Family Portraits: Stephen Glassman

Many of you know, or have heard of, Stephen Glassman. As the chair of the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission, he has been a staunch defender of civil rights for our community and all others facing discrimination. He’s also an accomplished architect, previously serving for five years as civic-design commissioner in Baltimore. He’s an Ivy League graduate and the first openly gay individual ever to receive an appointment subject to Senate confirmation to a Pennsylvania board or commission. All common knowledge. But did you know he also played a potential love interest for Dr. Frasier Crane on the TV hit “Frasier”?

PGN: Where are you from? SG: My extended family and parents are originally from Toronto. I was the first born in the United States. I grew up in Baltimore, Md., with two sisters — one two years younger, one 10 years younger.

PGN: What kind of big brother were you? SG: I think I’m a good big brother as an adult. I have no idea how I was as a child. [Laughs.] I am told that I terrorized my sisters, but I have no recollection that that is accurate.

PGN: I have a big brother and he doesn’t remember anything either, but swears I remember every little infraction! What was your favorite game as a kid? SG: I liked Monopoly and Chess.

PGN: And what did your parents do? SG: My father was a physician — an anesthesiologist — and my mother was a variety of things. She did a lot of volunteer board service for various Jewish organizations, she taught English as a Second Language, she was a diplomat to Brazil and ran a foreign-exchange program for sports figures, teachers and students. She also taught financial management at six different colleges and universities.

PGN: Wow, she sounds like a strong role model. SG: Very much so. She was a feminist from very early on.

PGN: Did you travel much as a kid? SG: Yes, and I was a foreign-exchange student with Brazil when I was in high school, as was one of my sisters. As a family, we traveled a lot and did a lot of sports activities together. As Canadians, my parents had us up on skates and skis since I was 3.

PGN: What’s a wonderful memory from your childhood? SG: There’s a wonderful resort in the Laurentian Mountains in Quebec where we spent a number of our Christmas holidays. I have fond memories of skiing and spending time with the family. We were also introduced lots of different types of people — French Canadians, Europeans, etc. — that I wouldn’t have otherwise met living in Baltimore. I’ve always been interested in people.

PGN: What did you get into trouble for the most when you were young? SG: Talking out of turn. Always knowing the answer and not being able to wait until I was called on to give it!

PGN: Ever play any team sports? SG: Sure, I was a junior-varsity and varsity soccer player, wrestler and lacrosse player. I was also a pretty good tennis player.

PGN: I never knew you were such a jock! What did you want to be when you grew up? SG: I was torn between doctor and architect. I loved architecture, but I think I was subtly steered toward medicine because of my father. I did my pre-med requirements but then decided to focus on art history and architecture and became an architect.

PGN: You went to undergrad at Brown: Their Web site says their mission is to prepare students “for discharging the offices of life with usefulness and reputation.” Did they succeed? SG: Yes, I loved school and I was very fortunate in that I was accepted to all five of the Ivy League schools that I applied to. My high-school English teacher was also my advisor, and he was the one who suggested that Brown was the right fit for me rather than one of the larger schools. He was a Brown alum, and knew that it was the best possible connection between my needs and what the school had to offer. It was a perfect choice. And I got to go to Yale and Harvard later on! I am a very fortunate person.

PGN: What was it about architecture that you enjoyed? Were you a big LEGO builder? SG: I started out with wooden building blocks, then LEGOs and, by the time I was 8, I was drawing house plans: It just came to me. I was able to conceptualize 3D design and was captivated by building design from a young age. My mother enrolled me in a museum course that I took every Saturday morning starting when I was 5 and through elementary school, so that really grounded me in art education and appreciation and opened my eyes to lots of possibilities. My parents introduced us to a lot of things that really helped expand our horizons. I have to say that they were also extremely liberal, forward-thinking people, so I knew how privileged and lucky I was. We marched in civil-rights marches when I was 5 or 6 years old. We protested against segregation in restaurants and amusement parks. They made sure we were very involved in the struggle against racism at the time, including going to the March on Washington in 1960. We were taught to be respectful to everyone no matter their color, culture or economic status.

PGN: Tell me about your life as an architect. SG: Well, I moved back to Baltimore after Yale and I became the design coordinator for Baltimore County. After a year, I was hired by the mayor to direct the renovation and preservation of Baltimore City Hall. After that, I opened my practice and did primarily residential and commercial properties.

PGN: What was a favorite project? SG: I was able to purchase and renovate a parish house that had belonged to the Episcopal Diocese in Baltimore. It was an amazing 10,000-foot property that was an 1876 stone gothic-revival parish house that had been designed by renowned designer Henry Hobson Richardson. I had my office on the first floor and lived above it.

PGN: Let’s move to your work at PHRC. I guess your upbringing — being taught to respect people and use your abilities to serve the public — must have helped you on that path. It almost sounds like the Kennedy clan! SG: [Laughs.] The Jewish version of the Kennedys without nearly as much money.

PGN: You have had a lot on your plate lately, with the violence against Asian students [at South Philadelphia High School], the Boy Scouts fiasco, the fire department suing for ageism, the swimming pool incident at the Valley Club … SG: The thing is that there are major issues that have to be dealt with every year and they’re all important; they’re just not all played out in the press like the stories you mentioned. In fact, a lot of what we do gets played out in other parts of the commonwealth or even the country. We’ve done a lot of case investigation and litigation that has established new laws across the country.

