The Friendly City In Which We Live

Yes, Birmingham has its problems. The homicide and crime rates are too high. Some neighborhoods scream for resources. Many of our streets across the city are a wreck. Marginalized populations are forced to live in areas that are environmentally damaged. Our school system is struggling.

Birmingham is a big city with big-city problems.

That’s not what this column is about. Instead, as we look at Birmingham’s challenges, we also must look at Birmingham’s successes.

Birmingham is an oasis for clear-thinking, civic-minded people. We don’t always agree on how we should go about improving our city, but we do agree that our city deserves to be improved. And we figure it out. 

Birmingham has a dynamic young mayor who has provided a transparency for city government that Birmingham hasn’t seen for decades. The nine-member city council, each a little mayor in their districts, often puts differences aside to decide what’s best for the city as a whole.

Any mayor of any city will have detractors. Mayor Randall Woodfin is no different. But the initiatives the mayor has started in his short term in office deserve recognition and applause. He is changing Birmingham, and he’s changing Birmingham for the better. 

Let’s be patient. And vigilant. And curious.

And let’s agree that despite its problems, there are many areas where Birmingham excels.

One of those areas is in how the LGBTQ+ community is treated. Last month was Pride Month, and no city had more Pride than Birmingham. Birmingham is that oasis in Alabama, and that’s especially true for our gay, lesbian, and transgender populations.

It was about one year ago this month that Woodfin appointed the city’s first LGBTQ+ liaison. Josh Coleman, 30 years old, is in that role, and it’s not a role he particularly sought.

A native of Cullman County, Coleman came out at 16 years old when he was student at West Point High School. That’s right, Coleman a sharp and determined high school student, came out at West Point High School in Cullman County, which is 99 percent white and very traditional. There weren’t many students at West Point who veered from the majority.

“So right after I came out, there were a couple instances of people bullying,” Coleman remembers. “But for the most part, it was OK.”

Coleman’s mother accepted him as he is; his father, not so much. But Coleman’s story isn’t much different than those of the millions of men and women, boys and girls, who come out every year. 

“I struggled with the decision to come out,” Coleman said. “I fought it forever.” He was taught how “awful” it was to be gay. But that is who he is. It wasn’t a choice. As they might say in Cullman County, it was God’s plan.

“I tried to force myself not to be (gay),” Coleman said. “One day, I just said this is it.”

As Coleman grew older, he knew that he needed to be in Birmingham if he was going to be happy in Alabama. He and a group of friends from Cullman County would drive to Birmingham four or five times a week just to be with people they could identify with. Coleman was graduated from high school, attended Wallace State, and became a successful middle-manager for fast-food chains.

But in 2008, Coleman attended his first Pride Festival in Birmingham. As for his political involvement, that’s “kind of what got the ball rolling.”

Coleman has a problem many of us find ourselves with: We just can’t say no. For Coleman, that meant getting involved in LGBTQ+ initiatives as a volunteer, or in just about anything somebody asked him to do. He’s a superb organizer, and though he worked in Hillary Clinton’s campaign in 2008 (against Barack Obama) and Obama’s campaign in 2012, he never really considered himself political.

Yet, today Coleman is Birmingham’s LGBTQ+ liaison and is president of the Alabama Young Democrats. It doesn’t get much more political than that.

Coleman began working with Woodfin when Woodfin was Hillary Clinton’s state director for the 2016 campaign. Coleman was also the lead volunteer organizer for the Alabama branch of the Human Rights Campaign.

It was only natural Coleman would be a key part of Woodfin’s campaign for mayor. To some, Woodfin’s victory was a surprise, but to those who knew the mayor, how he campaigned, and who he surrounded himself with, his victory was almost a given.

Because of Woodfin and Coleman, Birmingham is out front of many cities in the country of a wide variety of issues, including a strong nondiscrimination ordinance that includes the LGBTQ+ community. Birmingham received a perfect score of 100 from Human Rights Campaign’s Municipal Equality Index Scorecard. Woodfin himself is part of the national Mayors Against LGBTQ Discrimination group. Birmingham’s 15-member Human Rights Commission includes representatives of the city fire and police departments and others in city government. Woodfin has created a diverse LGBTQ+ advisory board that has 28 members from all walks of life, including the straight community.

In one year, Birmingham has advanced by huge leaps, not little steps, in how its LGBTQ+ community is acknowledged and accepted.

Yeah, we’ve got our problems. We also have some big successes. Let’s be aware of those, too.

Coleman loves his job, he said, because “No day is ever the same. There are always different issues.” But most important, he simply wants to be a helping hand at City Hall.

Coleman is that for sure.

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