California’s thriving LGBT caucus: Because sometimes, lawmaking is personal
When Sheila Kuehl of Santa Monica became California’s first openly gay or lesbian legislator in 1994, a cartoonist depicted the occasion.
The drawing’s first panel was “The gay and lesbian caucus goes to lunch.”
The second was “Kuehl, party of one.”
Two years later Carole Migden of San Francisco became the state’s second lesbian legislator, followed by Christine Kehoe of San Diego and Jackie Goldberg of Los Angeles. The four had dinner at least once a month at Goldberg’s house. And after the 2002 addition of legislators Mark Leno of San Francisco and John Laird of Santa Cruz, the group formed an official LGBT caucus.
A quarter-century after Kuehl’s election made history, the caucus numbers seven and has chalked up hard-fought legislative victories—and a to-do list for the future. All its members are Democrats; no openly gay, lesbian, bisexual or trans Republican has ever won a seat in the Legislature.
“You don’t get any respect unless you’re in the room where it happens,” Kuehl said. “And that is symbolic sometimes but it is noticed by society—because you’re making policy for your community as well as for everybody else.”
California’s Legislature has become more diverse over the years, although as CALmatters’ Legislators: Just Like You? interactive demonstrates, it still falls well short of being an accurate demographic reflection of California. Latinos, Asian-Americans and particularly women are under-represented compared to their share of the state adult population.
But the LGBT caucus closely mirrors the state: Nearly 5 percent of Californians are LGBT, according to UCLA Law’s Williams Institute, while just under 6 percent of California legislators are openly lesbian, gay or bisexual. The Senate president pro tem, Democrat Toni Atkins of San Diego, is the first lesbian to lead the chamber. And although the caucus dropped by one this year, it’s because former state Sen. Ricardo Lara, a Democrat from Bell Gardens, became the first gay statewide office-holder when he was elected insurance commissioner.
Critics of a deliberate emphasis on diversity often contend that lawmakers’ personal traits don’t, or shouldn’t, affect what issues they carry or how they vote—in short, that legislating shouldn’t be personal.
“How can they say it’s not personal?”
It’s an argument that LGBT legislators have confronted repeatedly. Case in point: the bitter fight in 2001 over passage of a bill creating domestic partners status for the state’s same-sex couples. Majority Floor Leader Kevin Shelley addressed the Assembly about Migden, its sponsor and his San Francisco colleague.
“We all know how tough she is. She’s real tough. You don’t wanna mess with her,” he began. “I went outside with Ms. Migden and she was doubled over in pain—emotional pain—and in tears, and said to me and to others nearby ‘How can they say it’s not about me? How can they say it’s not personal?’
“And so I say to all of you on behalf of my friend Carole, who I know will not say it for herself because she doesn’t want it to be personal in how she articulates the debate. It is personal….And the vote today should be personal for all of us.”
Arguing in favor of the same bill, Goldberg spoke through tears about her partner and their son: “We are a family. There is nothing any of you can say or do that makes us any less a family. But what you can do is make it harder for my family to survive.”
Since passage of that bill, the California LGBT caucus has successfully sponsored:
- A 2003 act expanding to same-sex couples most of the rights and responsibilities that heterosexual spouses already had, such as parental status for a child born during a relationship and access to divorce courts.
- Leno’s 2003 act protecting transgender people and those perceived as transgender against discrimination when renting an apartment or looking for a job.
- Assemblyman Todd Gloria’s 2018 law giving foster children access to health care that affirms their gender with medical interventions such as hormone treatment. The healthcare must be available by 2020.
- A new law co-sponsored by Atkins that allows non-binary people applying for a driver’s license or ID card to mark “X” in addition to “M” for male or “F” for female. (One Californian has already shared the experience of changing their driver’s license.)
So what’s still on the caucus wish list?
Members and advocacy groups plan to advance bills that would provide “cultural competency” training to help teachers build safer and more inclusive learning environments for LGBT students in public schools. Former Gov. Jerry Brown previously vetoed a version of that bill, although a similar one to train law enforcement officers was signed into law.
The caucus also wants another crack at limiting the practice of conversion therapy, the practice of attempting to alter an individual’s sexual orientation through methods such as counseling and prayer.
And it’s still personal. Arguing for his bill to regard conversion therapy as consumer fraud in last year’s session, former Campbell mayor-turned-Assemblyman Evan Low said “You’ve heard testimony about suicidal thoughts, I have also had that. As mayor (in 2010) I could officiate a wedding but couldn’t get married myself.”
But questions were raised about whether the bill would violate the First Amendment rights of therapists. Although proponents insisted it was neutral on religion because it impacted all consumer transactions, Low pulled the bill in what he described as a gesture of good faith to seek common ground.
“The evangelical community is not monolithic, they’re not one in the same,” he said. “So are there certain people who you could change their hearts and mind? Yeah, absolutely. And that’s where I’m working, that’s where I’m spending my energy.”
His approach won Low points with some opponents.
“To his credit, he actually went around and listened to a lot of various pastors who told him ‘why are you attacking us?’” said Greg Burt of the California Family Council. “So I think he realized it would be better to try and persuade a chunk of them to come his way than to simply outlaw what they were doing.”
Opponents of the caucus’ agenda insist there should be room in California politics for people or religious organizations that take a different view—and that the LGBT caucus too often advocates ideas that impede on religious freedom.
They cite a bill that would have allowed transgender and gay students to more easily sue private religious universities who violated the school’s sexual conduct rules and faced reprisals up to and including expulsion. The bill was enacted only after that specific provision was removed following tremendous pushback from religious universities. Another law barred employees at long-term healthcare facilities from purposefully not calling patients by their preferred gender pronouns.
“They are seeking to go after organizations that disagree,” Burt said. “That’s what tolerance is all about. We tolerate those who disagree.”
The missing voices: Trans and bisexual Californians—and Republicans
“Until there are at least a couple of transgender folks in the Legislature, I don’t know that we’re going to understand the experience well enough to know what’s missing in the law,” Kuehl said. “I do know that there’s a lot of violence against transgender women, and I don’t know if there’s enough protection.”
As for the absence of an openly gay Republican in the Legislature, former GOP Sen. Roy Ashburn said he’s not surprised, but he expects that will change. “There’s still a lot of people in hiding,” he said, “and I’m hopeful that people will be more accepting and loving and it won’t be necessary for people to do what I did in the future.”
No longer a Republican, Ashburn said he regrets votes he cast against ensuring more rights for LGBT individuals. After his arrest for driving under the influence in 2010, he acknowledged in an interview with a radio station in his Bakersfield district that he was gay—saying he felt compelled to address rumors that he had visited a gay nightclub that evening. “I did not live an authentic life,” he said. “ I hurt people who were adversely affected by the votes that I cast.”
Sometimes differences can be forged. Low and Biola University President Barry H. Corey were at odds over a 2016 bill that sought to prohibit any school participating in the Cal Grant Program from discriminating against a student or employee on the basis of a protected class like sexual orientation.
The bill didn’t pass, but the two foes became friends, so much so that they published what they learned in a joint Washington Post piece.
“It’s amazing how quickly biases can be overcome,” they wrote, “…when you realize the person you once thought an adversary is in many ways like you, with a story and passions and fears, and a hope that we can make the world a better place.”
To Low, that’s also why the LGBT Caucus is still needed. He said after working with the caucus, people can gain a new perspective—recognizing that LGBT individuals are not “mythical creatures on TV” but are just like everyone else.
“So that’s where I think it changes people,” he said. “If we’re not there, then people won’t understand.”