Friday, October 31, 2014

Turning the Tables

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Following a hate-motivated attack, DJ and gay activist Austin Head sets his sights on a political career.

Two hours after midnight on November 9th of last year, Austin Head and a friend were on their way home from a bar near Central and Osborn in Phoenix. Head was riding a bike; his friend was walking. Except for an expensive cab ride, these were the only responsible options – they’d put down a few drinks, and public transport wasn’t available at that hour.


But for Head, well-known around the Valley both as a DJ and nightlife entertainer and as an activist for LGBT and other human rights causes, the responsible route wasn’t the safest.

“These two guys approached us, yelling homophobic slurs,” Head says. The two strangers intercepted them. He and his friend were both beaten; Head was knocked unconscious. Thirteen minutes later, Phoenix PD arrested the attackers nearby. “My friend ID-ed them. I woke up in the emergency room,” says Head, who doesn’t remember the incident.

Head was released from St. Joseph’s Hospital that same day. The attack was deemed a hate crime, and the assailants took pleas. “They thought they’d get early release if they pled guilty,” Head says. “But that didn’t happen.” They both got time – two years in prison for one, and six months in jail for the other.

The incident may have left Head with a blank spot in his memory, but law enforcement’s prompt response left him with a gratified sense of the system working on behalf of a once-disenfranchised population. And it left him with an itch to enter politics. Head is running for City Council in Phoenix’s District 4, the very turf on which he was attacked.

Sitting in Coronado Café on Seventh Street – also in District 4 – Austin Head doesn’t come across like an assault victim, or a nightlife entertainer. Soft-spoken and reserved, with a hint of deadpan wit, he’s impeccably groomed and dressed in a Rat Pack-ish suit, with a pin on the lapel in the shape of a Light Rail train. Head believes that if Light Rail service had been 24-hour last November, his attack would not have happened. It’s one of the major platforms of his campaign, which include, he says, “Light Rail expansion and public transportation, urban gentrification, and support for arts and cultural programs, and the arts district.”

The distinctive jewelry doesn’t stop with the pin. Head’s also wearing cufflinks, in the shape of elephants. “These are my great-grandfather’s,” he says. “I used to collect elephants.” The hobby didn’t have a political significance, however. Though City Council members are elected on a nonpartisan ballot, Head is a Democrat.

Current District 4 councilman Tom Simplot – who, like Head, is openly gay, but has yet to endorse a successor – is stepping down after 10 years. “First, I believe in term limits,” Simplot says of his decision. “And second, I just thought it was time to get some new blood in there.” Head is one of 10 candidates vying to provide that new blood on August 27.

Head’s story begins north of District 4, around 35th Avenue and Thunderbird. He attended Saguaro Elementary as “Austin Ramsey” – his mother’s maiden name; she wanted to prevent the inevitable teasing that “Head” would bring – and then Brophy College Preparatory. Thus begins Head’s dizzying employment history, which includes stints as a server and performer at Ed Debevic’s; as “Benny the Bellhop” at Bobby McGee’s; as a ballroom dancing instructor; and as a “Drag Bingo” caller at The Trunk Space. He took courses at Scottsdale Community College but took a pass on full-time higher education: “Unless I was becoming a doctor or a lawyer, I couldn’t see taking on all that debt.”

At 19, Head struck out for New York City, where he waited tables at the Olive Tree Café above the Comedy Cellar, encountering the likes of Ray Romano and Jerry Seinfeld. “Chris Rock said I was good people,” he recalls. He worked as a DJ and appeared on an episode of Law and Order: Special Victims Unit. He was also homeless during some of this period. “I thought of it as camping out in New York,” he says. “I ended up buying a Lincoln limousine on eBay, from Mount Pleasant, Iowa, and then I drove it back and lived out of it for about eight months.” The experience increased his compassion for the homeless, but it also illustrates a difficulty with political life: “Even then, I never asked for money.”

Head bounced back and forth between New York and Arizona until returning to Phoenix for good in 2009, when he was profiled in the LOGO TV documentary Positive Youth, chronicling upbeat stories of HIV-positive young people. He has also continued to DJ. “I call myself more of a music curator, like an art curator in a gallery. So my job is to create an ambiance by selecting pieces of music, which are pieces of art… I like to create memories for people. Positive memories, that is.”

This tendency to accentuate the positive is what led to his decision, in the wake of his assault, to run for office. He acknowledges the attack also helped raise his profile locally: “If anything, the assault which led to my candidacy has broadened my base of support to a larger demographic, as violence is not a gay or straight issue; it’s a human issue.”

Head’s authenticity drew campaign consultant Mich Lyon to his camp. “I was very excited when the people of Phoenix voted to raise their taxes to build the Light Rail,” says Lyon, a faculty associate of ASU’s School of Politics and Global Studies. “I sold my residence in Scottsdale and moved down here to be part of this massive re-urbanization. But since its construction, the city has decreased service by 15 percent and increased fees by 33 percent. Then I discovered Austin Head was running in District 4, and he doesn’t own a car. He rides a bike or takes public transportation. Forty-four thousand people use the Light Rail every day, and none of them are represented on City Council.”

Should Head be elected, he knows he’ll have to hang up his DJ spurs. “My schedule as an elected official most likely would not permit me late nights as a DJ and performer,” he says. “However, if I was gifted with a day off, I may entertain a one-off performance.”

 

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