VIDEO: California Legislative Caucus Honors LGBT Pioneers

ABOVE: Veteran LGBT Journalist Karen Ocamb honored by LGBT Legislative caucus during Pride celebrations in Sacramento.
ABOVE: Veteran LGBT Journalist Karen Ocamb honored by LGBT Legislative caucus during Pride celebrations in Sacramento.
Veteran LGBT Journalist Karen Ocamb honored by LGBT Legislative caucus during Pride celebrations in Sacramento.

BY KAREN OCAMB  |  A gust of memories swept over me as I exited the taxicab in front of the State Capitol in Sacramento Monday morning to participate in the 2016 LGBT Legislative Caucus Pride ceremony. Suddenly it was the fall of 1991 again, and everywhere I saw activists with ACT UP tee shirts and signs excoriating Gov. Pete Wilson for vetoing AB 101, the gay civil rights bill.  Face after face of sources who became friends over the short, intense time before they died. How many people in that august building today remember the anguish and the excitement of LGBT people struggling for recognition and rights as first-class citizens—indeed, struggling for their very right to exist?

Connie Saco
Connie Saco
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Then, as I turned my gaze to the right, I see lanky Stan Hadden leaning against a tall tree, waiting for me to take his picture. Stan had been instrumental in getting HIV/AIDS policies passed in the city and the state in the early 1980s as the senior aide to powerful State Senate President Pro Tem David Roberti. He died in Dec. 1991 at age 35. People flew in from around the state for his funeral, including me and young attorney John Duran, President of the Board of LIFE AIDS Lobby. In a gesture unheard of for the suits of Sacramento, a huge rainbow flag was unfurled and solemnly marched down the street to the Capitol.

Stan Hadden helps carry the Rainbow flag
Stan Hadden helps carry the Rainbow flag

Stan Hadden and Republican Marty Keller were out in Sacramento but there were scores and scores of administrative and political aides to California legislators who were deeply in the closet, fearing exposure might end their professional careers. And there were closeted elected officials and potential candidates silenced by the very real fear of ruination from society and religious hatred for homosexuals, pockmarked with the terror of AIDS.

 It wasn’t until 1994 with the election of out former actress Sheila James Kuehl to the California Assembly that the rainbow roof to statewide political ambition was shattered.  Her election seemed a miracle, given the ugly conservative climate of the times—including the backlash to President Bill Clinton that generated the Newt Gingrich Republican revolution and the GOP takeover in the House of Representatives for the first time in 40 years. If 1992 had been the “Year of the Woman,” where more than 60 million women voted and 24 women were elected to the House and five to the Senate, 1994 was the “Year of the Angry White Man.”

But underneath the dark pall of anti-gay GOP politics were flashes of light suggesting that all was not lost. Sheila tells a story about how, during her campaign, an older white man approached her in a Los Angeles restaurant  and asked if she was the Sheila Kuehl running for office. Sheila prepared herself for a blast of heated conservative rhetoric but instead the man coolly said he was voting for her. Thanking him, she asked why. The man said that he thought most politicians were liars but “you’ve already told us the worst thing about yourself. So why would you lie about anything else?”

He considered coming out as a courageous act of appreciated authenticity.

But the knuckle-dragging conservative troglodytes didn’t care about anything so highfalutin as “authenticity.” The Bible said homosexuality was an evil perversion so Sheila Kuehl was possessed by Satan—and they let her know it.  The vile vitriol spat from the mouths of these proudly ignorant legislators on the floor of the Assembly—in the name of Christianity—was enough to foul any proceeding.

