Mayor Dean Dafis is the first openly gay mayor elected in the town of Maplewood. Having previously been elected to the town committee, Mayor Dafis is no stranger to breaking barriers and serving as a leader for the communities he represents.
As we sit in his office, which is decorated with LGBTQ signage, he emphasizes what it means to be an elected official, that it requires trust and open engagement with all community members. At the same time, he also stresses the importance of being a strong advocate and the value of representation and intersectionality in government. He is open and honest with his background and very cordial too, offering me a tour of the Maplewood Town Hall before we even began our conversation.
For Mayor Dafis, his position is one of great responsibility that is built upon trust with the community.
“When someone gives you their vote to represent them, I don’t know what else is the greatest honor. I mean that comes with heavy responsibility.” He stresses that this trust comes from honesty and credibility and that the biggest lesson he learned upon entering local politics is to be always honest, both with his constituents and himself. He also highlights how local politics is sometimes discounted by others but to him, “The local is really where it’s most impactful, right? Because you really are impacting people’s lives daily here.”
Mayor Dafis brought up how many queer people aren’t alive today to tell their stories, which imparts upon him a duty to his community. “I am very keenly aware of my duty and my duty is to give as much as I can and be the best representative that I can be with the tools that I have here,” he says.
Before becoming an elected official, Mayor Dafis grew up as a first-generation child of Greek immigrants. “I grew up during a time in the 70s when being out was still dangerous; at work, at home, and certainly in my community.” He noted a “machismo” within the culture and how he is a gay conversion therapy survivor. He said how, “It’s a miracle in some ways that I’m here, able to speak to you like this, that I’m alive.”
“When you’re undergoing conversion therapy, you are constantly being told that what you are, naturally, is wrong, it’s immoral, it’s criminal.” He describes the psychological impact from that — that it can affect a person’s self-confidence, motivation, and even their ability to dream.
Through that unfortunate, painful experience, what was helpful for him was being around those who supported and accepted him for who he was. “Fortunately, I was surrounded by people who did care, and found other LGBTQ persons when I was able to leave home and live on my own.”
He described how even though it was a very dark period for him, it helped make him who he is today. “I don’t think I would be as strong-minded. I wouldn’t have the conviction that I have, and I certainly would not have the resiliency if I gave into it, or if it turned me into a bitter, negative person.” His outlook is reflected in both his governing philosophy and his interaction with me, being both compassionate and interpersonal.
Acknowledging how society has become more accepting of the LGBTQ community, he also points out how there is still that backlash, one which he experiences.
“I experience it every day, even as mayor. Even in the spaces where I’ve earned my place to be, I am still discounted when I offer my opinion. I still don’t receive the same respect that I believe I have earned through my hard work.”
Despite this, though, he believes that as a community we must continue in building acceptance. “Not fighting hate with hate, but rather bringing people together and showing them that the issues that matter to you and to me are often times intersectional.”
He emphasizes that people want the same things, equal treatment under the law and human rights.
When I ask him what advice would he give to LGBTQ youth who are being especially targeted across the country, he says, “Don’t retreat, be as queer as you can be” and that youth voices matter. To that end, he started a youth advisory committee when he began his time in office which serves as an actual arm of the governing body of Maplewood. “So, we’re bringing in our youth to help us and to check us in our policy making.” Mayor Dafis describes how important it is that youth have mentorship, support, and development and that they are included in policy decisions. As he acknowledged before that he has a duty to his community, he says that queer youth also have a responsibility.
“You have a duty to be who you are, and to be as open as you can be and transparent, that is how we eliminate hate, forever.”