SACRAMENTO — Making history can be uncomfortable, and so it was for Sheila Kuehl.
As California's first openly gay legislator, she weathered the scorn of conservative colleagues who publicly denounced her "unnatural" lifestyle and killed many of her early bills.
FOR THE RECORD
Los Angeles Times Tuesday December 11, 2001 Home Edition Part A Part A Page 2 A2 Desk 1 inches; 29 words Type of Material: Correction
Gay politicians--A story about gay politics in Section A on Monday said Gov. Gray Davis supported Proposition 22, which defined marriage as between a man and a woman and passed in March 2000. Davis opposed it.
Conservatives here still quote Scripture to condemn gays as sinners, but Kuehl has company now. Three other lesbians have joined her in the Legislature, and their ideas are steadily finding their way into law.
Seven years after Kuehl's arrival in Sacramento, gay Californians enjoy growing prominence in all corners of political life. They are city council members, state university trustees, park commissioners and trusted advisors to the governor.
This rising profile carries muscle, and it is paying off with ever-expanding rights and legal protections for gay men and lesbians.
The most recent evidence surfaced in October, when Gov. Gray Davis--a famously cautious politician--signed a bill bestowing a bundle of new benefits on gays who register as domestic partners with the state. He even hosted a rare signing ceremony for the bill's backers and said it was "about time" that California embraced such a law.
The adoption of AB 25 is seen by homosexuals as a landmark moment, vaulting the state to the forefront of the movement to grant same-sex couples legal recognition and rights. Only Vermont, where gays may enter "civil unions" that resemble marriage, does more.
David Mixner, a Los Angeles writer and powerful fund-raiser for Democrats supportive of gay causes, said the governor's signature proves that "the struggles of the last few decades are finally starting to pay off. . . . We are drawing ever closer to full equality."
Less than two years ago, such a comment might have seemed remarkable. In March 2000, Californians went to the polls and heartily endorsed a ballot measure reserving marriage for heterosexuals.
The success of Proposition 22--mirroring the fate of similar measures in 34 other states--was demoralizing for California gays. As far as they had advanced in the march toward social acceptance, they now were officially denied access to an institution that many consider key to full equality.
"It was painful, because nothing separates [gays and straights] quite like marriage," said John Duran, a West Hollywood city councilman who is gay. "Either we're creatures in a bizarre subculture excluded from the American mainstream, or we are part of the mainstream."
Despite the setback, polls even that spring showed that a majority of Californians believed gays deserved protection from discrimination and should receive many of the rights married people enjoy.
And the campaign against Proposition 22, while unsuccessful, mobilized hundreds of activists and produced a computer file of 700,000 voters sympathetic to gay rights--a database that has been tapped effectively to lobby lawmakers, most recently on the domestic partners bill.
In addition, the sting of defeat was soothed considerably in November 2000, when two more openly gay candidates won seats in the Legislature: Democratic Assemblywomen Jackie Goldberg and Christine Kehoe. In joining Kuehl and Assemblywoman Carole Migden, a San Francisco Democrat elected in 1996, the newcomers doubled the openly gay presence in Sacramento overnight.
"We're as big as the Asian American caucus," said Kuehl, who broke another barrier a year ago when Los Angeles voters elevated her to the Senate. "It's not lonely anymore."
Although four out of 120 legislators hardly amounts to numerical clout, the women who hold those jobs are central players in Sacramento. Migden, chairwoman of the powerful Assembly Appropriations Committee, is a close ally of Davis and has consistently been named one of the hardest-working and most influential legislators by California Journal, a respected magazine that produces a biannual ranking of lawmakers.
Kuehl is considered one of the sharpest minds in the Capitol and has the trust of Davis and Senate leader John Burton (D-San Francisco). She has twice been ranked tops in integrity by California Journal and has won the magazine's honors for her work ethic and influence too.
As for the newcomers, Goldberg, a former Los Angeles councilwoman, distinguished herself as a quick study on the energy crisis and is known for her work on education and labor issues. Kehoe, a former San Diego councilwoman, was named assistant speaker pro tempore, a high-profile assignment requiring her to frequently run Assembly floor sessions.
'Lavender Caucus' Not Single-Issue Group
The four women have shown "they are not single-issue people," said Brian Bond of the Gay and Lesbian Victory Fund, a Washington-based group that works to elect homosexuals. Instead, he said, they "talk about streets and crime and taxes and the environment."
Indeed, members of the "lavender caucus," as some call the quartet, spend only a small fraction of their time on matters related to gay rights.