Not so long ago, mayors like Pete Wilson and Frank Curran didn't want to know gay people existed, let alone lived in San Diego. Those two guys wouldn't even let a gay person in the back door of City Hall for a secret meeting, let alone take their money, longtime gay activist Dr. Al Best says. Yet here we are, a city nationally notorious for holding conservative values, a city with a strong military influence, and the fire chief is gay, the mayor has gay senior staff, a City Council member and a state senator are gay, a superior court judge is gay, the county's district attorney and innumerable lesser officials: gay, gay, gay. Forget 'Don't ask, don't tell.' In millennial San Diego, the motto these days is, 'Who knows, who cares?'
So, how did we get from police officers asking lesbians if they 'want a real man' and beating gay men in the streets to this modern state? Things used to be so dark for the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender (LGBT) community that when gay activist Nicole Murray-Ramirez applied to the police department in 1974 to get the permit for the first pride parade, the cops practically sneered him away.
'They said, 'A homosexual parade in San Diego? We don't think so,'' Murray-Ramirez said. They had to threaten a lawsuit to get permission for the first parade, a demonstration that ran down Broadway.
A few years later, San Francisco elected Harvey Milk as its first openly gay county supervisor. That city's gay population was as overjoyed then as it was outraged when Milk was assassinated in 1978, and his killer received a seven-year sentence. In San Diego, a fired-up gay population supported the candidacy of Best, a little-known community health activist who decided that Maureen O'Connor's decision not to run for reelection to the District 2 City Council seat was his opening.
'I knew my life would change, and, brother, did it,' Best said.
Best remembers knocking on doors and meeting constituents, but he had no campaign experience, no particular credentials for public office, and, of course, he was gay. He received threatening phone calls at night and hate mail. His employer tried twice to fire him, though on both occasions the threat of lawsuits held the company at bay. Then again, he stunned political observers by raising $20,000, a substantial figure at the time. He stunned them again when he placed fifth in a field of 11 candidates. Not good enough to get into the runoff, but enough to send the message: San Diego's LGBT community was ready for its piece of the political pie.
Roger Hedgecock facilitated the next major step in local gay politics. Now best known to locals as a mainstay of the rightwing echo chamber and occasional fill-in host for Rush Limbaugh, Hedgecock in 1983 wanted nothing more than to be mayor of San Diego. To get there, he knew he needed some cash, and he didn't care if it came from lavender wallets or the checks had rainbow designs. Unlike his predecessors, Hedgecock not only took meetings with the likes of Murray-Ramirez, but he appointed them to city advisory boards on civil rights and the arts.
By 1987, AIDS had devastated the gay community. But even as it killed, men who had been in the closet were forced by their medical condition to emerge from it. Straight people suddenly discovered neighbors and family members who had been secretly gay. The community itself, its crisis deliberately ignored by the federal government, united to care for the stricken and to demand recognition of the epidemic. Best turned his attention away from politics to establishing local health centers. But activist and publisher Neil Good decided government needed to become more involved. At the time, district boundaries divided the gay constituency between districts 2, 3 and 8. Good lived in District 8, which included 'Filner's Finger,' a peninsula-like City Council boundary drawn into City Heights to include the home of now-Congressman Bob Filner, who ran in that election, and also the home of a third candidate, current City Attorney Mike Aguirre.
Unlike Best, Good's credentials as the publisher of Uptown, a community organizer and aid to County Supervisor Leon Williams made him a legitimate contender. By most reports, Good ran a well-organized campaign focused on making neighborhoods safer. Much to everyone's surprise, neither of the city's major dailies, the Union nor the Tribune, mentioned Good's sexual orientation through most of the campaign. Good's opponents took the low road. Filner used push polling to assess how constituents felt about having a homosexual candidate. Aguirre badgered Good into revealing the sources of his smallest donations. At the time, observers believed he was trying to reveal Good's gay financial backers, though Aguirre said he was looking for sneaky but unusually tight-fisted developers. By the end of the campaign, the race was close.
'I remember we had all these people in the house listening to the radio as election returns came in,' Murray-Ramirez said. 'At one point in the evening, the radio announcer said, 'Aguirre No. 3, Filner No. 2 and Good No. 1.' There was such cheering! Good turned to me and said, 'We better get down to Golden Hall.' So we piled into his car, and as we're on the way over, more results came in and Good slipped down to third. So we turned the car around. By the time we got there, everyone had left.'
