Other than a lone political scientist at Saint Louis University, nobody expected the 12th Ward to elect Bill Stephens to the city's Board of Aldermen. "As the campaign drew to a close, I knew we'd done a great job," Stephens says. "I wasn't planning to lose, but I was certainly aware of the possibility."
Instead, by fewer than 100 votes, one of St. Louis' more reliably conservative and Catholic wards elected Stephens, an openly gay atheist whose many passions include studying languages, performing in drag and playing rugby. At 28, he's the youngest elected (though not appointed) official in the city. Stephens describes the ward he now represents as incredibly diverse, home to police officers, firefighters, immigrant families and what he says is an unusually high number of drag queens.
Like most wards in St. Louis, the borders of the 12th appear to be random, although certainly they are anything but. Starting at the intersection of Hampton and Goethe, a jagged line extends in a generally southeasterly direction to Interstate 55, forming a boundary defined at various points by thoroughfares such as Morgan Ford Road, Holly Hills Boulevard, Loughborough Avenue and South Grand Boulevard. Weber Road, beyond which lies St. Louis County, sets the southwest boundary. The ward includes the Carondelet, Boulevard Heights and Princeton Heights neighborhoods. It also includes Willmore Park, one of the city's largest, in which Stephens is working on an environmental project that is in its early stages and that he believes will benefit the entire city.
Stephens kicked off his campaign by introducing himself as gay and atheist. Then he got down to the business of winning the election, a process during which his identity wasn't much of a factor. He believes that an incredibly diverse range of identities accrue to the community when people come out. "That presents the beauty of our diversity, of course," he says, "but it also presents the friction points. We're united by our gay identity, but when so many other parts of our identity come into play, sometimes there's friction." Pride, he says, can be an occasion to set that friction aside and focus instead on the commonalities.
Has the increase in mainstream acceptance lessened the importance of Pride? "From school to working at the library to public office, at every point the LGBTQ community was there for me," he says. "So I think Pride is very important. For me it's a very intentional reaffirmation."
Stephens credits the LGBTQ community with inspiring him to run for office. "That community made me who I am," he says. But he also credits his tenure at the St. Louis Public Library. As Celeste Covington, Stephens did several drag storytelling events, which led, ultimately, to him being encouraged to apply for a youth services provider position at the library. "I wouldn't say I even looked that good in drag, but I sure can read a story," he says.
The public service aspect of working at the library primed him for a run. "Much like the Board of Aldermen, when you're working at the public library, you never know what's going to come your way," he says. "If you're on the floor and someone asks you a question, you help. You're not there for the salary, but because you care about the public. Both the library and the board are such fulfilling jobs for a humanist."
When he's not at City Hall, Stephens is a hardcore student of languages. At Webster University, he studied French. He's currently at Saint Louis University, where he's pursuing a degree in Greek, Latin and French, and he would eventually like to pursue a doctorate in historic linguistics. "I wouldn't be content with an empty plate," he says.
Like all skilled politicians, Stephens skirts the issue of what office he might set his sights on next. But with the prospect of the number of wards in St. Louis being reduced from 28 to 14 in the near future, it would be difficult for Stephens to speculate on his future, even if he were inclined to do so, which he's not. "As an atheist, I believe this is our one shot," he says. "Let's leave the world — and the city — a better place than we found it. I want the work I do in the next two years to benefit generations to come."