Friday, October 12, 2007

S.F. Assemblymember Leno Speaks at Freedom Banquet

Says Massachusetts Court Decision Led Him to Fight for Marriage


Copyright © 2007 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

The crowd was a bit smaller than usual and the event was considerably shorter — a shade under 80 minutes when previous ones have run well over two hours — but the San Diego Democratic Club’s annual Freedom Banquet, held October 6 at the Holiday Inn by the Bay downtown, was still a spirited affair. Hosted by Marti Emerald, Channel 10 “troubleshooter” TV news reporter turned San Diego City Council candidate in district 7, the Freedom Banquet kicked off with its keynote speaker, openly Gay State Assemblymember Mark Leno (D-San Francisco), and then offered a series of awards to club members and others who have served the cause of equal rights for the Queer community.

Much of the brevity of the program came from the fact that the awardees were permitted to make only brief thank-you remarks, not extended speeches. In addition to delivering the keynote address, Assemblymember Leno also received the A. Brad Truax Human Rights Award (named after a former club president who helped build the group in the early 1980’s before retiring as president and later dying of complications from AIDS). Stephanie Moody-Geissler, granddaughter of former club vice-president Margaret Moody, won the R. Steven Pope volunteerism award. Former club president Doug Case, who’s been on its board continuously for the last 17 years — longer than anyone else — won the Gloria Steinem Communications Award.

Greg Bolian, the club’s voter registration chair, won the J. Douglas Scott Political Action award and proudly boasted that voters who register at the club’s table choose the Democratic over the Republican party eight to one — except at the Pride Festival, where the ratio was 35 to 1. Former club president Jeri Dilno, a Queer rights activist since the 1960’s, won the Herb King Lifetime Achievement Award. The President’s Award, the only one that is kept secret until the night of the event, was given by club president Andrea Villa to Dale Kelly Bankhead of the local office of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), which has successfully defended Queer rights in court proceedings against the Boy Scouts of America and others.

“It’s about time we got over the discrimination and got on with the business of our city, county, state and nation,” Emerald said at the start of the event. Introducing Leno, she noted that he was only the second openly Gay man to be elected to the California State Assembly, “He deserves credit for fighting for all the right causes,” Emerald said of Leno. “He’s on the Assembly Appropriations Committee and is also fighting the good fight for civil marriages [for same-sex couples]. It doesn’t seem like it should be such a difficult issue. Mark Leno is doing the public good.”

“The most surprising fact of life in Sacramento is the severity of the partisanship,” Leno said at the beginning of his speech — though he followed it with a joke about how, having started his political career on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors (their equivalent of a city council), he hadn’t had much experience in dealing with Republicans. “Our Republican and Democratic colleagues each think the others are out of their minds,” Leno said, “and it’s up to us to find common ground and work together.” It sometimes does happen, Leno added; he pointed with pride to a bill he’s co-sponsoring with a particularly Right-wing Republican from Orange County, Chuck DeVore, to allow California farmers to grow industrial hemp.

But virtually all the rest of Leno’s speech was about marriage equality for same-sex couples, one of the most bitterly partisan questions in state and national politics and one which has become a signature issue for him. Twice, in 2005 and 2007, Leno has carried bills to eliminate the section of California’s Family Code defining marriage as the union of a man and a woman. The 2005 bill was passed by narrow margins in both houses of the legislature but was vetoed by Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, who said that only the people or the courts should change the California marriage law to allow Gay and Lesbian couples to marry. The 2007 bill also passed the legislature and is now on Governor Schwarzenegger’s desk -— and the goodie bags passed out at the event included postcards addressed to him urging that he sign the bill into law this time.

“Of all the important issues we work on — water, energy, affordable housing, health care — there’s a special privilege fighting legislatively for civil rights,” Leno said. He offered congratulations to San Diego Mayor Jerry Sanders for signing the City Council resolution to have San Diego appear as a friend of the court on San Francisco’s behalf in its lawsuit to have the state ban on same-sex marriage declared unconstitutional — an act for which Sanders, a Republican, is being threatened with the loss of his party’s endorsement in his re-election race. “With your mayor and our mayor” — Gavin Newsom, whose decision to have San Francisco grant marriage licenses to same-sex couples for one month from mid-February to mid-March 2004, when the state supreme court shut it down, triggered the pending court case — “we can really create social change,” Leno said.