But there Sheila stood, a lesbian alone in the chamber, small of stature but towering in moral fortitude, her brilliance and sense of humor a velvet glove winning converts to her side.  Some—like L.A. Assemblymember Antonio Villaraigosa—didn’t need persuasion. He rushed to her side the minute she arrived, suggesting the two start the first LGBT Caucus. And under Cruz Bustamante’s Speakership during the 1997-1998 session, Sheila made history as the first woman and first LGBT person to serve as Speaker Prop Tem. When Villaraigosa became Speaker, he put his power and prestige on the line to help pass Sheila’s significant Dignity for All Students bill. It failed by one vote but was later passed as AB 537, the California Student Safety & Violence Prevention Act of 2000 with the help of Villaraigosa’s successor, Speaker Bob Hertzberg, and signed into law by Gov. Gray Davis. 

lgbt caucus founders

In 2000, Jackie Goldberg from L.A. and Chris Kehoe from San Diego were elected, joining Sheila and feisty San Franciscan Carole Migden, who was elected in 1996. The four lesbians were doing just fine (see the new documentary Political Animals) but when John Laird from Santa Cruz and Mark Leno from San Francisco became the first openly gay men elected to the California Legislature in 2002, the politicos realized they should organize and petition for caucus status, which brought with it a stipend for staff.

The founding members of the new LGBT Legislative Caucus subsequently hired Eric Astacaan as their first consultant. Eric had been the Legislative Director for CAPE (the California Alliance for Pride and Equality), the successor to LIFE Lobby and predecessor of the current statewide LGBT lobbying organization, Equality California.

Eric Astacaan and Toni Atkins
Eric Astacaan and Toni Atkins

Over the years, the LGBT Caucus has expanded and contracted as out politicians move from the Assembly to the State Senate or retire or lose their elections. Caucus members have also included San Francisco’s popular former teacher, comedian and friend of Harvey Milk, Tom Ammiano, whose student access bill advanced transgender rights,  and John Perez, Stonewall Democratic Club mainstay, labor expert and the first openly gay man of color elected to the Legislature and the first gay man elected by his peers to be Speaker of the Assembly on March 1, 2010. 

John A Perez
John A Perez

When he left office in 2014, L.A. Times columnist Jim Newton said Perez “deserves a large dollop of the credit” for taming the massiveCalifornia budget under Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and Democrat Jerry Brown.

Then, in a jaw-dropping juxtaposition to the agony endured by Sheila Kuehl, in May 2014, Perez was succeeded by San Diegan Toni AtkinsCalifornia’s first lesbian Speaker, who walked down the Assembly aisle holding the hand of her spouse, Jennifer LeSar.

Chris Kehoe and Toni Atkins
Chris Kehoe and Toni Atkins

On Monday, Atkins escorted her former boss, mentor and friend Chris Kehoe down the Assembly aisle as the LGBTCaucus honored its founding pioneers. The Caucus also honored Asatcaan, Ken McNeely, President of AT&TCalifornia, which has one of the oldest LGBT employee resources groups in the nation, and me, as a veteran LGBT journalist.

Ken McNeely
Ken McNeely

It was inexplicably moving sitting next to Mark Leno during the Caucus’ Pride ceremony, waiting too be called up. How many times had I watched Mark on the Assembly Floor arguing for marriage rights for same sex couples, even as some in the LGBT community thought he was crazy.  After all, it seemed like only two blinks ago that Gov. Davis had signed Jackie Goldberg’s hard-won domestic partner’s bill, AB 205 in Sept. 2003. 

Gov. Gray Davis signs Carole Migden’s domestic partnership registry bill
Gov. Gray Davis signs Carole Migden’s domestic partnership registry bill

But it was all about strategy. Davis had signed Carole Migden’s domestic partnership registry bill in 1999, but after Vermont enacted its civil unions bill in 2000, the LGBT community expected the same in California.  Major LGBT ally Paul Koretz of West Hollywood and Los Angeles introduced a civil unions bill, but was pressured to turn the effort over to Jackie so an openly LGBT person could take the lead. In a surprise to some, the bill she introduced was an expansion on domestic partnership, not expressly a civil unions bill. I asked her why and she said that there were a number of Assemblymembers who wanted to vote yes, but would get hammered back home. However, since they had already voted on a domestic partners bill—which most Californians supported—they could get away with a “yes” vote by simply explaining that it was an expansion of the existing law. They didn’t have to say how much of an expansion, which made the bill more like Vermont’s civil union law, though it stopped short of marriage.   

