Welcome to the first in our LGBTQ+ Changemakers series. There are LGBTQ+ people all over the country who are making a difference through visibility and ingenuity.
In April, Drabkin was named interim mayor of her hometown McMinnville, a small city in the heart of Oregon wine country. In addition to being a trailblazer in the wine scene, Drabkin has dedicated much of the past 16 years to public service. Learn more about Drabkin and how she’s making the Willamette Valley a more inclusive place for the LGBTQ+ community.
News is Out: Have you always been interested in politics?
Mayor Remy Drabkin: I was raised volunteering in my community and from a young age the importance of participation was instilled in me. Specific to politics, my mom used to take me phone banking when the Oregon Citizen’s Alliance was trying to push through anti-gay legislation in the ‘90s. My queer brother took me out distributing lawn signs and supporting his political activism when he was in college and by the time I was ready to formalize my college studies, I wrote my thesis on why “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” was unconstitutional (before it was struck down on similar basis). I leaned in hard after attending a planning commission meeting over 12 years ago that was fraught with NIMBYism. So — yes!
NIO: What’s it like not only being a mayor but an openly LGBTQ+ one?
Drabkin: What’s it like to be the first female/queer mayor in a very rural Oregon town and an out, loud and proud person on top of that — it’s a lot! As mayor, it’s my job to represent our community as a whole and to facilitate good governance related to our streets, public parks, police, and fire — McMinnville is a full-service city with over 200 employees and 1,000 volunteers that make the city run. As mayor, I also run our combined public utility of water and electric. It’s a lot of work and a lot of responsibility; I love the work and I’m really good at it. As mayor, I have to represent all sides. For example, the first public comment I took as mayor was a homophobic rant. Also, I grew up here. I’m embedded in the community and there is strong allyship — and it’s not in word only. This election cycle will really be informative. I was appointed mayor following my tenure as council president, when the former mayor resigned. How much of an issue will it be that I’m queer? I don’t know yet. I can tell you one thing for sure: The rural queer community is completely beside themselves. Other longtime queer residents are astonished that a queer person is in this role — but no one that knows me or my work is surprised as I’m highly qualified and experienced.
NIO: Tell us a little about McMinnville.
Drabkin: We are situated in an absolutely bucolic setting, a growing city of 35,000 people, 35 miles southwest of Portland. We are the center of the Oregon wine industry. We have a solid manufacturing base. Linfield University drives talent and diversity to McMinnville, where over 50% of the student population are first-generation college students. We are the county seat and challenged with all that implies. We are in Oregon, so it’s very white — in McMinnville approximately 82% of the population is white, 1% of the population is Black and 22% Latinx/Hispanic. Last year, we launched our Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Advisory Committee for the City Council. In a short time, we’ve improved equity in our recruitment processes and will continue to improve our systems. We have a vibrant downtown which is the living room of the community, with restaurants featuring the bounty of our local farms and winemakers and shops highlighting locally made products. Tourists love us, [and] queer tourists love us (especially in June when downtown is covered in Pride flags!)! We are a city of readers with a locally owned bookstore, a Carnegie library, a bookmobile, many little free libraries and robust participation in Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library. We have been a Tree City USA for 22 years running, an hour from the coast and two hours from the mountains. It’s great.
NIO: Why do you think it’s important for LGBTQ+ people to get involved in politics at all levels?
Drabkin: Representation matters, representation matters, representation matters.
I think it is essential for everyone to be involved locally, particularly those of us in marginalized and underrepresented communities. When a person commits themselves to community involvement — to coach softball (lol) or run for City Council — you are not only bringing yourself, you are bringing your community along with you. I always like to point out that the queer community is all people — every race, gender, religion, ability, and socioeconomic position.
What I am getting at is there are two sides to this coin — bring your lens and be seen. If we want to change systems of oppression, we have to both inform those systems and participate in them. I’m aware of the privileges in my life that have opened the doors for participation and get involved wherever you can — you don’t have to be mayor — you just can’t expect change if your contribution ends with a rant on social media. And if social media is your platform for messaging or influencing change, then please use it responsibly. Also, we have seen queer people make great strides in the last few years. We make a difference in people’s lives simply by being out — especially in rural communities.
NIO: You are also a master winemaker and you’ve been interested in the art since you were young. What inspired you to fall in love with winemaking?
Drabkin: The people around me inspired me in the wine community – it was small (maybe 10 families making wine in the Willamette Valley) when I was growing up, and my Mom was the culinary director of the International Pinot Noir Celebration, so I knew and got to work with (read: “volunteer”/be raised by) the wine community. I’m community driven. What can I say? Maybe I just like cleaning up messes, lol!
NIO: You are one of the founders of Wine Country Pride. Why did you and your team decide to create this event?
Drabkin: We built a team out of Wine Country Pride – not the other way around. In 2020, a few rural queers and allies put together the first Pride celebration in our area — and we made it Covid safe. It has grown exponentially to having Pride throughout our “Wine Country” region (which isn’t defined by any specific man-made border — I used that language intentionally) with events all month, including Rainbow Quest, where businesses offered up food and retail items to support Wine Country Pride, giving away hundreds of Pride and Black Lives Matter flags. On June 25, we had an all day long street fair with programming in Spanish, English and ASL. It included a community talent show, a pet parade, a dance party, and so much more. Remy Wines also hosted the world’s first Queer Wine Festival featuring 16 LGBTQ+-owned wineries and winemakers. That project is just taking flight.
NIO: What was the experience of Wine Country Pride like this year?
Drabkin: Growing up and as an adult here, there was no queer representation in this town. Like so many young rural queers, we/I often felt alone — still do. We had a lot of great vendors but the GSA booth was inspirational — you could see that kids across the valley found out that their communities love and support them.
NIO: Any big future plans both as mayor and the owner of Remy Wines?
Drabkin: I am so proud of my new winery build project. We’ve developed a carbon-neutral concrete (the Drabkin-Mead Formulation) that could literally move the needle on climate change. That’s big. I have big goals as mayor but they are localized and very focused on big picture sustainability for our community, which includes housing, communication, economic development, environmental stewardship and improved communication. Balancing the needs of the new robust tourist economy with the needs of our long-term and permanent residents is one of the things we must do if we want to maintain the character of our town. The thing that makes it such an idyllic place to live and allows us to grow and change with the world.
This interview was conducted via email and edited for clarity and style.
Do you know or want to nominate an LGBTQ+ changemaker? Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.