Joseph Kitchen, Jr. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)
Joseph L. Kitchen Jr., who won election in February as president of the Young Democrats of Maryland, has emerged as an up-and-coming political activist in Prince George’s County, where he lives, and in the state capital in Annapolis.
Kitchen, 26, is an ordained minister in the Southern Baptist Church and an active member of First Baptist Church of Glenarden, Md., one of the largest black churches in the D.C. metropolitan area. He leads a youth worship group at the church.
He works full-time as an assistant principal at a private middle school in D.C.’s Anacostia neighborhood. Although he loves politics and is deeply committed to his Christian faith, he says his main passions are issues related to “education equality, crime and justice and economic justice for people of color.”
Among other involvements, Kitchen serves as assistant treasurer for the NAACP’s Prince George’s County chapter, serves on the Executive Committee of the Maryland Democratic Party, and is a member of the board of First Book D.C., a national group that promotes reading skills for underprivileged children.
During the past month Kitchen says he has been systematically informing his colleagues at the statewide Young Democrats organization and members and leaders of many of the organization’s county chapters that he’s gay.
He says his decision to come out marks the culmination of a path that has taken him from the position of voting for California’s Proposition 8, which banned same-sex marriage in 2008, to an active role last year in campaigning for Maryland’s marriage equality law.
Among other things, Kitchen says he helped direct the Young Democrats’ campaign for the same-sex marriage bill when it came before the Maryland General Assembly and when it came before voters in a referendum campaign last November.
“I believe my faith may have played a role in it,” he says in discussing his vote for Prop 8.
He says he cast that vote by absentee ballot in 2008, two years after he moved to Maryland from his hometown of Fresno, Calif., but retained his California residency and voting privileges.
“And the interesting thing about it is I voted for the proposition knowing who I was,” he told the Blade in an exclusive interview. “But I voted for it. And I think that vote… affirmed to me that I could not live that way anymore.”
Added Kitchen, “I could not be publicly who I was saying I was but knowing my private life. And so when I did that – immediately after I did that – of course my position changed. I started to become more comfortable about who I was.”
He says he also became more comfortable in reconciling his religious beliefs with his sexual orientation.
“I had to believe and come to realize, as a person of faith, that I am made in God’s image and he has made me to be who he wants me to be, that God made me this way because this is who I am and I’m made in his image.”
Kitchen says his decision to come out in the spring of 2013 also was based on practical considerations as well as on inspiration from the openly gay people he worked with on the Maryland marriage campaign and through his activities with the Young Democrats organization.
“I grew up in California in a very religious African-American family,” he says. “I went to college. I went to seminary and became an ordained minister. But I’ve always known that I was gay,” he says.
“I’ve always felt like that was my personal life and I would leave it at that and I would continue to be an African-American young man who is a minister in the Baptist Church — in the Southern Baptist Church.
“But I think what I’ve seen over the last few years — the rise of this movement, which has really been impressive to me. Being in the Democratic Party and meeting so many people — I view them as being very inspirational to me by telling their stories and affirming their truth and being very proud of who they are. That has given me the courage to do this as well.”
Kitchen says that since he and his partner moved into a suburban style, single-family house in Cheverly, the exercise of remaining in the closet would likely become impractical and awkward. He and his partner are seen together as a couple.
“And so the fact that I have those types of things eventually I think people would know,” he says. “And I prefer that people know on my terms as opposed to me responding to it on someone else’s terms.”
Since moving to Cheverly from Fresno, Kitchen has become a mover and shaker in the political establishment of a majority black county whose elected representatives in the Maryland General Assembly are considered important in setting the state’s legislative agenda.
In the relatively short time he’s lived in Prince George’s County, Kitchen says he’s observed what he considers a major change in attitudes in favor of LGBT equality in general and support for same-sex marriage in particular.
He says he watched with interest when the marriage equality bill died in the General Assembly the year before it passed.
“One of the things that made the bill die the first time it was presented in the legislature is our delegates balked at the idea,” he says. “Their people were opposed to it so they became opposed to it.”
Many in Prince George’s County opposed the bill, according to Kitchen, because there was little or no outreach to black churches and black constituencies in the county by the LGBT organizations advocating for the bill.
“And in Prince George’s County we had always been told for so long that we are against gay marriage … And that’s all that people have ever known,” he says.
“I think they learned that lesson the second time around,” he says of marriage equality advocates. “Equality Maryland and Gov. O’Malley and his PAC all learned that and they sent organizers in. They made phone calls. They did door knocking,” according to Kitchen.
“And groups like the Young Democrats of Maryland and Prince George’s County Democrats all got there and they knocked on doors and they went into these communities and they went to the community centers and the churches and they talked to ministers,” he says.
“And I don’t think we can give enough credit to President Barack Obama and what his support immediately gave to lifting that ballot measure,” Kitchen says. “I don’t know if it necessarily changes everybody’s mind. But it gave people the permission they needed to do what I think they always felt was right.”
When asked how he thinks his coming out will impact his relationship with the key people in his political, professional and religious life, Kitchen says nearly everyone so far has been accepting and supportive, although he expects some bumps in the road to come his way.
“My hope is to not have this become my life,” he told the Blade. “My life is about a lot of things. And for 26 years it has not been who I love and who I sleep with that defines my life.
“So I want this to be out there and of course I’m going to have to deal with it for a while,” he says. “But then I want to return to the issues that I’ve made the passion of my life, which are education equality, crime and justice and economic justice for people of color. Those are the issues that are important to me.”
He quickly added that at least one more thing is important to him.
“So I’m still an ordained minister. I don’t plan to give that up. I worked very hard for it. I believe in order to become an ordained minister you have to believe you are called to do such work. And I do believe I was called to do such work.”