Still, the troglodytes came after her. And though she had stood up to police and political pressure as a leader of the Berkley Free Speech Movement in the 1960s and she defeated Religious Right nutcase Lou Sheldon and his Traditional Values Coalition as President of the L. A. Unified School District, defending science teacher Dr. Virginia Uribe’s dropout prevention program Project 10—Jackie cried as anti-gay legislators hurled slurs at her and her beloved partner, poet Sharon Stricker. Their capacity for snickering cruelty was beyond understanding.  

Davis signed AB205 a ceremony at the San Francisco LGBT Community Center before the LGBT Caucus, an audience of about 600 advocates and press, including me. “I believe a family is a family because of values like commitment, trust and love,” Davis said during the ceremony. But Davis was also a “practicing” Catholic and while he opposed the anti-gay marriage initiative Prop 22 as discriminatory, he also opposed same sex marriage. I asked him about that during a phone interview once—what made his marriage to his beloved wife Sharon better than the decades relationship between senior advisor Eric Bauman and his beloved partner, Michael Andraychak. Bauman, after all, was the gay man who helped get Davis elected over millionaires Jane Harman and Al Checchi in 1998. Davis could only give the “Catholic” answer, as if that made it OK to render Bauman and Davis’ chief of staff, lesbian Susan Kennedy, official second-class citizens.

Equality California Executive Director Geoff Kors thanks Gov. Davis
Equality California Executive Director Geoff Kors thanks Gov. Davis

But it was still all about strategy. Bauman organized the San Francisco signing event, a risk since it was during the eventually successful movement to recall Davis.  Also attending the ceremony was Equality California Executive Director Geoff Kors, an attorney who rescued the failing CAPE and turned it into one of the most admired and copied statewide civil rights organizations in the country. After Kors left EQCA, he successfully ran for the Palm Springs City Council. Bauman (pictured on the right) was just named #11 on Capitol Weekly’s important Top 100 list of most powerful players in California state politics.  He wields a lot of power as the respected head of the L.A. Democratic Party and is widely expected to be elected to replace John Burton next year as the chair of the California Democratic Party, where he is currently VP.  

Neither Sheila nor Jackie could make the LGBT Caucus ceremony. Sheila was busy working her new job as LA County Supervisor, passing with the help of colleague Supervisor Hidla Solis a new program expanding access to treatment for people with HIV. 

“When people living with HIV get regular medical treatment, they live longer, healthier lives and are less likely to transmit the virus,” Kuehl said in a press statement on Tuesday, Aug. 9. “The motion adopted today expands the program to people who have not had access to it before, benefiting not only those patients but the entire community by reducing transmission rates. The total number of patients directly affected by these services is relatively small, but the ripple effect is likely to be much more far-reaching.”

John Chris Mark

Chris, Mark and John Laird shared fond memories during the ceremony and when I gestured to him when the battle over his same sex marriage bills were brought up in the Caucus video. Like so many others, I watched the live streaming of the Assembly proceeding on the California Channel. Even through the TV screen, the atmosphere was harrowing, nail-biting, frustrating and finally historic as the state Assembly became the first American legislative body to pass a bill legalizing marriage rights for same sex couples on Sept. 7, 2005. As the final vote on AB 849 was tallied—41-35, with a handful of Democrats joining all Republicans in opposition—there was a moment of silence and then an eruption of jubilation in the chamberin my studio apartment in West Hollywood and in the hearts of thousands of LGBT people around the country. In short order, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger vetoed the bill—and another Leno-marriage bill after that—saying the issue should be decided by the will of the people, if they wanted to overturn Prop 22.

“We’re going to miss you,” LGBT Caucus member Sen. Ricardo Lara told Mark, clasping his hand and leaning down for a quick hug at the back of the chamber. Mark is termed out; he leaves at the end of August.  He doesn’t know what he’s going to do next. I told him he should write a book—his adventures in San Francisco politics and especially his work with Geoff Kors, San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom, National Center for Lesbian Rights Executive Director Kate Kendell and icons Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon to bring marriage rights to California. Mark said there are too many books already. I disagree. History from the perspective of those directly involved is invaluable.

