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.
Troy Perry, plaintiff in the case and another gay-rights pioneer, who in 1969 presided over the first public same-sex-marriage ceremony in America’s history, says he also received a call from Wolfson. “He told me to wait until the time was right,” Perry recalls. “It absolutely had to do with the  election. And this wasn’t the first time I’ve had to fight my community around election time.”
Harris couldn’t be reached for comment, but Wolfson, who describes himself as “nonpartisan,” says the fear of putting Kerry on the spot with a dramatic gay-marriage lawsuit wasn’t the reason for the phone calls. “It certainly wasn’t about the election,” the lawyer says. “My advice has always been that we need to work together, and simply filing a lawsuit isn’t enough to win on its own. We need to educate the public first.”
Perry and Tyler, two battle-tested veterans of the gay-rights struggle, obviously didn’t listen to the unsolicited advice, and now they can legally marry their longtime partners. One of the key people who placed the couples at the altar wasn’t a Democratic insider or an influential activist. He was a Republican named George.
George grew up in Los Angeles and methodically climbed the ranks of the California judiciary circuit. He was first appointed to Los Angeles Municipal Court by then-governor Ronald Reagan in 1972. Five years later, Gov. Jerry Brown, a Democrat, appointed him to the Los Angeles Superior Court. After a four-year stint on the Court of Appeals, Wilson sat George on the California State Supreme Court, elevating him to chief justice in 1996.
“It is fair to say that Ronald George sees cases without a partisan glint,” says Douglas Kmiec, Caruso Family Chair in Constitutional Law at Pepperdine University, “and judges them within their own case-by-case framework. One of the reasons the [gay] marriage cases will likely have credibility is because he does.”
In California, Kmiec says, Republican appointments to the bench are “not necessarily” based on conservative credentials. “The only way to be elected a Republican governor in California is to act pretty much like a moderate Democrat,” he says, “or, as Gov. Schwarzenegger likes to proclaim, ‘trans-party.’?”
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Despite what some critics would claim, Dan Schnur, a former aide to Wilson, says his old boss operated within that centrist framework. “Pete Wilson was a social moderate,” Schnur says, “and he appointed those kinds of judges. I don’t think the [gay-marriage] ruling should be surprising at all.”
Schwarzenegger probably understood well the political culture of the judicial appointments when he vetoed gay-marriage bills in 2005 and 2007. “Schwarzenegger obviously sat down and thought it through,” says Darry Sragow, a Democratic political strategist. “[The vetoes] may have been a clever way to get around his party.”
Schwarzenegger has consistently stuck to one political line: He would never sign a gay-marriage bill that would overturn the voters’ will on Proposition 22, which defines marriage as a formal union between one man and one woman, and he would abide by the courts’ rulings if that ballot measure were found unconstitutional. State Democrats still attempted to force his hand, but Schwarzenegger refused to be outmaneuvered.
“I was certainly disappointed [in 2007],” says Assemblyman Mark Leno, who twice introduced the same-sex-marriage bill. “Here was a historic chance to embrace equality, and the governor failed us a second time.”
By 2007, though, it was becoming clear that gay-marriage lawsuits would almost certainly be headed for the California State Supreme Court. Schwarzenegger, who could not be reached for comment, may have waited for things to play out in the state’s highest court, as Darry Sragow suggests, knowing that at least a majority of the judges were social moderates with an old-fashioned Republican/libertarian streak — the kind of mindset that believes government should stay out of people’s pocketbooks and bedrooms.
According to Republican strategist Arnold Steinberg, this scenario isn’t all that hard to believe. “Schwarzenegger was always a closet (no pun intended) supporter of gay marriage,” writes Steinberg in an e-mail to the Weekly. “So he was probably happy to have an excuse to at least stay neutral, or, now, to actually oppose the November ballot measure.”
