10 Minutes With …

Fern Kaufman speaks up about politics, healthcare and her race for state representative

During an intimate political rally at Stir this month, Fern Kaufman stepped outside of her usual home base in Coatesville, Pa., to candidly discuss her bid for State Representative in the 26th District. If elected, Kaufman would be the first openly lesbian state rep in the Commonwealth’s history. She sat down with G Philly to discuss everything from what it’s like running an openly gay campaign to her red belt in Tae Kwon-Do.

What do you consider to be the most significant issue facing the LGBT community right now?

That’s a moving target. It always circles around one issue: to get people to understand the LGBT community a lot better. Folks call it a lifestyle, but folks who are LGBT know it’s not a lifestyle—it’s what we are. If we had the ability to broaden the conversation enough that people understood that this is something as biological for us as anyone else…we would be getting these anti-bullying and anti-discrimination laws passed. We have to get folks to take it seriously. My favorite saying is that when you don’t have a seat at the table you’re on the menu. When you have a seat at the table, it changes the dynamic; they can’t dismiss you. You have a captive audience and you have more of the ability to get the word out. All through history this is what we’ve seen; this is what it took. African-Americans fought so hard to get to a better place. And women—the suffragists—fought so hard to come to the table. I think the LGBT community is on the cusp.

What inspired you to first become involved in politics?

I am the candidate who’s gay and not the gay candidate. I started running for many different reasons. It adds an extraordinary element to PA politics—we’ve never had an openly gay official. This would send the message that we’re turning the corner. The reason I got involved is more so that I was unhappy, like everyone else, with what was happening around me.

What can you bring to the table?

I’m a healthcare person and a political outsider. We have this new healthcare law. It’s popular with some people and very unpopular with other people. That law needs to be applied to Pennsylvania. I’ve walked the floors; I’ve been at the patients’ bedsides. That experience is invaluable.

How do most people react when they find out you’re openly lesbian?

In the heterosexual world we don’t go up to someone, shake hands and say, “Hi, I’m Fern Kaufman and I’m heterosexual.” We also don’t walk up, shake hands and say, “Hi, I’m gay.” When I talk to a lot of people, I gauge the conversation. If someone is overly conservative, I may not bring it up because I don’t want to start a fight at the door. Other people may ask me about abortion or gay marriage because they want to take my temperature on social issues, and I say I support it because I’m gay myself. My one thing I really want to do, whether I win or lose this, is to get people to not keep these things to themselves. I want people to start thinking outside of their own boxes. I take care of my family. I’m a good person, doing good work. I don’t have a problem with how I’m living my life.

Have you encountered any hostility during your campaign?

Yes. We’ve knocked on over 8,000 doors. We’re handing out magnets—and some people throw them back at me, they call me an abomination of nature. You learn to take yourself away from it a little bit, and you have to be prepared for the dichotomy of people. And that’s why you’re running for office. I’m a political outsider, and that office should be as much for me as it is for you. Freedom is not always easy. I’m not saying you don’t walk away and that it doesn’t sometimes take a little air from under your wings. But then I meet someone else and I get that air right back.

What’s something voters may be surprised to find out about you?

From a political standpoint, people may be surprised to find out I’m a fairly conservative person. I’m a social progressive but I’m a fiscal conservative. I tell them I think Harrisburg should be run more like a business. People are sometimes surprised to hear a Democrat say that. I’ve also jumped out of an airplane a couple of times—and landed. I have a red belt in Tae Kwon Do. I haven’t practiced that in a long time, so no one should try to attack me. And I like to eat my entire meal with a salad fork.