t discount the federal or state government, simply because they are larger. Rather, it’s important to educate oneself about all levels of one's government involvement. Speaking on this, Yacobellis said, “Know who the people are who represent you locally, and make sure that they share your values, and that they hear from you. If you have more time, take it up a level”. This is an incredibly important concept to queer activism: change starts in your own backyard. Right now, when we can’t march on Washington or march on a statehouse, we should be doing the best we can to make sure that the queer community feels represented in our local governments, in our homes, and neighborhoods.
There was a surplus of information that we could not include in this article, simply for the purpose of length. For more information about Yacobellis’ campaign and history of activism, please go read the transcript of the interview, which has been posted as well.