On the day of the Supreme Court’s ruling, Schwarzenegger released this statement: “I respect the court’s decision and as governor, I will uphold its ruling. Also, as I have said in the past, I will not support an amendment to the constitution that would overturn this state Supreme Court ruling.”
ON APRIL 11, A MONTH BEFORE Chief Justice George and three of his colleagues legalized same-sex marriage in California, Schwarzenegger may have been setting the political stage again. The governor took a trip to San Diego for the national convention of the Log Cabin Republicans, the party’s gay wing. Sitting onstage in a gray suit and salmon-colored tie, Schwarzenegger took questions from national Log Cabin president Patrick Sammon, who sat next to him. Bright lights shone on them, and the standing-room-only audience was buzzing.
“Can we count on your opposition to this effort to ban gay people from having marriage equality?” Sammon asked, referring to November’s anti-gay-marriage measure.
As was shown on YouTube, Schwarzenegger nodded and lifted his microphone. “Well, first of all, I think that it would never happen in California, because I think that California people are much further along with that issue. And, number two, I will always be there to fight against that.”
The crowd of Log Cabin Republicans gave Schwarzenegger a lengthy standing ovation.
According to a well-connected source, the governor has “excellent relationships” with the California Log Cabin Republicans, with almost a dozen members named to state commissions or governor’s appointments. Log Cabin staff members had contacted Schwarzenegger’s staff and talked with his wife, Maria Shriver, a longtime friend of the gay community, about the governor making a public statement against the November ballot measure. Schwarzenegger showed up in San Diego soon after.
“This is an issue that’s important to a relatively small slice of voters,” says Democratic political strategist Sragow. “Schwarzenegger knows that, and he’s not too concerned what the activist base of his party thinks. He hasn’t cared too much in the past, and this will be the same.”
Once again, Sragow says, Schwarzenegger seemed to be playing out a bigger political strategy, with him looking like a champion of civil rights. Republican strategist Steinberg concurs, “Whatever he does will be less about the issue than his future political ambitions, whatever they are.”
Steinberg believes Schwarzenegger will be “low-key” on the ballot measure, and the governor even told The Sacramento Bee on the day of the gay-marriage ruling: “I don’t know how much time I have campaigning because, you know, I get requests all the time for campaigning.”
David Mixner, a respected political operative in the gay community and the Democratic Party, believes Schwarzenegger may still end up hitting the campaign trail to oppose the measure. “My guess is that once he sees we’re going to win, he’ll be there.”
Either way, one of the biggest political stars in California — and certainly the most influential Republican in the state — has very publicly, and adeptly, thrown his support behind the gay community’s right to marry. Now it’s a matter of whether the California Supreme Court ruling — which cannot be appealed in the U.S. Supreme Court — will stand beyond Election Day.
“IT’S THE MOST EXTRAORDINARY and epic battle in the history of our movement.”
David Mixner should know. Since the 1970s, when gay liberation was transforming into a visible political force, Mixner raised money for gay-friendly politicians, protested in the streets and fought off antigay measures in California, like the 1978 Briggs Initiative, which would have banned gays and lesbians from teaching in the public-school system. Mixner, also a member of Bill Clinton’s kitchen cabinet during his 1992 presidential campaign, believes a victory over the anti-gay-marriage November measure would propel the gay movement into new territory. “If we win,” he says, “we’re on our way to full equality. There’s no way they can stop us.”
With such high stakes at play for the gay-rights movement, and with the political and religious groups fighting to stop it, Mixner thinks a national confrontation will be played out in California. “Once it comes together,” says the political operative, “hundreds of thousands of dollars will come from around the country, and so will volunteers. It goes to the old notion, ‘As California goes, so goes the nation.’ There will be wide national media coverage. Everyone will be watching.”
Matt Staver, chairman of the Liberty Counsel, a nonprofit litigation group with connections to the late Rev. Jerry Falwell Sr. which fought for the preservation of Prop. 22, doesn’t see eye to eye with Mixner on many things, but this time he’s in complete agreement. “This is a national fight in California,” Staver says. “It’s going to require massive grassroots organization.”
