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Gay Activists Split Despite Successes

Legislature: With inheritance and other benefits signed into law, California is seen as second only to Vermont as a gay-friendly state. Some say it's not enough.


SACRAMENTO — These would seem heady times for gay rights advocates in California. Laws granting lesbian and gay couples inheritance and other benefits that seemed unattainable not long ago were signed by the governor last week. A caucus was established over the summer for state lawmakers who want to advance more such measures. And even GOP gubernatorial candidate Bill Simon Jr.'s staff felt the need to pledge support for gay rights--never mind that Simon himself reversed the campaign's position.

Outside Vermont, where a court order allows gays to enter civil unions resembling marriage, California is now widely perceived as the country's most gay-friendly state.

Yet despite achieving many of their goals for the legislative session, gay rights advocates remain divided about whether the year has been a success, and about the political strategy of the movement's leaders at the Capitol.

Of eight proposals this year to grant new rights to gays, the Legislature approved six, and Gov. Gray Davis so far has signed three into law--measures that provide survivor benefits to gays who suffer the loss of a domestic partner. He is still considering bills that would prohibit discrimination against gay youth in foster care and allow gays and non-gays to take paid family leave from their jobs.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday September 20, 2002 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 8 inches; 292 words Type of Material: Correction
Proposition 22--A story in the California section Monday incorrectly reported that 57% of voters approved Proposition 22, which reserves marriage exclusively for heterosexuals, in 2000. The measure was approved with 61% of the vote.

With each measure, sponsors overcame the arguments of opponents who said the bills were the work of extremists and who fear that any change in the law is a step toward gay marriage, which the opponents see as eroding the sanctity of the institution.

Rift Among Activists

Even so, disagreement among gay activists over how to win more civil rights is bubbling to the surface. Many, including gay lawmakers who carry the legislation, are pleased with the incremental victories and warn against reaching for too much too fast.

But a growing group sees the gains made in the last year as evidence that California voters are ready to accept a Vermont-style civil union system. They want to mobilize all the gay community's political might behind a push for it.

Ilona Turner, legislative advocate for the Los Angeles-based California Alliance for Pride and Equality, remains sobered, she says, by the math.

By Turner's count, there are 1,000 rights and responsibilities linked to marriage. California's gay domestic partners so far have been granted but a handful. At this rate, she says, it will take 100 years for the law to treat gays as equal to everyone else.

"A lot of people are getting tired of doing things incrementally," she said. "I wouldn't say these are great strides."

Others warn that aggressively pursuing civil-union legislation would be a big mistake just two years after 57% of Californians approved Proposition 22, reserving marriage exclusively for heterosexuals.

Making a hard push for civil unions now, some activists warn, could stir up resentment among mainstream voters whose support is crucial to gaining more rights.

"You always have a naysayer sitting on a perch with a mimosa telling you it is not enough," said Assemblywoman Carole Migden (D-San Francisco), one of four openly gay state lawmakers. Term limits are forcing Migden out of the Legislature this year, but the newly formed Lesbian and Gay Caucus is expected to grow, with openly gay men favored to win two new seats in the election.

"We're out here getting these things done, and these people are on the sidelines at brunch saying, 'It is not enough,' " Migden said, pointing out that the only reason Vermont gays and lesbians have more rights is a judicial order. "Of course it is not enough. But it is what we are able to do now."

Even the narrowest of gay rights measures--like one that would keep a house's value from being reassessed if it has two gay owners and one dies--are resisted as attempts to slowly slip gay marriage through a legislative back door.

"It is just the time we live in that an additional benefit here and there are considered historic," said state Sen. Sheila Kuehl (D-Santa Monica), California's first openly gay legislator. "The sheer struggle of it makes every gain a cause for celebration. You have to sit through hours of homophobic speeches in the Legislature for every measure. People picket the offices of newer members, hoping to frighten them into being more homophobic."

When lawmakers tried to bring a civil union bill before the Assembly last year, it didn't even make it out of committee.

Davis Is Criticized

Davis came under heavy criticism last week for signing AB 2216, a bill that gives surviving domestic partners inheritance rights equal to those of married heterosexuals who lose a spouse. Among those who fought for the law was Keith Bradkowski, whose life partner, Jeff Collman, was a flight attendant on American Airlines Flight 11, the first plane that crashed into the World Trade Center.

The two had been together 11 years and were registered as domestic partners, but when Collman died without a will, Bradkowski was entitled to none of his assets.

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