Good lost by just 375 votes, though he raised more money than either of his opponents. He never got another chance to run for office-AIDS killed him two years later. But his campaign had raised the legitimacy of gay candidates in San Diego, and it provided crucial campaign experience to Good's lone staffer: Christine Kehoe.
Back in 1978, Kehoe returned to her birth city after getting her education elsewhere. She took a waitress job at an Ocean Beach café, but the sprightly young woman threw herself into community organizing. After a decade, she had established her reputation in the community as an energetic and capable organizer, plus she had become editor of the weekly San Diego Gayzette. She continued to work in politics but also became head of the Hillcrest Business Association. In 1990, she went to work for upstart John Hartley, which she followed by working for a state assemblyman and then a short stint working for City Manager Jack McGrory. In 1993, she heard rumors that Hartley was not going to run for reelection. She had to make the critical decision.
'I think by the time the opportunity presented itself, somehow I had accepted the idea inside,' she said. 'I guess I thought I should attempt it. At least, don't die wondering. I didn't want to pass up an opportunity that might not come around again.'
The plum of a City Council seat was finally ripe for the plucking. In 1988, district-only elections came to San Diego, suddenly making it possible for an interest-group candidate, who could always survive a primary, to win in a general election. And the district lines that were redrawn in 1990 merged the gay community into a single electoral entity, District 3.
By all accounts, Kehoe's campaign combined the best of grassroots activism with professional campaigning. Her campaign chief, Ruth Bernstein (who went on to become a professional pollster), made sure the campaign maintained detailed voter records and kept the message focused. Current City Councilmember Toni Atkins managed Kehoe's bulk mailings, a key tool in the days before City Council candidates bought TV time. Kehoe and groups of 35 or 40 volunteers walked the entire district twice, knocking on the door of nearly every house and apartment. When it came to fund-raising, Kehoe destroyed the opposition. From the moment she filed, she had the most money among the field of 11 primary candidates, and in the final three months of fund-raising before the general election in November, she raised more than double the $33,000 brought in by her opponent, Evonne Schulze.
Kehoe knew she'd have to absorb some gay-baiting attacks, but Schulze stayed away from sexuality as an issue until the very end, when the two exchanged sharp words in a radio debate. Out in the district, Kehoe said most of the voters treated her with courtesy. A few tried to convert her from her sinful ways, but Kehoe, who by then had adopted the dapper suits and spectacles she has become known for since, faced them with honesty, yet avoided getting into lengthy confrontations.
'The day the TV station came out to walk along with the candidate, we were in Kensington, in this beautiful block,' she said. 'I used to love walking there because all the flowers are great and the shrubs are trimmed and the lovely homes and nice lawns and all that business, so I go upstairs and ring the bell, and this woman opens up the door and the camera is, like, right there, and she goes, 'I could never vote for you, I could never support what you stand for!' Bam! She slammed the door. I was, like, 'Uhhhh....' It was a bummer.'
Kehoe's biggest antagonist was the newly merged Union-Tribune. The newspaper made Kehoe so angry that she remains peeved at it to this day. Unlike the Good campaign, when the papers ignored his sexuality, the U-T made a habit of referring to her as 'the openly lesbian candidate,' or similar locutions. On one occasion, Kehoe recalls, the paper worked her sexual orientation into the story in three different places, plus the photo caption.
'They were not very fair,' she said.
Kehoe came in second to Schulze in the primary, but with the chaff cleared away, the community united behind Kehoe. She obliterated her opponent by 10 percentage points in the general, and another societal taboo was shattered. San Diego had elected its first gay official.
At the time of Kehoe's election, another lesbian, this one from Brockton, Mass., had spent the previous three years striving to become the first openly gay state judge. Bonnie Dumanis already held a sort-of sub-judge position known as referee, and as a result she had attended the judge's training program. She tried to get appointed to the bench in the traditional manner, earning the approval of the state bar association. But in her 1992 interview with then-Gov. Pete Wilson's staff, they asked her if she was gay, and in a burst of self-destructive honesty, she said yes. Though she does not regret the honesty, Dumanis remains convinced that being a lesbian held her back.
