by Sam Manzella
Alex Morse’s passion for politics and advocacy began when he was just 16 years old. Shortly after coming out as gay to his parents, Morse organized the first Gay-Straight Alliance meeting in Holyoke High School’s history. He expected “just a handful of kids” to show up. Instead, nearly 30 of his peers crowded the room.
“It was a big success,” Morse tells NewNowNext. “I started the city’s first LGBT nonprofit, and our main event was planning an annual Pride Prom in Western Massachusetts for public school students all across the area. We would get upwards of 500, 600, 700 young people from around the region coming to this alternative prom where they could bring who they wanted to bring and present how they wanted to present. In many ways, my political career and where I am today is rooted in my organizing in high school around the queer community.”
On this #NationalComingOutDay I’m reminded of how lucky I am to be part of a beautiful queer community. I came out at 16 and started my high school’s GSA. Thankful to my family, and the friends and mentors who supported me then through today. Coming out is an act of resistance. pic.twitter.com/k2es7zDwAk
— Alex Morse (@AlexBMorse) October 11, 2019
In the years since high school, Morse’s commitment to bettering his community hasn’t wavered. The 31-year-old Democrat has served as the mayor of Holyoke, Massachusetts—the same city he was born and raised in—since 2012, winning multiple reelection campaigns. Now, Morse is challenging Rep. Richard Neal for a congressional seat. Wins in his primary and general elections would make him one of the youngest openly LGBTQ candidates elected to Congress in U.S. history.
Although Morse left Holyoke for his undergrad studies at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, he never strayed very far. While his peers clamored to spend breaks from school on campus, Morse regularly returned to his hometown. He fondly calls the city of 40,000 “the little engine that could”: “I’ve always been an optimist, and I grew up thinking you see empty buildings, but you [can also] see the beautiful architecture and built environment. Holyoke is the first planned industrial city in the country. It’s a gorgeous city. For me, I saw opportunity and potential.”
During his senior year at Brown, Morse decided to do something bold: run for mayor. He was 21 at the time, something he believes was actually “more of an obstacle than my identity.” Locals advised him to run for a position on the school committee or city council, but the subtext was clear, he remembers: “’You’re young and you’re gay, and you’re not really from a political family. Wait your turn.’” Imagine their surprise when he won the election, assuming office at 22.
It’s easy to say that addiction and loss aren’t political when you haven’t experienced them personally, or when you have the money to afford the best treatment options.
But for families like mine who have lost someone to the opioid epidemic, it is political. pic.twitter.com/wjkbuaQZYr
— Alex Morse (@AlexBMorse) July 23, 2020
Morse’s unlikely victory in 2012 did a lot of work overnight to change the public’s perception of Holyoke, a city with deep industrial roots that had long been associated with “blue-dog Democrat, old Irish politics.” But the work didn’t stop there. Morse and his team have spent years working to make Holyoke a safer, more welcoming city for all. He’s championed progressive causes that weren’t always popular among his constituents, such as affordable housing for low-income residents and harm-reduction measures amid a citywide crisis of opioid addiction.
Morse is proud of the work he’s accomplished as mayor, especially with a federal government that “really doesn’t empower mayors like me nor the people I represent to make lasting, sustainable change.” It’s part of the reason he decided to challenge Neal, who’s represented Massachusetts’s 1st congressional district in the U.S. House of Representatives since 2013.
“We did the best we can with the limited resources we have,” he adds. “I don’t feel like we have a member of Congress—a strong federal partner that understands our challenges or understands the urgency of the moment we’re in.”
I’m so grateful to be endorsed by the LGBTQ @VictoryFund and I look forward to using my voice and my vote to meet the urgency of this moment, and to bring much needed queer intersectional leadership to Washington.
— Alex Morse (@AlexBMorse) July 6, 2020
Opposing Neal is an uphill battle for a progressive candidate like Morse, who has refused to accept funding from corporate PACs as his opponent rakes in donations. But five weeks out from his state’s primary elections, the out congressional hopeful is undeterred. After all, he’s defied the odds time and time again. He’s also received backing from major groups like the LGBTQ Victory Fund, which has endorsed prominent queer candidates like New York’s Ritchie Torres, who recently beat out one of Congress’s most anti-LGBTQ Democrats in his primary race.
“When you go up against folks with such power, they will likely stop at nothing to maintain power,” Morse says. “And so we do expect over the next five weeks to continue seeing an onslaught of distortion in my record as mayor and negative ads from the campaign or supporters of [Neal’s] campaign. But for us, I’ve been through this as mayor over the last four elections, and we have such a breadth of volunteers and passionate supporters. We’re building a movement here in Western Mass.”
LGBTQ advocacy is a fundamental part of that movement, he adds: “Queer liberation is embedded in every single policy issue we talk about, from health-care to climate change, to reproductive justice, to police violence. And we have to stop seeing it as, ’What is your agenda for the queer community?’ but [instead] ’How do we elevate the voices of the queer community in every issue that we talk about?’”
Brooklyn-based writer and editor. Probably drinking iced coffee or getting tattooed.