’Ma’am, He’s Dead’: The Gay Mayor of Small Pahokee Talks Life, Love and Death
It’s been a long time since Raymond Hamilton has gone to church.
So when he shows up at the pew last February, friends and neighbors are puzzled. As it were, the mystery doesn’t last for long.
Hamilton dies two days later.
His friends realize he had come to church that day to say goodbye.
Hamilton left behind his partner of 21 years - JP Sasser - the openly gay, fourth-term mayor of a small town called Pahokee.
SFGN sat down with Sasser to find out what’s it like to be out and in politics, what’s it like living in a small, rural town on the western edge of Palm Beach County, and what’s it like to have shared a life with - and have lost - a best friend and partner.
A southern town
JP Sasser was born and raised in Pahokee, the population of which was under just under 6,000 in 2000 and dropped to 5,649 by 2010. The entire city spans a little over five square miles, most of it laid out in open expanses of land. It sits on the southeastern edge of Lake Okeechobee.
Sasser is white. And he’s gay. He’s of medium height and has a strong build, has a pronounced jawline and short white hair. His voice is deep when it needs to be, as he yells across the auto shop he manages. It’s softer when he recounts his youth. He looks and sounds like he could be living in Miami proper.
But JP Sasser thinks that Pahokee is one of the best places on Earth.
As of the 2010 census, over half the city’s population was black, a third was Hispanic and under ten percent was white. More than a quarter of the population is living below the poverty level.
But these numbers may mean something most wouldn’t expect, Sasser noted.
"I had to leave Pahokee to experience anti-Semitism," he said with a slightly southern accent.
When he asked his mother one day what’s the difference between a Christian and a Jew, her response was that Christians go to church on Sunday and Jews go to synagogue on Saturday.
"That did me up until I was 25 or so," Sasser said, laughing.
Growing up, he was surrounded by a lot of lesbians, too.
"I look back at my childhood and growing up and think, ’It doesn’t get much better than this,’" Sasser said. "People think that because you’re in a small town, you’re less intelligent. Wrong. Instead, in a small town, you get to really know people. That changes everything. You actually had the opportunity to get to know your neighbor."
To exemplify the diversity, Sasser reminisced to the interesting dinners he had at his neighbors’ house, the couple being a Turkish-Cuban and a full-blooded Cuban, both of whom were Jewish.
"It’s not ignorance. It’s knowledge. You know your neighbor, which doesn’t happen in big cities," he said. "You learned to like neighbors or dislike them on their character and not about anything else."
Sasser left the city for college, and would later join the Peace Corps.
Two southern boys
He spent almost a decade in Wellington before returning home to take over the family business, which had settled down in Pahokee during the 40s.
After his return home, Sasser met Raymond Hamilton. It was 1991.
They were both "southern boys," Hamilton having grown up in Pascagoula, Miss. This, Sasser said, made the two a natural fit.
"The first few years - it doesn’t get any better than that. The rest of the time, it takes a lot of time and effort, and a real commitment," Sasser said. "When two people are committed, you tough it out."
Both coming from supportive families, they didn’t have too many problems as their relationship progressed. But Sasser takes it further, claiming that homosexuality isn’t that big a deal in a small town - because it’s a small town.
"It’s a community where I was born and raised, where people have known me my entire life," he said. "I also don’t fit the stereotypical view that a lot of people have. By far, 95 percent of the people out here basically look at you as a person, an individual."
Sasser argues that in large cities, blind stereotypes perpetuate themselves since the accusers live in a vacuum where they never know the "offender" they’re condemning. Since it’s impossible to do this in a community as intimate as Pahokee, he thinks tolerance is pervasive across many small towns.
He’s a member of the First United Methodist Church of Pahokee, where he was born and christened.
"I’m very loved at that church," he said and then chuckled. "Even though I don’t go enough."
Methodists tend to be more liberal, Sasser said. The foundation of their worldview is to propel people to be more Christ-like.
"In religion now, everyone’s taking Christ out of Christianity," he said.
As time passed, Sasser and his sisters would slowly sell off different pieces of the business. One sister moved away. Another retired.
But Sasser himself wasn’t prepared to rest for long.
"When you live in a small town, where you grew up, where you’ve seen a lot of things, you feel you can make a change," he said.
So when he and other residents of Pahokee felt that the city’s lake presence was being "squandered," Sasser decided to go into politics.
It took him two years of hard work, but in 2002 he was elected mayor and would continue to serve three consecutive two-year terms.
’Don’t vote for the faggot’
It’s not surprising that the mayor of a city on the coast of Lake Okeechobee is most proud of a marina project he was behind. It was the reason he ran for the position in the first place.
In a mixture of local, state and federal agencies working together, the city was able to put effort into increasing its marina and campground.
Pahokee was also the only city in Palm Beach County that had a combined middle and senior high school when Sasser took over. He changed that, using the same technique of working together he’d used with the marina, Sasser said.
Other notable accomplishments are cleaning up corruption and recovering from 2005’s nasty hurricane, a successful effort he attributes to the strong community in Pahokee - another affirmation to him that small-town living is the only kind of living.
"He’s been sort of the cheerleader, he was at the forefront of the marina project," said Derrek Moore, the city manager in Pahokee, which put in about $11 million into improving the area. "It’s the jewel of the city and will be the key to turning the economy around here in the near future."
