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In Search of Gay Leaders

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.”

 

Assimilation comes with risks, says political activist Ivy Bottini, who co-chairs the West Hollywood gay and lesbian advisory board. “I personally think our community is rushing, can’t get there fast enough, to be part of that culture out there. When any smaller group than the dominant culture assimilates, that’s what their culture becomes. Assimilation is not the best thing. I compare assimilation to going back into the closet.”

But not every leather daddy or drag queen out there who doesn’t care about gay marriage has something to gain from specific political agendas. “It’s the ‘gay liberation’ concept versus the politics of equality,” says Cecilia V. Estolano, an openly lesbian special assistant attorney at City Attorney Rocky Delgadillo’s office. “Are we really talking about fundamentally transforming how American society sees sexuality, is that the movement? Or is the movement to make gays and lesbian, bisexual and transgendered people have the same rights in straight society without fundamentally transforming society? I think we’re doing both, and what the gay-marriage movement is about is both. So I guess for myself, it is of personal interest for me to see us succeed on the marriage front, but I can also say objectively it’s important for the movement, because that is one way to get acknowledged rights we can translate into other areas.”

 

If a politician like Mike Bonin lived in San Diego or San Francisco, he could have moved to the “gay ghetto” neighborhoods of Hillcrest or the Castro, which grew up around businesses and social services that cater to gays and lesbians. In Los Angeles, however, the most recognizable gay ghetto, West Hollywood, is its own municipality, where big gay political fishes swim in a small pond. “There’s not a significant concentration of gays and lesbians anywhere in the city of Los Angeles, even if theoretically you wanted a safe gay and lesbian district,” Bonin said.

Bonin is among several out City Hall insiders who say the city’s LGBT community can still get their issues addressed, especially since so many politicians have gay staffers to turn to when they have questions. Carmel Sella, deputy mayor for intergovernmental relations, points out that in 2002 when District Attorney Steve Cooley decided not to file hate-crimes charges against suspects in the attack on West Hollywood resident Trev Broudy, numerous L.A. city officials, including Hahn, spoke out against the decision, in lockstep with the West Hollywood City Council. “There is no geographical center, and there is not necessarily a political center for the community, but rather significant pockets of leadership that amount to a very powerful community,” Sella said.

L.A.’s Equal Benefits Ordinance (EBO) is an example of how mainstream some LGBT issues are despite the fact that no openly elected politicians shepherd them through the system. It is also a testament to a clutch of influential out City Hall staffers who serve virtually every elected official. The EBO requires contractors that provide services to the city to offer their employees the same benefits afforded to city employees, including same-sex domestic-partnership health ‰ coverage. Last winter, Delgadillo and Goldberg’s successor, Eric Garcetti, worked together to expand the city EBO to cover competitive bids, which was passed unanimously by the City Council and signed by Mayor Hahn with no debate. “There’s nothing shocking about it,” said Cecilia Estolano. “There’s nothing that raises eyebrows.”

Dean Hansell, a former police commissioner who currently serves on the city’s Information Technology Commission, is one of Los Angeles’ well-known openly gay leaders. He pointed out that the T in the “LGBT” is still a political problem since the issue of gender identity is so misunderstood. The transgendered, which make up a growing and increasingly visible part of the city population, have begun to organize themselves and have become involved in issues as varied as public safety and community health. “I think it’s an issue that when the subject gets raised, people move on to the next subject,” Hansell said, noting that there are no recognizable political figures in the city who identify as transgendered. Despite the acceptance of gay candidates, the blasé attitude most Angelenos would take toward an openly lesbian mayoral candidate would be different toward a transgendered female candidate who also identifies as a lesbian. “I think that would take a great getting used to on the part of people in order to have that happen,” Hansell said. “That is going to be a big education process that would take place, and the first place you’d have to start that education process is in the gay and lesbian community itself.”

 

It’s long been an open secret that the gay, lesbian and bisexual communities have had an unease about their transgendered brethren, with concerns of confused messages and charges of marginalizing the most marginalized. “Some people just don’t believe the transgenders are part of our movement, and you can argue it both ways,” explained Ivy Bottini, who helped get West Hollywood’s transgendered task force off the ground. “If you’re a transgendered and you are now female and you end up getting married to a male, are you gay and lesbian? There are very, very convoluted issues, and there are no simple answers.”

 

Although the city may have to wait a few election cycles before it’s ready for a transgendered candidate, ready or not, lawmakers in Sacramento are learning to deal with the newly minted gay and lesbian caucus. With Goldberg and three additional out Assembly members, along with one lesbian senator, the Westside’s Sheila Kuehl, the LGBT community is seeing a host of pro-gay legislation cruising through the state’s halls of power. Goldberg is working on strengthening the state’s domestic-partnership laws, while San Francisco’s Assembly member Mark Leno is pushing an anti-discrimination bill that would protect people based on gender identity. With term limits looming, it is only a matter of time before any of the five begin to seriously consider a run for higher office — Kuehl, for example, is considered a strong contender for Henry Waxman’s House seat once the veteran congressman decides to retire.

According to Sean Cahill of the civil rights group National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, the LGBT community has become the third most loyal voting bloc for Democrats, falling right behind African-Americans and Jews. Polls show about 5 percent of the electorate identifies as gay or lesbian, a number he thinks is an undercount. “It’s probably closer to 7 percent nationally,” Cahill said.

Armed with potential voter and donor numbers, the 2004 Democratic hopefuls have been stumbling over themselves to build early support in the LGBT community. The most successful has been former Vermont Governor Howard Dean, who signed the state’s historic civil-unions bill. For more than a year Dean has been meeting with gay groups, forcing the other Democratic candidates to prove their queer mettle. John Kerry has been doing the LGBT political circuit as well, pointing out he was one of the few senators to vote against the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), while Dick Gephardt recently announced his openly lesbian daughter is his newest campaign staffer. Even Florida Senator Bob Graham, who’s been lukewarm at best on many gay issues, signed on to a bill that would end taxation on domestic-partnership benefits.

Despite having all those great gay staffers advising their bosses, the best way to bring the next set of tough issues to the table is getting people into office. “An elected official is going to be far more powerful than senior staff members,” Cecilia Estolano noted. “That’s just a reality of life.”

Dean Hansell agreed, arguing that the LGBT community should do more to groom potential candidates who already have areas of interest to better prepare them to run for office. He dreams of setting up a program at the L.A. Gay & Lesbian Center, where young political hopefuls could be taught everything from holding a press conference to asking a donor for $1,000.

Estolano suggested that the approach could be even more basic. “Probably the most important thing about training programs is getting smart policy-oriented people to think, ‘I could be an elected official,’” she said. “To have somebody call you up and say, ‘You know, your name’s been given to me as somebody who folks think should really consider running for office.’ And I think a lot of really bright people who care about politics in the community don’t necessarily think that way.”

Jackie Goldberg is open to the idea of taking a more active role in preparing the next generation of gay and lesbian politicians. “In the era of term limits we all have to be getting people ready,” she said. “And, in fact, I just told my staff we have to look for who is going to replace me, because I’m at the halfway point.” But she warned she has little time for some gay or lesbian political hopeful who wakes up one day and decides they want to run for office. “We need people who are already developing a base. Then you have to have them come and ask to be mentored by us. But we’re going to ask you the first question: Are you in the public civic debate of the day? If the answer is yes, you can find a mentor in me.”


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