But Staver believes it won’t be a “flashy media campaign, so it won’t be too costly.” He thinks his side will need “at least $5 million to $10 million … most likely $10 million.”
Sragow, the Democratic strategist, says both sides will probably need to raise much more. With some of the most expensive TV markets in the country, he says a budget of $25 million to $30 million “is a low number.”
Gay-rights activists and national groups like the Human Rights Campaign are setting a fund-raising goal of $25 million, according to an inside source. The wealthy gay crowd in Los Angeles will undoubtedly play a major role, and Access Now for Gay and Lesbian Equality, the L. A. Gay and Lesbian Center and the Los Angeles chapter of the Log Cabin Republicans are gearing up for a serious moneymaking drive. “We can’t mess around,” Mixner says. “We have to do this right, and we have to find the best and brightest. We also have to put our egos aside and we need to be tough. We can’t tolerate people standing on the sidelines.”
Mixner offers a quirky but effective example of this toughness. In 1978, during the fight over the Briggs Initiative, the Beverly Hills Chamber of Commerce came out in support of the proposition. That same day, hairstylists throughout Beverly Hills reacted by going on strike. “They refused to cut anyone’s hair,” says Mixner, adding that celebrities like Cher also stopped shopping in town. “Within 24 hours,” Mixner recalls, “the chamber switched its position.”
According to Mark Baldassare, president of the Public Policy Institute of California, neither side of the November ballot measure has a clear-cut advantage. “California is pretty much split,” he says. A poll taken in June 2007 shows that 49 percent of the state’s voters oppose same-sex marriage, while 45 percent support it. But, Baldassare points out, the number in favor of gay marriage has increased since 2000, when Prop. 22 was passed. Back then, 55 percent of voters opposed same-sex marriage, while 39 percent supported it.
While gay-rights groups will look to tug a few heartstrings to win over voters, another strategy will be selling the economics of gay marriage — which Schwarzenegger publicly pitched on May 20. “I think we’ll see more economic benefits from [the Supreme Court] decision,” says Jack Kyser, senior vice president of the Los Angeles Economic Development Corporation, “which is good news, given the sluggish state of the economy. San Francisco will get the majority of marriage tourism. … Obviously, West Hollywood will get a lot of visitors as well.”
Kyser says gay marriage could actually be a “big boost” for local governments. “People will stay in hotels and pay the hotel tax. They’ll eat out, they’ll buy gifts, they’ll plan parties, which will generate local sales-tax revenues.”
NINE HOURS AFTER the California State Supreme Court issued its ruling, gay men and women and their straight friends headed for the intersection of Santa Monica and San Vicente — West Hollywood’s longtime public square. Directly across from the L.A. County Sheriff’s station, with a news helicopter flying overhead and TV camera crews reporting from the streets, the crowd grew and grew as speakers stood onstage and proclaimed May 15, 2008, one of the most fulfilling days of their lives.
It was a sizable audience for the dignitaries to address, with many middle-aged couples wrapping their arms around each other. The young, fashionable crowd also showed — but not in large numbers. Maybe they were celebrating the historic decision their own way, or maybe they didn’t even know what had happened. When Mixner heard about the makeup of the crowd, he zeroed in on the missing throngs of younger people, who preferred to be at a bar, sipping an apple martini, or perhaps at a gym, building bigger biceps.
“Those are the people I’m talking about,” he notes. “They are the ones we can’t tolerate, standing on the sidelines. And I don’t think they will want to wake up 20 years from now and have their peers ask them what they were doing when this battle went down. They won’t want to say, ‘I didn’t do anything.’?”
Election Day, November 4, is 159 days away.
Click here for WeHo Reacts to California Supreme Court Gay-Marriage Ruling, by Patrick Range McDonald.