Leno said he’d believed in the right of same-sex couples to marry “even before I took public office in 1998,” but it wasn’t until the Massachusetts state supreme court ruled on the issue in November 2003 that he became really passionate about it and convinced that the Queer community had to fight not only for the rights and responsibilities of marriage but for the word itself. “The Massachusetts court said there is no justification for discrimination and that separate is rarely, if ever, equal,” Leno recalled. “The only remedy is marriage, and marriage alone, because, in their words, anything less would perpetuate a destructive stereotype about how same-sex couples love. What we all have in common is our ability to love and our desire to love another person. For our law to say there’s one group of people who deserve marriage, and another who maybe deserve something almost as good, is to discriminate.”

According to Leno, the key to getting his marriage equality bill through the California legislature in both 2005 and 2007 was building a coalition between Equality California, the state’s Queer-rights group, and other civil rights organizations representing women and people of color. He boasted that the California chapters of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the Mexican-American Legal Defense and Education Fund (MALDEF), Chinese for Affirmative Action and the National Organization for Women (NOW) had endorsed his bill, and so had the California Council of Churches and the California ACLU.

Leno boasted that California’s is the only state legislature that has passed a marriage equality bill without first being ordered to do so by a court. He said that the success was built “from the ground up,” starting with a meager domestic partnership bill which only conferred one right to its beneficiaries — to visit each other in hospital — but was added to again and again until today California’s registered domestic partners have virtually all the rights the state grants to heterosexual married couples.

Though the battle for marriage rights is being carried out on several fronts — the legislature as well as the state supreme court — “the last word will be on the ballot,” Leno conceded. Unlike in Massachusetts, where opponents of marriage equality have so far been unable to navigate the state’s cumbersome procedure for amending its constitution to reverse their state’s supreme court decision granting marriage rights to same-sex couples, a pro-marriage ruling in California could be reversed by an initiative similar to Proposition22, passed in March 2000 with over 61 percent of the vote, which officially prevented California from recognizing same-sex marriages from other states or countries but has widely been cited as a final verdict from California voters against recognizing same-sex marriages at all.

Leno conceded that, even if his bill were signed into law by Schwarzenegger or whoever succeeds him as governor in 2011, “our adversaries will try to reverse it in a referendum or an initiative.” He said he thinks the California Supreme Court will rule in favor of marriage equality — even though none of the other six state high courts who’ve heard the issue since 2003 have done so, and only one (New Jersey) even went as far as requiring the legislature to provide domestic partnerships or civil unions.

“Our adversaries say they are as eager to deny us domestic partnerships as marriage licenses,” Leno said, citing Randy Thomasson and his group Campaign for California’s Families, who have already proposed an initiative to ban same-sex marriage, invalidate the California domestic partnership law, and also get rid of California’s law allowing post-operative Transsexuals to marry in their new gender. He did not mention the rival initiative, proposed by Gail Knight (widow of Proposition 22 author Pete Knight) and the California Family Institute (the state’s affiliate of one of the radical Right’s most powerful organizations, Focus on the Family), which would write a ban on same-sex marriages into the state constitution but leave the domestic partnership law in place.

“We will see it on the ballot,” Leno acknowledged. “So we will have to continue to educate the people, to put a human face on the issue.” Leno recalled that during the one-month opening for same-sex marriages in San Francisco in early 2004, “I had the opportunity to marry a couple of old gentlemen who had been together over 50 years. Shortly afterwards, one of them unexpectedly died of heart disease, and Marvin, the survivor, could not access any of the benefits he would have had if they had been a married couple. Therefore, he could no longer afford the rent on the home the couple had shared for 35 years, and he ended up homeless. Since then, he’s been helped out and he’s back off the streets, but he should not have had to suffer that. Apparently this is what Governor Schwarzenegger thinks is fair.”