As rainbow flags flutter afresh throughout Hillcrest, San Diego's lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transgenders (LGBT) are gearing up for this year's Pride festival. However, before the weekend party starts in earnest, Friday's Spirit of Stonewall Rally will mark the official start of the event with a more serious and politically oriented tone.
With the white-hot topic of gay marriage on so many minds this year, Pride coordinators wanted to directly address the issue. The words "Equal Rights-No More, No Less" resonate for the LGBT folks who believe the fight for marriage equality is part of a much broader struggle for civil rights.
Finding someone appropriate to give the keynote speech on same-sex marriage as a civil-rights issue was easy for rally chairperson Jeri Dilno. Assemblymember Mark Leno, the Democrat from San Francisco, is not only the second openly gay Assemblyman in California history and former chairman of the official LGBT Caucus-he's also the author of AB 19, otherwise known as the Religious Freedom and Civil Marriage Act, aimed at legalizing same-sex marriage in California.
Though the hype surrounding AB 19 has thrust Leno into the national spotlight, he didn't start out with political aspirations. Leno merged into politics via his involvement in community service after the death of his life partner in 1990. Community service led to his election to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, on which Leno held a seat until he was elected to the state Assembly in 2002. Before discovering politics, Leno spent two years in rabbinical studies at the Hebrew Union College in New York, and in 1978 he opened a successful small business, Budget Signs Inc.
Politics, Leno said, "was not a career goal in any way, so I feel very fortunate to be in the position I'm in and to have the opportunity to serve... the LGBT community throughout the state."
Leno's bill, AB 19, lost by a mere four votes in the Assembly in June when five Democrats-including San Diego Assemblymember Juan Vargas-voted against the measure and another eight Democrats abstained from voting. Vargas didn't respond to CityBeat's calls for comment, but he told the San Diego Union-Tribune last month, "We've moved the issue of civil rights for gays and lesbians a long way in the last five years. I think it's appropriate now to catch our breath and allow things to settle down."
While Vargas is correct that the fight for LGBT civil rights has made progress, most of that appears to be taking place outside California. Though same-sex couples can now marry in Canada, Spain and Massachusetts, their California counterparts have faced a string of disappointments in their quest for the legal right to marry.
In 2000, 61 percent of California voters approved Proposition 22, the so-called Defense of Marriage Act, which declared that marriage in California is only valid when it's between a man and a woman. More recently, the same-sex marriages sanctioned by San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsome in early 2004 were declared illegitimate, and just last month AB 19 failed to be approved by the state Assembly.
Like many of Leno's opponents, Republican Assemblymember George Plescia referenced Prop. 22 in his own argument against Leno's gay marriage bill.
"I believe California voters spoke quite clearly when they overwhelmingly passed Prop. 22," said Plescia in a written statement to CityBeat. "The gay marriage bill is nothing more than an attempt by extreme liberals in Sacramento to overturn the will of the people and force gay marriage down the throat of traditional families."
As Plescia and other gay-marriage opponents might have preferred, AB 19 would've died on the Assembly floor, ineligible for re-introduction until December 2006. Instead, Leno used a common yet semi-controversial tactic colloquially referred to as "gut and amend" to keep the bill alive. If the state Senate eventually approves the new AB 849, it will have to go back to the Assembly for a vote before it reaches the governor's desk.
The gut-and-amend procedure involves taking an inconsequential bill that has already passed out of the Assembly and into the Senate (in this case AB 849, which originally concerned the fish-and-game industry), stripping it of all its original language and replacing it with the language of the bill to be kept alive (AB 19). This is done with the consent of the author of the original bill, whose name is then removed from the bill and replaced.
A legislative aide told CityBeat that while there are no statistics regarding the frequency or success of the gut-and-amend process, it's a common practice employed by legislators of both parties.
Although Leno says he intends to push the marriage bill until it crosses the finish line, he says he believes it's the responsibility of national leaders to re-frame the issue in a different context than the one conveyed by opponents of same-sex marriage. "It's not about gay marriage-it's about marriage equality," Leno said. "It's about, are all citizens in this country equal and first class, or are we not? That's the frame that should be established, and we need national leaders to do that for us. Unfortunately we're not seeing that right now."
As far as Leno is concerned, the Bush administration and certain members of Congress are guilty of deliberately intimidating politicians who might speak out against their agenda, discouraging social libertarians at the national level from advocating on the LGBT community's behalf.
"There are very few leaders at the federal level who are brave enough right now to do what they know is right, but out of political fear keep silent, even Democrats," he said. "I think it's very unfortunate when Howard Dean tells the nation that Democrats do not support marriage equality. I think he's operating out of fear."
Polls show same-sex marriage increasingly falling out of favor with the general public (a Gallup/USA Today/CNN poll conducted in April showed that 68 percent of respondents believed that same-sex marriage should not be recognized by law, compared to 55 percent in a similar poll taken last year).
In California, the Attorney General's Office has authorized sponsors of an anti-gay-marriage ballot measure to begin collecting the signatures that they hope will put the measure on the June 2006 ballot. The constitutional amendment would permanently ban same-sex marriage in the state and repeal some existing domestic-partner benefits. Two more similar measures were expected to be given the green light by the attorney general this week.
In the face of all this, Leno is optimistic that change is possible. "Part of that change will be our success here in California," he said. "When we succeed here, that will turn the tide dramatically and alter the national debate."
To that end, Leno plans to talk to rally attendees about what San Diegans can do to promote marriage equality. "It is so important for us to be out and proud in our lives in every way possible," he said. "That, probably more than any other act, helps to move public opinion in our direction."
Democrat Christine Kehoe, herself a lesbian representing San Diego in the State Senate, shares Leno's opinion. "Everyone who is out educates that many more straight people about who we are [and] breaks down stereotypes," Kehoe said.
Although Pride events are intended to celebrate the LGBT community and increase its visibility, Leno hopes people outside the community feel welcome to join the festivities.
Kehoe, who'll introduce Leno at the rally, agrees. "I think that all San Diegans should feel welcome," she said. "Many of the contingents from the universities and PFLAG [Parents Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays] have gay and non-gay members marching in the parade. The more the merrier is definitely the right attitude."The Spirit of Stonewall Rally will be Friday, June 29, at 7 p.m. at the festival main stage in Balboa Park, just off Balboa Drive at Juniper Street.