IN EARLY OCTOBER 1991, after several nights of mass protests, California Gov. Pete Wilson burned in effigy at the corner of San Vicente and Santa Monica in West Hollywood.
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A crowd cheers plaintiffs Robin Tyler, Troy Perry and others at last week's West Hollywood rally
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Circa 1991: Protest art hit Pete Wilson, who was burned in effigy during clashes between gays and police.
Photo by Timothy Norris
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Groom's cake: Author Alistair McCartney joined his husband, performance artist Tim Miller, at last week's celebration, where one crowd member posed the question of citizenship for foreign spouses.
“We were always burning something back then,” says Miki Jackson, a longtime gay-rights advocate who participated in the demonstration. “We wanted to make a statement.”
Gays and lesbians also marched on the Sunset Strip and took over a runway at Los Angeles International Airport. The nightly revolts started with a broken promise: Wilson had pledged to sign into law a workplace-antidiscrimination bill called AB 101. Instead, on September 29, the governor vetoed the legislation. Within hours, outraged drag queens, gym bunnies and queer political activists took to the streets of Los Angeles and other cities up and down the state.
“It was a phenomenon,” says Michael Weinstein, co-founder of AIDS Healthcare Foundation and one of the leaders of the Los Angeles protests. “So many people who never got involved before, people who would only go to the gym or the nightclubs, they all got involved. It was unusual.”
When Wilson attended a political fund-raiser at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, a furious crowd surrounded the building and called him a “fucking weasel.” Then they trailed the governor to the Plaza Hotel in Century City. Los Angeles Police Department officers stood guard in full riot gear and eventually clashed with demonstrators, as local TV camera crews filmed the showdown. “It was a very dangerous situation,” says Jackson. “The police really went crazy that night.”
Even Democratic presidential candidate Bill Clinton, who later angered the gay-rights movement with “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” and his signing into law of the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act, took up the cause. Several days into the uprising, the Arkansas governor flew to Los Angeles for a scheduled vetting session with wealthy gays. When told about Wilson’s veto, Clinton gave the L.A. Times an interview, saying he would have signed AB 101.
For two weeks, queer Angelenos rebelled against a Republican governor they believed had double-crossed them. But two months earlier, on July 29, 1991, Wilson made a crucial decision for the historic advancement of gay rights, something no one could have foreseen: He appointed Judge Ronald M. George to the California State Supreme Court. Nearly 17 years later, the moderate Republican jurist would become a national gay hero.
Last Thursday, it was George’s carefully written majority opinion that legalized same-sex marriage in California. By nightfall, at the same West Hollywood intersection where a dummy of Pete Wilson went up in flames, gay activists stood on a stage and publicly lauded the judge as “courageous.” Speaker after speaker also praised another Republican, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, for promising to “fight” against a November ballot measure that could still outlaw gay marriage in the Golden State.
Pete Wilson was never mentioned during the hourlong rally, and the activists didn’t focus on the political parties, but a curious theme had developed in West Hollywood: Powerful Republicans, through happenstance and well-orchestrated public policy, were leading the charge for the legalization and defense of same-sex marriage in California. It was something state Democrats, the seemingly natural allies of the gay-rights movement, could never completely pull off.
WHEN ROBIN TYLER, a plaintiff in last week’s historic case and a gay-rights advocate for more than 40 years, realized many months ago that the California State Supreme Court was jammed with Republicans, she was anything but fearful. “I was thrilled,” she says. “I thought we’d stand more of a chance. I think a Democratic court might have shied away because of the issue of the (presidential) election.”
In fact, Tyler’s 2004 lawsuit against Los Angeles County seeking the right to marry her lesbian partner caused quite a commotion among some California Democrats, who apparently wanted nothing to interfere with Senator John Kerry’s ousting of President George Bush from the White House. Though Tyler declined to give a full list of names, the North Hills resident says she received two particularly disturbing phone calls from Democratic operative Jean Harris and prominent gay-rights advocate Evan Wolfson. “They yelled at me for not giving them a ‘heads-up’ and for filing at all,” Tyler says.