“Every day I’m like, ‘What did I do today that’s going to matter tomorrow?” – Nancy VanReece
Nancy VanReece has been serving as a Metro Council Member since 2015, when she was elected as the first openly out lesbian elected to a legislative body in the state of Tennessee. This Pride Month, we sat down with Hon. VanReece to discuss her experience running for office, her leadership roles in the larger Metro-Nashville LGBTQ+ community, and what she does in her free time.
The year was 1968. A four-year-old Nancy heard the distinct sound of a rock crashing through the window of her family home. She remembers the sound of her mother running down the hallway “with a sense of urgency, not of fear.” VanReece recalls she was not frightened but remembers her father having to sit down with her and a sibling the next day to explain what had happened. Her father had lowered the flag in front of their home to half-staff to pay respects to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who had just been assassinated. Someone had thrown the rock because they were not in agreement with his decision to honor the fallen leader.
VanReece garnered from this incident two important lessons: one, a sense of urgency about injustice, and two, the thoughtfulness her father displayed in taking the time to tell the true story to his small children about what had happened instead of ignoring it. She also admired his determination to take action. She says, “I think that when I look back and I see what I learned, who I learned it from, and the way in which I’ve learned … [it] has always been story-based.” She says one of the most important lessons she’s taken to heart is that “people don’t remember what you said, they remember how you made them feel.” With that in mind, she tries to leave conversations motivating others to go forward.
VanReece shared that later in her life, when she decided to run for Metro Council, she used this skill of storytelling and emotional connection with her constituents to win the vote in 2015.
Q: Many people know that you’re a council rep for Metro Nashville, and others may or may not know that you were the first out lesbian in Tennessee elected to serve in a legislative office. Tell us more about that role.
A: In 2015 when we ran, you had the…question, ‘So what does your husband do?’ The answer was, ‘My spouse and I are not able to get married. What does your spouse do?’ To try to not avoid the question but talk about it. If they wanted to talk about it, they could. At some point, people would say, ‘Well, tell me more about your partner.’ And I would say, ‘Well, Joan and I met at a women’s Bible study here in Nashville. We’ve been together for,’ whatever many years it was at that point. We’re 33 years together now … It allowed someone who was not comfortable with the conversation to not answer the conversation, but still get the information, but you had to be very strategic about it. We were able to win that election by nearly 70% of the vote. And then in 2019, when we ran again, got a little over 82%.
VanReece learned over the course of campaigning that “just running is winning because of the visibility and being able to kind of acknowledge the fact that people are watching that you don’t realize are watching, that maybe you can influence to also be their complete and full selves wherever they are.”
As a community leader, VanReece helped found the Nashville LGBT Chamber of Commerce in 1998. She used her skills of connecting with people to make those early days a safe and welcoming space for those who were nervous to join.
Q: I’m just wondering about applying your skills in new ways and why that’s so important as we age and why that’s part of your DNA.
A: When I was a founder of the Nashville LGBT Chamber in 1998, we had to call ourselves The Nashville Association of Professional Persons because you couldn’t put the word gay anywhere in the title or no one would come. We met in a room down a hallway at the Lowes … and you had to close the door whenever the meeting started because you didn’t want people walking by and seeing somebody that wasn’t out … So in Nashville now the Chamber has over 800 members. It’s very prominent in our society. I say that because at that time I was one of the very few female members and I would have to call people to let them know that I would be there just so the other females, they know that it was a safe place, that there’d be somebody to talk to. And so I think that a similar situation will take place at FiftyForward centers where you have somebody who is just comfortable saying, ’Hey, I’m going to be here. Come on, it’s cool. We can hang out.’ And I think that’s going to help people feel safe and comfortable developing a community where all these stories can be shared.
VanReece also has a number of hobbies, including watching sports, playing with her dog, and one she has also turned into a side-career: art.
Q: So curious about what you do in your spare time if you have any.
A: I’m a painter still. I was, before joining Metro Council, a good third of my income was from my artwork. I have three paintings at Vanderbilt. I have two at University of Arizona. I have some in Canada and different places across the United States. And at one time I was selling six to 10 paintings every quarter. And I stopped doing the large format sort of series driven artworks that I used to do whenever I was elected in 2015. And so I now still doodle, I watercolor, I keep an art journal and I think that when I leave office in 2023, I’ll be able to start having a little bit more brain width to actually realize some of those drawings again and start painting again. But that’s what I enjoy quite a bit.
To hear more from VanReece, including important life-lessons from her mother, her work with the All of Us Research Program, PRIDEnet, the new Music City Roots barn, and the touching story of how she and her spouse Joan decided to change their last name before they were legally able to get married, please listen to the full episode, above.