By Josh Inocéncio
As a gay South Texan with “a little secret,” Moe Vela hardly imagined he would leave the Lone Star State for DC to serve not one, but two vice presidents as a senior policy adviser on LGBT and Latino issues. But this spectacularly political (and deeply personal) journey is what Vela shares in his new memoir, Little Secret Big Dreams. From wrangling with his sexuality in college, leaving his Broadway dreams behind, starting law school in San Antonio, to proudly standing with Vice President Al Gore at the edge of the AIDS Memorial Quilt, Vela details his remarkable history that will inspire any American who has faced challenges on their way to success.
Last month, I caught up with Vela in between hotel stops as he toured his book across Texas.
Josh Inocéncio: So tell our readers about your memoir, Little Secret Big Dreams. Why did you decide to write it?
Moe Vela: Well, I call it a “mini-memoir,” because a memoir sounds so final! But I grew up in South Texas, raised as a Latino Catholic son of a pioneer family. I realized at the age of four or five I had a little secret—that I was gay. And the Latino machismo mentality was certainly telling me I couldn’t be that. So the book is a story of growing up where everything was stacked against me, where I had to hide who I was, find the ability to survive, contemplate suicide, and only then go on to make history as the first gay American and the first Hispanic American to serve twice in the White House in a senior role. [My book is for] anyone who’s ever felt disenfranchised—and not just about being gay. I wrote the book because I hope we can save somebody’s life and inspire readers to follow their dreams.
Speaking of your pioneer family, I know you come from a line of civil servants, including other attorneys like yourself. How did their work shape your understanding of politics as you were growing up?
There’s no doubt that the Vela family’s contributions as civil servants had a tremendous impact on shaping me into who I am. My dad never pushed my brother and I to be lawyers, and my mom never pushed my three sisters to be teachers. It just worked out that way, because we saw what was best in those professions. My uncle sat on the United States federal bench. My father became a county judge. You see it manifest to this day in me having served twice in the White House, my cousin serving in the United States Congress, and my brother as CEO of the largest hospital system in South Texas. All of us are continuing this pattern of giving back to our nation.
I’ll give you a little anecdote: I watched my dad, as an attorney, do more pro-bono work than dozens of attorneys combined. He would come home with a bucket with an alligator in it, or a bushel of tomatoes, and he’d say, “This is the only way Mr. García or Mrs. Rodriguez could pay me.” He would take whatever they were willing to give him. That’s what we saw. So how do you not go into public service? How do you not give back to your community?
Since it’s detailed in the book, I don’t want you to give away too much of your journey—from coming out in college to auditioning for Broadway musicals in New York. So let’s jump to your accomplishments in Washington. What was it like working for Al Gore as an LGBT adviser in the mid-’90s, and what was your proudest moment with him?
I love him! America in 2000 never got to see the real Al Gore. He’s funny and charming. The rigidity that America saw shows he’s only human. But behind that protective exterior was one of the most beautiful people I ever got to work with in my professional endeavors. In fact, when we see each other, he calls me compadre. And let me make this very clear: the Gores needed no encouragement, no prodding, and certainly no political motive, because in their hearts they were always allies to our community. Always. But the proudest accomplishment was the Gores being so present in the fight against AIDS. Listen, they were the first to go out to the Mall to see the memorial quilt. It was not political for them. We had several gays on our staff way before it was “politically correct.” They’ve been with us all their lives.
Now during the Bush years, you left DC and worked successfully all over the country in places like Birmingham, San Diego, and Denver. What led you back to Washington to work for Joe Biden as an LGBT adviser at the beginning of Obama’s presidency?
I was having a very good life. I was making more money than I ever dreamed I’d make in my lifetime. Everything was perfect. And then Ron Klain, the chief of staff for Al Gore, called me. I said, “Hey, what’re you doing?!” And he says, “Moe, listen, I’m coming to Denver for a meeting. Do you have time for a drink?” Well, call me naïve—I didn’t put two and two together: Barack Obama and Joe Biden had just won the week before. And I had, as I joked, been “cured of the political disease” for two years. And so I go meet Ron in downtown Denver, we catch up on our personal lives, and out of the clear blue, he says, “I didn’t really have a meeting in Denver. I came here to bring you back. Joe Biden has asked me to be his chief of staff, and I told him that I can do it, but I had to come get you to be director of management and administration.” I said, “No, no, no, I can’t do that.” He said, “At least do me a favor and sleep on it.” I slept on it, and I said no again on Thursday. Then on Friday, he calls one more time and says, “Moe, your country needs you.” I dropped the phone, picked it back up, and asked, “When do I start?” Then the vice president and I met, he thanked me profusely (since I took a 72 percent cut in pay!), he kissed me on the forehead and said, “I cannot wait to work with you.”
Obviously, many LGBT folks admire Joe Biden, so can I be a fanboy for a minute and ask you what’s a favorite personal moment with him?
I was one of the few who had ridden before on Air Force Two with Gore. But on the first international trip I went on with Biden, which was to Costa Rica and Chile, we were landing in Santiago and the vice president comes out of his private cabin and finds me in staff seating and says, “Moe, come here. I think I have something you haven’t done before.” And he takes me into the cabin and lets me sit up with the pilots—on Air Force Two—and it’s something I’ll never forget all my life. There’s nothing like hearing the pilots saying, “Air Force Two coming in for landing.” That was one of the neatest Joe Biden-esque things—always thinking of others and trying to bring joy to the people around him.
Wow! Is there anything else you want our readers to know?
You know, my story isn’t more exciting than yours. Your story is just as powerful and beautiful and inspiring—I know it is. The difference is, I had a unique perch and perspective. And that’s why I wrote the book!
To read Moe Vela’s full story, purchase his biography, Little Secret Big Dreams, now available at amazon.com.