If you needed any evidence that gay kids are going to grow up in a world that would have been unrecognizable a decade ago, look no further than James Duke Mason, a young spitfire running for West Hollywood City Council.
You may know Duke, as he’s generally known, from the opinion pieces he’s written for various queer publications, such as this one for Queerty. Or his work as board member for L.A.’s Outfest. Or for the gay-themed film he appeared in, What Happens Next. Or his campaigning for Obama and Hillary.
Or you might simply know him for who his parents are: His mother happens to be pop singer Belinda Carlisle, and his father is Morgan Mason, a film producer who served as President Reagan’s Chief of Protocol. (Despite being political polar opposites, they set their differences aside when they fell in love in the ’80s and remain together and supportive of their son.)
But you should probably get to know Duke’s name now, since you’ll likely be hearing lots more about him.
He’s nonchalantly out of the closet in two industries that cling to closets: entertainment and politics. While politicians and actors once wrung their hands about coming out, Duke represents a new generation that simply doesn’t understand why the closet is even a thing.
But that wasn’t always the case, even for the 23-year-0ld. “When I came out when I was 14, I basically abandoned the idea of being involved in politics and public service,” he told Queerty. He was fresh off his first foray into politics when his mother had signed him up for “Kids for Kerry” at the age of 12.
“I knew about how few openly gay actors there were,” he recalls. “I was also aware of how few openly gay politicians there were. After I came out for a little while, I didn’t know what to do with myself. But what happened was I realized how, in fact, I should have seen it as an opportunity. … I had a shift around the age of fifteen, sixteen, where I realized that my sexuality was a qualification to get involved in public service.”
Since then, Duke’s stepped up his political involvement. He was a volunteer for Hillary in 2008, and worked at her Iowa caucus watch party in L.A. He was a surrogate for Obama in 2012, traveling around to give speeches on the candidate’s behalf. And he’s planning work for Hillary, assuming she finally stops being coy about whether she’ll run.
For now, though, Duke is making a name for himself in local politics running for the West Hollywood City Council, the town’s highest elected position. (Council members take turns as mayor.)
He’ll have an uphill battle. WeHo is run by an entrenched political machine that’s been in place since its founding in the ’80s.
Duke cites expensive new housing and rising rent as driving out longtime residents — chiefly, queer people, Russians, the elderly, and the low-income.
“The biggest issue facing the city is identity,” he says. “West Hollywood was founded for people who were previously disenfranchised and marginalized, and now are being marginalized again.”
As worst-case examples, he says, “look what’s happening in New York and San Francisco. On one hand they’re great examples of innovation and a strong infrastructure … but on the other hand, you’re seeing some of those groups that make them who they are get pushed aside.” Both cities are currently in the midst of a housing crisis, with a gradual erosion of middle and lower-income housing stock.
To fix that, Duke wants the city to pay landlords to keep rent down — not just for residents, but for businesses. He also wants to reform California law to legalize rent control for local businesses. And he wants to see development, but “smart development, responsible development.”
WeHo was created in the ’80s by local activists, some of whom were under 30. John Heilman and Abbe Land remain on City Council to this day. Now Duke sees his turn to make a difference.
One of his first local battles was over WeHo’s rainbow flag, a saga that unfolded over months. First, local political gadfly Larry Block donated a rainbow flag to be hung at City Hall. Then, months later, City Council decided the flag wasn’t a great symbol for the city, since it mostly refers to queers and not the totality of what the town has to offer. That was followed by outcry and editorials and protests, with many observers claiming that this dispute was evidence that WeHo is abandoning its queer past and getting too straight.
Duke jumped into the fray with an op-ed: “WEST HOLLYWOOD IS AN OFFICIALLY GAY CITY. We need that rainbow flag there now more than ever. It is sorely needed at a time when our city is losing its gay identity; I’m all for assimilation and inclusion, but not at the expense of our culture and heritage.”
Fighting over a flag seems like the sort of ridiculous small-town minutia that you’d find on a sitcom, but disputes like these typify real-life local politics. For his part, Duke sees it as an opportunity to talk about how gay enclaves will evolve over the coming decades. “The gayborhood of the future is a place where you can be openly gay, you can be stridently so, and you can still have gay friends and bring them to West Hollywood,” he says.
That’s a nice thing to say, but it doesn’t exactly fill potholes. Duke’s still ramping up his campaign and working with his role models and mentors to nail down a more specific platform. He cites Cleve Jones as a mentor, and points out that longtime activist David Mixner (and Clinton friend) has endorsed him.
“Those are the people that I’m fighting for,” Duke says. “I want to make sure that their contributions to our community and our history are protected, because they need to be there for young people.”
JDM on the Issues
Boycotting Antigay Businesses
I’ve been very vocal about my opposition to the Beverly Hills Hotel, even though my family have been clients there for 70 years. … The only way to take a stand and make a difference is to stand up and be heard.
Getting More People on Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis (PrEP) to Prevent HIV Transmission
I support PrEP. On the one hand, I support safe sex. On the other hand, I think it’s a great preventative measure.
Mandatory Condoms for Porn Performers
I support it. I think that we need to be encouraging safe sex in every way possible.
Using The Word “Tranny”
If we don’t want people to call us our slurs, we should be respecting what the trans community wants us to do.
The Necessity of Pride
I love Pride … I think Pride is more important than ever, more relevant than ever.
I think there’s a difference between the Republican party of 30, 40 years ago and the Republican party of today. There are a lot of reasonable gay Republicans who want to return the party to what it was. But I don’t see how someone who’s gay could fall in line with the Republican party as it is today.
Body Hair: Keep or Shave?
[Nervous laughter] I have a lot of body hair, whether I like it or not. I have my personal preferences, I wish I could get rid of it, but it’s a little difficult, so I leave it the way it is.