When people come visit the city, Sasser’s able to run lectures about the history of the city. Having grown up there, Moore argued, gives the mayor a distinct knowledge of not only the underbelly of the city, but also all of its inhabitants.
"He really has an understanding of the people - all the people. He’s white, but he has a very close relationship to the blacks in the community," Moore said. "He’s very accessible. He knows how to get around and get things done, more so than anyone I’ve seen."
When Sasser found out he was one of the few openly gay mayors in the country, he was proud.
"Life is hard enough as it is. Lies require a lot of energy and fuel to maintain," he said. "That energy needs to be focused on things that are good. The truth is just easier."
Moore, who moved to Pahokee in 2007 to take his post, said that Sasser’s orientation never really mattered during his tenure.
"I’ve enjoyed working with the mayor," he said. "He’s a fine man."
Asked why other mayors may stay in the closet, Sasser said it’s all-political.
"If you’re a politician, on a certain level, you’re a whore. You’re trying to be all things to everybody - which isn’t possible," he said. "People naturally don’t like change. But I am what I am."
Of course, being what he is wasn’t so easy when he was running for mayor during the turn of the century.
In his opinion, most of the people who were opposed to his election were opposed to his platform, which he’s fine with. The fact that he was gay, however, was used as ammunition against him.
"It wasn’t like, ’We don’t want a faggot mayor.’ It was like, ’We don’t want this mayor. Oh, and by the way, if we can tell everyone he’s a faggot to keep him from being elected, that’s what we’re gonna do,’" Sasser reminisced. "And that’s what they did. They literally rode around town with bullhorns and cars saying, ’Don’t vote for the faggot.’"
While Sasser didn’t want to disclose the names of any of the players in what he called dirty politics, he did say that the person mainly on top of it did approach him after the election to apologize.
His platform of revamping the city’s lakefront properties and cleaning house were the main reasons people wanted to keep him out of office. Being gay wasn’t that high on their list.
"More and more people are coming out. Positive role models are helping us. Every time a celebrity or a politician comes out who’s living a normal life, everyone’s going, ’Well, gee, they’re not in their g-string on a float,’" he said. "It makes people realize we’re like everyone else."
And that’s just part of the reason Sasser signed the Mayors for Marriage pledge, a campaign that lets mayors around the country show their public support for same-sex marriage.
"There needs to be marriage between two committed people that grants them equal rights to anyone else who’s married. No one can give a sane argument against it - especially when you look at the state of marriage."
Sasser is currently serving his fourth term as mayor, a term which ends in March 2013.
Dying in Pahokee
As of early 2012, Sasser and his partner Raymond Hamilton had been together for 21 years. They were not married since it’s illegal - and probably wouldn’t be married even if it were legal.
Hamilton was opposed to gay marriage.
"He just thought it wasn’t right for two men to be married - that it’s between a man and a woman," Sasser said. Regardless, they lived together and shared everything, as if they were married.
Hamilton had lost his mother to cancer when she was 42 and he just a teenager. In 2011, a cancer he’d already beat in his younger years came back, which the couple actually anticipated.
"Since his first time with cancer was very textbook and everything worked out beautifully, we were just assuming that we’ll do that all again," Sasser said.
But the chemotherapy had absolutely no effect.
"When the doctor told me [Hamilton] had less than six months to live, it was real rough," Sasser said, lowering his voice. "Every single member of my church and friends always offered help."
As the end peaked its head around the corner, Hamilton stopped eating suddenly - a far cry from his usual appetite. He stopped moving and he stopped caring - a far cry from his routine.
"He was an extremely strong man," Sasser said. "He was never bed-ridden."
On a normal Tuesday in February, Hamilton was calling Sasser all day long, reminding him of groceries to pick up and errands to run. Sasser’s sister was at the house, watching over Hamilton.
She called Sasser to tell him she had an appointment that afternoon, and asked to coordinate so Sasser could be home in time for her departure.
She lives behind Sasser.
"The minute I opened the gate, I saw [Hamilton] was in distress. I immediately called 911," Sasser said. "I was, of course, hysterical. They were trying to calm me down."
The paramedics came in and asked Sasser for Hamilton’s DNR papers. Sasser also had a packet prepared by the hospice workers, one designated to give to paramedics in case of an emergency.
But it’s a small town. These papers weren’t just papers. The paramedics knew Sasser. They knew Hamilton.
"Needless to say, you had a bunch of grown men in not-good shape."
They took Hamilton to the hospital. Sasser got dropped off at the entrance and headed in through the front door. The receptionist told him they wouldn’t let him in until they got everything situated. He wasn’t, after all, family.
He didn’t take that sentiment well, but calmed himself down and said to the nurse, "Ma’am, he’s dead."
Then Sasser walked into the ER, ignoring the nurse calling after him.
When a sheriff showed up, Sasser thought the receptionist called the police on him. He got riled up again, thinking of the things he’d say to the nurse. Instead, it was a cop who knew Sasser, who came to express condolences. Then more officers showed up. Then other people showed up. And then more.
Sasser teared up while reminiscing and looked away for a moment, then whispered, "It was nice."
Raymond Hamilton died on Feb. 21, 2012 from colon cancer.
"If a couple is in any type of a committed relationship," Sasser said, choking up, "they deserve rights."