When Kehoe broke the orientation barrier in 1993, Dumanis saw an opportunity to widen the breach by running for Municipal Court judge in 1994. Judicial races differ substantially from council races in that judges aren't allowed to actually campaign. Races are non-partisan, and the winner is often determined based on who can win prestigious endorsements or persuade those few voters who pay attention to judicial forums. Most voters have no idea who is running for judicial slots, and when six candidates vie for one position, it's hard to tell one candidate from another. Unless that one person is the only woman. And she talks like a Red Sox fan. And she's gay.
'It was my Democratic opponents who raised the gay issue,' she said.
Though Democrats generally get credited with having an open mind when it comes to issues of sexual orientation, Dumanis feels that Republicans have generally left her sexual orientation aside, even when they oppose her. But Democrats tried to use it as a wedge issue in both of her judicial elections.
Regardless, Dumanis mowed down her opponents. By the time she ran for Superior Court judge in 1998, sexual orientation had declined as a source of negative press. Dumanis' opponent still tried to leave some scratch marks when he developed a flyer emphasizing family values and depicting a picture of him and his family, but it didn't work. She won that election, and then, in 2002, Dumanis was elected as district attorney, becoming the first woman, the first Jew and the first lesbian elected to countywide office.
The roots well established and the first growth begun, San Diego's budding gay politicians were ready to branch out. Councilmember Atkins now represents Kehoe's District 3. Atkins grew up poor in southwestern Virginia and didn't come to San Diego until 1985, where she devoted herself to women's health issues. After helping Kehoe win election in 1993, she took what she intended to be a one-year stint as an aid to Kehoe but which turned into a seven-year position.
When she decided to run for office after Kehoe finished her second and, because of term limits, final term, she knew she was going to have an unusual challenge. That year, state Sen. William Knight wrote Proposition 22, the initiative that required California to recognize marriages only between a man and a woman. With that proposition on the ballot, voters already inclined toward homophobia would surely find their way to the polling booth in unusual numbers.
Atkins remembers walking the district and having to meta-phorically hold her nose as she passed lawn signs supporting the proposition. The campaign to get the proposition passed whipped up anti-gay fervor, and irate constituents ordered Atkins off more than one doorstep. Regardless, this was District 3, and the LGBT community was unlikely to give up its seat of power so easily, and Atkins won her seat. The proposition passed with the support of 61 percent of the statewide electorate, 62 percent in San Diego County.
Once in office, Atkins found that most of her colleagues treated her cordially, even those who strongly disapproved of her lesbianism. The late Councilmember George Stevens not only refused to sign the annual proclamation declaring San Diego Pride Week, but one time when he signed it by mistake, he ordered aids to white out his name.
Not that serving on the council was always easy. Atkins pushed hard to get the City Council to evict the notoriously homophobic Boy Scouts of America from its Balboa Park camp. When the City Council voted to let the scouts stay, Atkins said, 'I felt it in my gut, a real blow.' But on other issues, like affordable housing and homeless shelters, she could collaborate even with the likes of Stevens.
Atkins commanded such respect on the City Council that in 2005, after Mayor Dick Murphy and acting Mayor Michael Zucchet resigned in succession, her colleagues selected her to be acting mayor. For four months, a lesbian was the most powerful politician in San Diego.
One floor up from the City Council offices in City Hall is where Mayor Jerry Sanders and his team work. The white-painted corridors are nigh indistinguishable from any moderately prosperous office in America, with assistants' cubicles and desks huddled in the center while middle- and upper-level executives enjoy views of downtown. On occasion, Fred Sainz, George Biagi and Jeff Gattas-all senior staff with window offices-must meet to discuss pressing issues. Besides a common employer, little binds the three men. Sainz was born to Cuban immigrant parents, Biagi has Italian heritage and Gattas is of Lebanese and Irish descent. Sainz is a lifelong Republican, while the other two are Democrats. Sainz and Biagi speak fast and in bulk, while Gattas is quiet and reflective. Biagi has hair. Oh, and they're all gay. Not that anyone in the office cares.
