In Search of Gay Leaders 

And, once we find them, what should they do for Los Angeles?

Thursday, Jun 26 2003
Photos by Debra Dipaolo (top)
and Virginia Lee Hunter

Los Angeles has one of the most politically active gay and lesbian communities in the nation. You’d think it would have a powerful contingent of elected officials who are out. But right now, there are none. For years a closeted, then openly gay Joel Wachs quietly tended things for the city’s lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgendered (LGBT) community from his Valley council seat. Then Jackie Goldberg stormed onto the scene, jumping from the school board to represent the 13th Council District as the first out and proud lesbian elected to City Hall. In 2000, Goldberg headed to Sacramento and the state Assembly, and Wachs left L.A. in a huff after losing the 2001 mayoral race.

And now, a vacuum. Even with plenty of potential money, opportunities provided by term limits, and some very ambitious politicos, no openly gay candidate has been elected in Los Angeles in three years. Some blame the cyclical nature of politics, but there is a larger concern that issues important to a rapidly changing and maturing community are going untended.

One of those who would like to serve is Mike Bonin, deputy chief of staff for outgoing 6th District Council Member Ruth Galanter. He wanted to be the next openly gay council member by taking over for his termed-out boss. A decidedly Westside guy, he was thrown for a loop when Galanter’s coastal district was transferred to the East Valley. Instead of running in a district he hardly knew, Bonin is going to work for Representative Jane Harman, and has taken himself out of the running for a Westside seat opening up in 2005.

“I think it is always better when a representative body of a city looks like the population that it represents,” Bonin said. “It is important in Los Angeles that a large number of seats on the City Council be Latino. It is important that a certain number of seats be African-American. By the same logic there certainly should be a gay and lesbian elected official on the City Council.”

Wachs and Goldberg helped push some of the issues of early gay activists into the mainstream, and made equal rights for gay people a given in a progressive place like L.A. Now, new questions arise about what should be next on the agenda for a community that still faces plenty of legal concerns at the national and state levels over gay and lesbian issues, to say nothing of the emerging discourse about the role of transgendered people. Other issues include ensuring better protection for students, who are coming out at increasingly younger ages; the needs of the elderly, who tend to have less family support when times get tough. And then there is the perennial debate over assimilation, and the question of whether issues of the LGBT community are that much different from the rest of Los Angeles.

Part of the problem facing those who are pushing an agenda, argues Rob Hennig, a lecturer at UCLA’s political science department who also serves on the local ACLU’s lesbian and gay rights chapter, is that the community has lost some of its early fire. From his perspective, groups like the decades-old political organization Stonewall Democratic Club have lost their sense of purpose. He thinks he knows why. “Either (a), the goals we have as a movement don’t seem to appeal to people, or (b), people are reasonably content with their lives in general. I think both of those are at issue.”

Also at issue are the varying perspectives of gays and lesbians of different ages, especially the younger generation of LGBT students Hennig teaches at UCLA. “Say, you’re 22 years old, you came out in high school, and you were active in the Gay Straight Alliance,” he said. “You were out in college, you were vocal in college. There is not a question of your identity, and your parents were supportive. Now, that’s not necessarily the story of most people, but that’s the story of a lot of people, and that’s diametrically different from people of my generation.”

Since the birth of the gay-liberation movement, the assumption has been that sexual orientation is the most significant identifier in a gay or lesbian person’s life, and organizations set up by community members reflected that. “What you have now is a greater sense of assimilation, but with that you don’t have a definition of purpose,” Hennig argued. “I think that’s what’s going on right now — there’s not a defining purpose of what it means for sexual orientation. What does it mean to be gay?”

It doesn’t help, of course, that the LGBT community is dealing with its own internal changes while facing the most conservative political climate of the last 30 years. Torie Osborn, the executive director of the left-leaning community organization Liberty Hill Foundation and a former executive director of the L.A. Gay & Lesbian Center, says it shouldn’t be seen as a movement adrift. “You know, it’s a tough time,” Osborn said. “What I think you have is people focusing on their private lives, building their families, building gay and lesbian organizations, and making their individual paths within the churches, the synagogues, the workplaces.” And for younger LGBT people, Osborn wondered what their biggest concern should be in a nation that seems so hostile to anything that smacks of a progressive cause. She raised the hypothetical case of a queer teen in Pico Rivera. “What’s most important?” Osborn asked. “That you’re breathing toxins, or your parents can’t afford housing, or that you’re a kid struggling with coming out? There are so many pressures on people’s lives. It isn’t about a single issue or how do we link together this feminist or gay and lesbian.”

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