Jim Neal Explains It All

North Carolina native Jim Neal just may be the most controversial queer candidate this political season. The 51-year old entered the race to rival Republican Elizabeth Dole. One would expect resounding praise for a man with such balls – Bob excluded – but Neal’s senatorial candidacy became a scandalous affair.

Most people believed that Brad Miller would run as the Democratic candidate, but the Congressman ended up eschewing the race. Democratic Senate Campaign Committee chair Chuck Schumer attempted to persuade two other candidates – Sen. Kay Hagan and state Rep. Grier Martin – but both refused. Thus, Neal entered the raise, without Schumer’s blessing. In fact, it’s been widely reported that Schumer initially ignored Neal’s calls, leading many to believe Schumer had little faith in a gay candidate.

Neal recently gave our editor some of his time to discuss the Schumer scandal. But, before we get into the present day political debates, we’re going to take a trip back to see how former finance executive Jim Neal became a Democratic Senatorial candidate.

Andrew Belonsky: What motivated you to get into politics? I understand that you worked in finance for many years, so what was your political awakening?

Jim Neal: Well, as a child I was always fascinated by political – the public service, the dynamics of politics. I was one of these kids who always won the election for student body president.

AB: You always won?

JN: I don’t think I ever lost. Although, I won’t say that – I’m sure I lost a race in third grade, or something.

AB: What was your first election?

JN: I think, legitimately, beginning in 7th grade, which in those days was middle school, and continuing right on from that point. A lot of my interest was influenced by JFK’s assassination.

AB: Really?

JN: I remember exactly where I was: I was coming out of my first grade class and going out to the car pool to get picked up and found out. I immediately ran home. It was just surreal. It was absolutely surreal watching. You look back and see all the clips, but this is something that black and white television – what am I? Six years old and watching it nonstop. And similarly during the Watergate hearings – I remember watching that like a soap opera. I was fascinated with the intrigue, as well as the legislation. The civil rights movement, too: the fact that in Greensboro, where I was born – Dr. King was actually scheduled to come to Greensboro before he was killed in Memphis. Also, being a product of the first generation that went through forced busing. I was student body president at the time and I was in the ninth grade and my school had very few black kids, and we were integrated. It was actually the greatest educational experience of my life.
AB: Oh?

JN: Oh my god! It was phenomenal, because it brought together people who had different backgrounds culturally, socioeconomically and everything else. As a student government leader, I had been sharing that role with a guy – I still remember his name: Jerry Beasley – he was one of the kids who was bused in from the projects. All of a sudden the the African-American student body comprised 30% of more of my junior high school and we worked very closely together. Yes, there was some incidents and stuff, but we worked them out.

AB: That was your first experience at coalition building, I take it?

JN: I’m giving you the composite of somebody who from the time they were very young began working on presidential race: going down to the campaign office, hanging around, putting up yard signs, handing out bumper stickers and campaign buttons for LBJ at a time when he was not the most popular person in the south, because he had signed the civil rights act. It continued – I’ve always had a fascination with – I mean, my mom told me when I was a kid, “You can be whatever you want to be”. I always felt that there was a place at the table for me, except when I came out. There were some years there when I doubted whether there was a place for me.

AB: Politically speaking?

JN: Everything speaking!

AB: What year did you come out?

JN: Well, I was married for ten years and I – a reporter I spoke with here in North Carolina said, “You know, Jim, you’re so honest, frank and people find it so refreshing, however one of ladies in the newsroom said, ‘Well, he lied to his wife.'” And I responded, “No, I didn’t lie to my wife, I was lying to myself. As soon as I quit lying to myself, I could tell her the truth.” That was when I was probably 31 or 32. I got married very young – right out of college.

AB: Did you feel pressured to marry?

JN: No, not all! I was like, “Okay, I met someone I love and I don’t want to lose her, so let’s get married!” [Laughs] I would never advise young kids to get married at age 22, but, I was an independent thinker and certainly went against the wishes of her parents – and mine! But, in any event, I never – she’s a good person, she’s a great mom and our marriage ending was not her fault. I wasn’t being honest with myself.

AB: And after that you felt like you didn’t have a place at the table?

JN: I went through a period where I felt outside. People who come out at a certain period of life – you go through what I call your gay adolescence: all the stuff you never got to do. I just felt like an animal that had been held in captivity and was released into the wild and didn’t know how to take care of itself. All of a sudden I was in this new world that I didn’t understand. I was a part of it, but it was a little frightening.

AB: I can imagine.

JN: So I went through those years where I felt bad – I had young children, I felt like I had ruined my ex-wife’s life, I wasn’t sure about my kids, but as I grew and became older, wiser and more comfortable in my own skin – which really didn’t take very long – I was helped along the way by wonderful mentors, these older men. They inspired me to continue to feel like I could do anything I wanted.
AB: Were your parents politically active?

JN: No – not my parents, but my family was. My great-grandfather, who I’m named after (pictured left), worked in county government all his life, as did my uncle and my great uncle. There was a history of public service in my family. We discussed politics a great deal sitting around the dinner table. My dad would kind of waffle and vote for Democrats and Republicans. He tended to identify with whoever stuck up for the little guy. When I went to college at the University of North Carolina, that’s when I started forming my own opinions, like a lot of young people, about – I began to separate my views from those that had been my parents’ influence.

AB: And what did you learn?

JN: I became a lot more tolerant, I think. I became a lot more tolerant not of people from different backgrounds, but of people with different points of view. I wasn’t as rigid in my beliefs.

AB: That’s a good thing to learn.

JN: Yeah, I mean I had a lot of very good people that I studied under who were provocative. They were good teachers and they challenged us to look at the world in different ways. That represented a departure from – particularly my dad had a more rigid ideology. That was kind of threatening to my parents, particularly to my father. I had an uncle who once told me – a really bright man who had been a college professor and a minister – that when I was young, I was mature beyond my years: “You were always adult like for a little kid and had real intellectual curiosity, more so than your parents. And when you used to express that, it would make me mad as hell, because your parents would humiliate you.”

AB: How?

JN: They would just shoot me down.

AB: Can you remember any particular occasion?

JN: I remember being intrigued by philosophy – my uncle Bob was an intellectual. My dad didn’t go to college and had a bit of a chip on his shoulder for anybody who came from an academic environment. My uncle Bobby had taught me about subjects like philosophy and world history and the lessons to be learned. My dad was always dismissive and would say things like, “You’re a fool if you think it’s worth taking advice from someone who doesn’t make more than $25,000 a year”. Just comments like that, which not only shattered my uncle, but me – and we’re talking about a time before I was ten year’s old!

AB: What were the popular perceptions of gay people during your youth? Were there any kids at school who were bullied for being gay?

JN: Not for being gay – “gay” didn’t exist. The term “queer” did,” but the gay people were very much underground. It was just not talked about. There was the hair dresser, the florist, the interior designer or the bachelor. The term “queers,” I remember, I was first brought in fear. “They hang out at bus stations and bathrooms and pray on young kids,” was the image that I recall having been imprinted on my mind. Oh, and I remember this: my mother once criticized me for the way I walk. She said, “You got a hitch in your giddy-up!” [Laughs] The implication was there was something wrong. I remember trying to figure out how it was that I was walking that caused the hitch in my giddy-up. I still haven’t quite figured it out!
We’ll post part two of our Neal interview tomorrow morning. Get excited!

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