As Toni Atkins and LGBT Caucus Chair Susan Talamantes Eggman noted throughout the ceremony, with Mark andCaucus member Richard Gordon being termed out, leaving the LGBT Caucus is now in the hands of the next generation: Atkins, Lara, Eggman, energetic Evan Low of Campbell and moderate Cathleen Galgiani of Livingston.  

All but Galgiani are expected to easily win re-election this November where all 80 Assembly seats are at stake, as are 20 of the Senate’s 40 seats. Democrats are hoping to maintain their current seats and pick up at least three new seats to reach a supermajority in the Assembly. Senate Democrats are hoping to flip one seat for their desired two-thirds majority – and in her conservative Central Valley District 5, Galgiani is considered the most vulnerable Senate Democrat this cycle. And she told me she feels vulnerable, given the whims of Trump Republicans who want to shake up the GOP. However Galgiani has an edge in fundraising and voter registration against her Republican opponent, businessman Alan Nakanishi, who won 28 percent in the primary, to Galgiani’s 57% against him and another Republican candidate.

Another race that politicos are watching is the race for Senate District 11. This is already a doozy, with gay San Francisco Supervisor Scott Wiener running for the historically “gay seat” being vacated by Mark Leno—but with gay progressives like Tom Ammiano supporting straight former Green Party San Francisco Supervisor Jane Kim in a kind of “post-gay” world.  Kim has the Bernie Sanders wing of the party while Leno, Equality California, Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, and theCalifornia Democratic Party back Wiener. Liberal LGBT politicos worry that Kim might not have the same sensitivity to issues such as HIV decriminalization as Wiener would. It’s cliché to say—but this will all depend upon turnout.   

The EQCA PAC has endorsed three other LGBT candidates:   Greg Rodriguez for the 42nd Assembly District in Palm Springs. It looks like his race is an uphill climb for what has been a GOP seat, but nonetheless the race helps develop a political bench. Lesbian Sabrina Cervantes is running for the 60 Assembly District in western Riverside County, with one of the highest voter registrations in California. She has a good shot at winning, if she can hold her own and possibly ride what is expected to be a Hillary Clinton wave election in California. The third gay candidate is Todd Gloria in the 78th Assembly District, which is as close to a “slam dunk” as politicos are comfortable predicting.

If these races go as hoped, this could be the next generation increasing the LGBT Caucus.  And, as Tony Hoang, Deputy Director of Equality California points out, there is still a need for an LGBT Caucus to work towards full equality for LGBT Californians.

“We know the fight continues,” Hoang says. “There is still a lot to be done. Just yesterday, religious institutions poured hundreds of thousands of dollars into a campaign against the community for mailers and radio ads – so we know they still hate us. They want to get back at us for some of the progress we’ve made so far. So it’s important to have our own seat at the table. We love our allies, but it’s important to talk about our authentic selves to advance transgender rights and HIV work. It’s important to reflect and talk from our own experience from within the community.”

Indeed, it was an ally who joined our world when straight Assemblymember Jimmy Gomez walked me down the aisle. He told me he felt “honored.” I told him I felt honored, too. And humbled and grateful. I choked up when Susan handed me my plaque. For all the talk about the pioneers of the LGBT Caucus, I felt like I was standing in for all the other LGBT journalists who have “gotten the word out”—from Lisa Ben and Jim Kepner to Rex Wockner and Cynthia Laird who have devoted their lives and time and often their bank accounts to writing about, criticizing, reflecting and above all, describing the wonderment of our wildly diverse LGBT community. My pioneering friend Jim Kepner would have been proud. Startled, too, no doubt. But proud. On their behalf, and mine, I thank the California LGBTLegislative Caucus for this recognition. 

Getting into the cab to fly home after the ceremony, after being staffed for the day by the wonderful Sarah Boot from Speaker Emeritus Toni Atkins’ office, I glanced back at the Capitol and thought that the next time LGBT people gather here en mass might be to celebrate the first openly LGBT governor of California. I hope I’m around to witness that, too.  

Here’s the video the LGBT Legislative Caucus produced for the 2016 Pride celebration: