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Meet the gay man who wants to become Guam’s first out political executive

Meet the gay man who wants to become Guam’s first out political executive

Josh Tenorio is running for Lieutenant Governor in Guam

There are many LGBTI candidates standing for election in the US midterms this week. Some, if elected, will make history as out executives and politicians.

One of them, Josh Tenonio, happens to be standing in one of the US’s most distant outposts.

The small island of Guam lies in Micronesia in the Western Pacific. It’s closer to the Philippines and Papua New Guinea than the US mainland.

With a population of 160,000, its relationship to the US remains subject to debate. Some want the small island to become a state, like Hawaii. Others want it to split from the US and become a Commonwealth territory.

Few Guamanians champion the current status quo. Islanders can have a say in who takes part in US Presidential primaries, but they can’t actually vote for who becomes President. Instead, the territory is presided over by its Governor and their Lieutenant Governor.

Republican governors have served Guam for the past 16 years: the last eight years by Eddie Baza Calvo. He’s stepping down and his current Lieutenant, Ray Tenorio, is running to replace him, alongside running mate Tony Ada. Opposing them are Democrats Lou Leon Guerrero (for Governor) and Josh Tenorio (Lieutenant Governor).

Josh Tenorio is running alongside Lou Leon Guerrero
Josh Tenorio is running alongside Lou Leon Guerrero (Photo: Josua Tenorio | Facebook)

Josh Tenorio

‘I would say there are around 2,000 people that may have some Tenorio ancestry,’ Josh, 44, says of the name he shares with his opponent. ‘It’s a small island. He’s a distant cousin.’

Born and raised in Guam, Tenorio has tremendous experience in both the private sector and various branches of government. This includes working as an Administrator for the island’s courts. He’s been Executive Director of the Democratic Party of Guam and was the Guam Campaign Director for Obama for America 2008.

Tenorio says the current political climate led him to stand for a more public role.

‘Like a bunch of other people who have served in the Obama campaign or Obama government, there’s been a call to action for people to run because of the serious issues that are going on in the United States coming from the election of President Trump. A call for people to step out of their comfort levels and seek public office.’

Campaign priorities

If he and Lou Leon Guerrero are successful this week, Tenorio is clear about their priorities: Boosting affordable healthcare on Guam, criminal justice reform and tackling public debt. Tenorio also wants to tackle Guam’s growing drug addiction problem.

‘I’m quite focussed on expanding and building a reliable drug rehabilitation program. We started to see a lot of addiction issues and arrest issues from 1990, so it’s been 28 years and the local prison is inundated and overcrowded with people in there for drug-related crimes: burglary, robbery, assault, violent crime.’

Drugs – primarily methamphetamine – lead to myriad of other problems, including unemployment and child welfare cases. He believes the federal government response has been ‘inadequate.’

‘The rate of re-offence is too high. It requires a better way of doing things.’

Attitudes to LGBTI issues on Guam

Guam only decriminalized homosexual activity in 1978. Attitudes towards LGBTI rights have improved greatly during Tenorio’s lifetime.

Despite this, the influence of the Roman Catholic Church remains strong. When civil unions were first discussed a few years ago, local Archbishop Anthony Sablan Apuron was vocal in his opposition.

Sablan Apuron was placed on leave in 2016 when accusations of sexual abuse against altar boys surfaced. He was removed by the Vatican earlier this year. He denies the charges, yet it was a huge sex scandal on the island. It undoubtedly made some question their previous acceptance of Catholic doctrine and authority.

‘So things have now rebounded back,’ says Tenorio. ‘I am now the nominee for the Democratic party, for Lieutenant Governor of Guam. And I’m openly gay. So I see that as progress. But you can see, even in the United States, there’s a pendulum swinging. There’s still a lot work to be make sure we continue the progress that we made.’

Lou and Josh on the campaign trail in Guam (Photo: jtenogu | Instagram)

Coming out

Tenorio, who is single, says he comes from a small family. He didn’t get a chance to come out to his dad, who died in a car accident when Tenorio was 20. He came out to his mom around 14 years ago.

‘My friends had known, but it was really with my mom, right? We had a long talk about it. She actually … she was scared, at that time. You know how mothers are. They want to be protective of their children and she didn’t want people to discriminate against her son. But I would say I’ve been blessed. My family have been very supportive. Professionally, as I say I was administrator of the courts and it was never an issue professionally.

‘When I ran I knew that I’d be running as an out candidate but I thought it was very important to have role models for the young people, because suicide rates are very high for LGBT youth in Guam.’

Has he experienced any homophobia on the campaign trail?

Tenorio says although other candidates have not highlighted his sexuality in official adverts, he has seen occasional postings on social media from religious conservatives.

‘There is a campaign attacking our team because of our pro-choice stance, and I see some messages going out from religious folks, talking about how there’s a need to ensure we’re not elected because of our pro-choice stance, but also because of our open and protective support for marriage equality. So there is some of that going on, yes.’

On President Trump: ‘It’s a mess’

As for the relationship between Guam and the US, he says its political status needs to be addressed.

‘I don’t think the United States are supposed to have colonies. That was the basis of their independence from England, right? It really is a difficult situation.

‘For me, personally speaking, I would be favouring free association with the United States but maintaining US citizenship. The model I’d be looking at would be the Cook Islands and their relationship with New Zealand.

‘But I would like an improvement of the political status, for sure. There’s a fairness issue. We’re not consistently treated as either foreign or domestic by the US government, and it causes lots of problems.’

We end our call talking about impact he thinks the Trump administration is having on the US.

‘I think what I miss is civility,’ he sighs. ‘I miss respect for the free press. How we treat the truth! For us, if I’m elected, we’d try to make an effort to work with our President, for sure, but we also have a duty and obligation to stand up and articulate and oppose things when they’re not fair and just … It’s a big mess.’

See also

Go Guam! 10 pictures of the Pacific Ocean paradise as gay marriage is legalized

Guam officially approves same-sex marriage