PGN: An example? SG: One that everyone is probably familiar with is the movie “Philadelphia.” That was based on a true case that we handled. We were the first ones in the nation that were able to adjudicate favorably in an AIDS case regarding employment. We were the first to make banks change their ATM machines so that they were accessible to people with disabilities. There is a long and illustrious history of advocacy with the commission going back to 1955. And we continue to do groundbreaking work. Right now, we are the leaders responding to the complex issues surrounding predatory lending. We have now written the guidelines being used by HUD and other commissions around the country.

PGN: I Googled your name and was aghast to see that you personally are named and targeted on many antigay and anti-Semitic Web sites. A group called Americans for Truth About Homosexuality attacked you and your position, and a blog I came across kept calling you “Jew” Glassman. Is it scary to be such a lightening rod? SG: [Laughs.] I am a very popular person to hate by the Christian right. It was a bit unnerving at one time, but I’ve gotten used to it and moved beyond it. The governor once said to me, “Stephen, wear it as a badge of honor.” I think it’s extremely important that, when you’re in a position of leadership and visibility, you provide not only stability and steadfastness, but courage in the face of often-outrageous attacks. So I continue to do my work undeterred and ignore the blatant personal attacks by the right-wing ideologues.

PGN: I thought that it was funny that on the AFTAH Web site attacking you, when I moved my curser over the screen about you, it took me to a great Web site called Get Busy Get Equal from the ACLU that shows how to organize for equal rights. I guess they’re not the brightest group. I’ll have to thank them for the link. All right, fun stuff. How did you end up on “Frasier”? SG: When I was appointed, it received a lot of national attention and I received a phone call from a producer of “Frasier” who was openly gay and he invited me to be on the show. They flew me out to California and treated me like gold — put me up at the Bellagio and sent a limo for me. On set, they wanted to know all about the work that we did and what it was like being openly gay at the state level of politics, etc. They were the nicest people ever. The episode was where Frasier gets mistakenly “outed” on the show. He’s not gay, but there are a series of circumstances that he gets involved in, and I got to play a guy who sends him drinks from the bar. It was a lot of fun.

PGN: Did you get bit by the acting bug? SG: No. Though being in the public eye and being on television and talking to the press is very similar to being on stage, but I don’t fool myself into thinking I have any particular acting skills.

PGN: What’s a favorite type of music? SG: I like show tunes and country music. That’s embarrassing: It’s so cliché! I like music from the ’70s and ’80s too.

PGN: People often mistake me for … SG: Michael Feinstein, the cabaret singer.

PGN: Ever been in jail? SG: No, no, I’m squeaky clean. I don’t think I could have been confirmed unanimously if I had any kind of record. Though I did come close once. I was at an event in front of the White House protesting lack of AIDS funding. I was prepared for it to happen. We had made all the arrangements in case we were taken in, and they arrested people on either side of me, but not me.

PGN: What was the best thing about coming out and what was the scariest? SG: The scariest thing was not knowing how people would react. The best thing was that it was so liberating, that I didn’t have to have any secrets any longer. It was freeing and, ever since I was 17, I have lived my life as an open book. I’m very lucky to be in that position.

PGN: If you could name the street you live on, what would you call it? SG: Gay Way!

PGN: What’s the worst hairstyle you’ve ever had? SG: Oh, God! In my graduation picture from Brown University, I had hair that went halfway down my back. Long, kinky hair. My parents were liberal enough to say if that’s how you want your picture, it’s up to you: You’re the one who has to live with it forever. [Laughs.] I’ve regretted it ever since. PGN: That’s too funny. I can’t imagine it. SG: Oh yeah, I was a real hippy — bell-bottom pants, platform shoes and all. Except that I never took any drugs, I never smoked a cigarette in my entire life and I’ve never been drunk. In fact, I’ve never had a drink of hard liquor, only an occasional glass of wine. I have a very clean liver! You know, you asked me about acting before, and I did do a lot of acting in high school and even in college. I’ve never thought of myself as a professional actor, but I loved it. I sang in the choir, I was in all the musicals and regular plays. I was George in “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” and one of my favorite roles was as Jerry in “Zoo Story” by Edward Albee. My best friend was in the play with me and it was so successful that we toured it in 20 other schools in five different states. That was in high school and we’re still close friends.

PGN: What’s something dangerous you’d do if you couldn’t get hurt? SG: Sky dive or bungee jump.

PGN: Favorite celebrity right now? SG: Rachel Maddow. She’s not only brilliant and witty, but she’s so personable, everyone can relate to her. And she’s a Brown graduate.

PGN: A favorite scent? SG: I love lilacs and gardenias, not anything artificial but the smell of the actual plant.

PGN: You have a large collection of art furniture and pottery. I understand some of your things have been used for movie props. SG: Well, I have a vase that was in “Clara’s Heart” with Whoopie Goldberg for about a second and I’ve had other pieces in films, but usually the stuff ends up on the cutting-room floor.

PGN: You’re from Baltimore: No temptation to sport a John Waters-type mustache? SG: No, no. I’ve been to a few parties at his home and he did a number of fundraising functions for nonprofits that I worked with, but no. I did have my own mustache for 18 years. From the day I graduated from college for the next 18 years, I sported a big, thick, bushy mustache.

PGN: Let’s end with three steps someone can take to help curb discrimination. SG: One, never let a joke go by that is at the expense of another minority without calling the person telling it out on its inappropriateness. Two, stand up for other people’s rights and don’t wait for them to have to do it for themselves. And finally, be vigilant about monitoring the constant discrimination that we experience in this society and don’t be afraid to speak up.

To suggest a community member for “Family Portraits,” write to: Family Portraits, 505 S. Fourth St., Philadelphia, PA 19147 or [email protected].