Tom Green is a wise man.
He is tall and thin and rolls up the sleeves of his dress shirts. Green strikes the pose of a grandfatherly figure with neatly trimmed silver hair. On a cool winter morning, Green is waiting in the conference room of the Wilton Manors Library for an interview with the Mirror Magazine. Over the course of an hour, Green looked back on the early days of what he described as soft activism to his present situation of visible power and influence.
This November, in Los Angeles, Green will assume the presidency of the LGBT local officials' constituency group for the National League of Cities. It’s been a steady rise for this commissioner of the tiny island city of Wilton Manors. The former high school geography teacher would later turn into a political player in South Florida.
He is often confused for a straight man, which makes him chuckle. Green and his partner Kurt, an architect, have been together for 40 years this October.
“I’ve always been a behind the scenes person,” he said. “I’m not going to win any best of awards in gay magazines.”
Green has been in Florida a long time. He’s 75 now. He remembers attending “underground” gay meetings of local teachers during a time when being out in the classroom was not possible.
“I don’t think I was ever vocal enough,” Green said of his early activism. “I kept telling people we don’t all have to be in the streets. I was a teacher at Broward College at the time and I couldn’t go out and yell a lot.”
Working behind the scenes, Green helped the Dolphin Democrats gain charter status in Broward County in 1983. He even paid for the first 25 memberships out of his own pocket.
Green was born in Gainesville, moved to South Florida after graduation to attend the University of Miami and was hired by Broward College shortly after.
“That was the only job I’ve ever had in my life,” Green said.
He worked for Broward College for 37 years and was certified to teach natural resource conservation. In addition to teaching geography, Green taught courses in state and local government.
“I’ve always joked around in the classroom,” Green said. “I don’t think you need to be too serious about everything.”
Green served as president of the faculty union at Broward College and would travel to Washington, D.C. once a month for meetings. He has also taught overseas in Malaysia and Ecuador.
When asked about the recent Parkland shooting, Green said he “can’t even comprehend” the attack. He recalled telling police academy cadets to not openly carry guns into his Broward College classes.
“I told two of them, ‘You need to have your guns here perhaps, but you don’t need to show it,’" Green told the uniformed cadets. “So, I made them wear their jackets to class. If anyone did that today there would be screaming that you’re violating the Second Amendment.”
Green admits living in Wilton Manors is “insulating” to the right-wing politics that dominate the rest of the state. He is undeniably a Democrat. It was at a Democratic Party meeting that Lori Parrish first met Green and the two would grow to become dear friends.
“Tom opened my mind to issues I hadn’t thought about and nobody took time to explain,” said Parrish, a straight woman.
Serving on the Broward School Board in the mid-1980s, Parrish worked with Green to craft policy concerning HIV/AIDS.
“AIDS had become an issue with the Ryan White story in Indiana,” Parrish recalled. “A lot of people had extremely prejudiced opinions then. So I got together with Tom, Karl Clark and Lori Mattingly to write the formula for Broward’s first AIDS policy in the school district.”
Parrish would go on to be elected to the county commission where she again called on Green to help with Broward’s human rights ordinance.
“Tom was one of the first people to teach me the intricacies of issues I would naturally support,” Parrish said.
Broward’s domestic partner ordinance allowed survivors to inherit the pensions and social security of their departed spouses, Parrish said. She ended her public service career as the county’s property appraiser where she had brochures printed depicting gay and lesbian couples.
“We have become a very welcoming community for gays and lesbians,” said Parrish, who retired from the property appraiser’s office in 2016. “And it’s because of pioneers like Tom Green.”
Green’s political career started with an election for Broward’s central water control district, a position he held for 12 years.
“I knocked on doors and people would say, ‘You are running for what?'" he recalled. “They said, ‘I never heard of it and I’ve never heard of you, but since you knocked on my door, I’ll vote for you.’ So that’s when I realized with small areas that’s how you get elected, by knocking on doors.”
Green would return to his door knocking in Wilton Manors, often following in the footsteps of fellow commissioners.
“He’s definitely a diligent person,” said Wilton Manors Commissioner Justin Flippen. “Tom’s got his hands in a lot of pots.”
Flippen called Green an “unsung hero” and said his service has helped turn the small island city into a beacon of progress. From casting the third and deciding vote on Wilton Manors’ transgender inclusive policy to being the driving force behind green building codes and an electric car charging station at city hall, Green’s impact is evident, Flippen said.
“He’s not the loudest voice out there but his presence is certainly appreciated,” Flippen said.
Commissioner Julie Carson said Green provides invaluable insight into municipal sustainability.
“Tom’s commitment to ‘greening’ the environment, innovative transportation, and community connectivity are hallmarks of his positive impact on the future of Wilton Manors,” Carson said.
Like in the classroom, Green tries to make meetings fun. On the dais, he often scores points with style.
“He delivers it in a way that is sarcastic and witty yet intelligent and entertaining,” Flippen said.
At the urging of his union brothers, Green ran for the Wilton Manors commission in 2008. The commission, at that time, had a more Republican bent and the union felt Green would be the perfect person to reverse that trend.
“My two main focus points in Wilton Manors have always been the environment and transportation,” Green said.
In addition to his duties on the Wilton Manors Commission, Green has a seat on the Broward Metropolitan Planning Organization. As a member of the MPO, Green has been instrumental in the city receiving more than $3 million for construction projects on Dixie Highway and Wilton Drive.
The narrowing of Wilton Drive – a major corridor where most of South Florida’s gay bars, shops and restaurants are located – will begin in August. Green admits it is a controversial project.
“If things go wrong, I’ll get blamed for it and if things go right, people will forget I was involved,” he quips.
This fall, at the National League of Cities Convention in Los Angeles, is where the man often mistaken for being straight will be tapped to lead the organization’s LGBT group. As he exits the library, Green assures the Mirror Magazine his time of speaking up has come.
“I’m going to be the president of the group, so I’ve got to be vocal,” Green said.