Sanders' hires of three gay men in critical positions caused no discernable ripple in San Diego political circles. His selection of lesbian Fire Chief Tracy Jarman barely incited comment.
'I just pick the best people for the job,' Sanders said.
He plucked Sainz from his job doing communications for the San Diego Convention Center Corporation. Sainz had come to San Diego as a political operative to prep for the Republican National Convention in 1996. At the time, he was firmly in the closet, and he sublimated his sexuality through work and food.
'I thought anyone who didn't put in 12-hour days seven days a week was lazy,' he said.
The first year he spent in San Diego changed his life. He fell in love with the weather, with the laid-back nature of San Diegans and with the social and cultural diversity he found-all very different from the culture of humidity and workaholics in Washington, D.C. As part of his work on the convention, he met Kehoe.
'It was the first time I met a gay elected official,' Sainz said. 'It was a quiet reinforcement that it was OK to be gay out here.'
Biagi came to San Diego from the Jersey Shore with the express intent of coming out of the closet. He left behind a failed marriage and a career as an attorney. He knew other cities had more famous gay neighborhoods, but he had relatives here who were willing to let him stay with them. He took a job with the Gay and Lesbian Times delivering papers and selling ads and rose to become its editor before going to work for Atkins. Along the way, he reveled in his newfound sexuality, and stories are still told in the gay community of Biagi strutting across the sand of Black's Beach.
Originally from New Mexico, Gattas came to San Diego to attend San Diego State University. He took up politics and worked for then-state Assemblymember Denise Ducheny before working for the Clinton-Gore campaign in 1996. In 2000, he became Tony Atkins' chief of staff and joined Sanders' team in 2006. As a City Council liaison, he continued to work with Atkins from the 11th floor of City Hall. Just last week, he announced he will be leaving politics for a while to go work for UCSD.
All three men represent a rebirth of sorts for gay men in San Diego political circles. AIDS both demolished the population of gay men and created a huge experience gap. Only recently have gay men with the right credentials to occupy public office reappeared in the San Diego political scene. Jess Durfee has taken the reins of the county Democratic Party establishment. And last year, David Rubin became the first gay man in San Diego to win elected office when he defeated Paul Pfingst in a race for Superior Court judge. The resurgence flowered this spring as three gay men declared their intention to run for City Council, including Todd Gloria and Stephen Whitburn in District 3, and Republican Carl DeMaio in suburban District 5.
Even as gay men and lesbians have spread throughout San Diego's political cosmos, their sexual orientation appears to mean less and less. Conversations with the early activists like Best and Murray-Ramirez focused heavily on their gay identity and the need for gay civil rights, including job discrimination protection, healthcare and the right to marry. Kehoe, the groundbreaker, occupies a middle ground. She still identifies strongly with being gay and has made an effort in her career to appoint members of the LGBT community to advisory boards and government positions. But after two terms as a City Council member, two as a state Assembly member, and now her first term as a state senator, the pressing needs of political office have forced her to diversify her political goals.
Still, when asked if she was proud of her legacy and those who followed in her path, she said, 'Oh, yes, a lot.'
Dumanis, for her part, doesn't hide her sexual identity, but it's a subordinate part of her personality.
Atkins says being a lesbian ranks third in her self-definition, behind being a woman and growing up poor in the South.
By the time the mayor's men, or Durfee or Rubin, entered politics, being gay had shifted very much to the background of their work. Rubin likes to add a line to the non-discrimination portion of jury instructions that includes sexual orientation. But mostly, Rubin and the others said sexual orientation informs little of their work, aside from greater sensitivity to the needs of underrepresented or oppressed groups.
Jennifer LeSar has worked in community development and community banking for decades. On the continuum of gay identity, she probably fits somewhere between Atkins, who is also her partner, and Sainz, et. al. As a board member for the Centre City Development Corporation-its chair for two years-she hardly found her sexual orientation playing any role in her decisions at all. And that in and of itself is an enormous achievement.
'We've got members of the gay community serving openly on boards that aren't just arts boards or civil-rights boards,' she said. 'I hope what that really says is the gay community has made a lot of strides; we don't get pigeon-holed that we only serve the civil-rights community and the arts community. All of those are important, but we're a community as diverse as the city and county as a whole, and our sexual orientation doesn't matter.'