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July 6, 2013
Guest Opinion: Gay rights struggle has been difficult, not swift

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(July 6 -- By Tom Ammiano, Special to The Bee)

Some say the U.S. Supreme Court decision on marriage equality was a quick victory. I don't think so.

For political dinosaurs stuck in the prehistoric past, the court's decisions came with devastating speed, like the meteor that extinguished the dinosaurs of the Cretaceous. Republican gubernatorial candidate Abel Maldonado nearly got mental whiplash promoting his reversal on the issue.

By contrast, for those of us who spent decades fighting for the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people and others, the changes were anything but fast. Change never happens fast enough. The laws we fought against and the ones we fought for were things with daily impacts on the work, health and families of millions of people.

When you live with that struggle day-to-day, as I have, you sometimes wonder whether anything is ever going to change. Sometimes we moved forward, sometimes we had setbacks. In the end, the wins came after many of those we worked alongside had died. Harvey Milk is a familiar name, but we lost thousands of others who died before they could enjoy the right to marry the ones they loved.

I've been lucky to survive and see the changes. It's dramatic to see what we accomplished in my lifetime. When I came of age, sodomy was still a felony in every state in the country. Not just a crime - a felony! Those anti-gay laws were taken down slowly, state by state, court decision by court decision. Until the last ones were struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court just 10 years ago, some American gays still lived in fear of capricious prosecution for consensual, victimless, private behavior.

My political coming of age was in the 1970s, when I became one of the first few public school teachers in San Francisco to come out as gay. We were still entrenched in the defensive part of the struggle - trying to protect ourselves from attacks of all kinds: physical, cultural and legal.

I had to fight to keep my job when Sen. John Briggs floated an initiative to keep people like me out of the classroom. We won that victory at the ballot box, but LGBT people are still wrongfully and unreasonably treated as morally broken.

The gay teaching corps in those years also included my devoted partner of 18 years, Tim Curbo, another fighter who didn't live to see this day. Tim survives in his students' memories. I am still stopped by people in their 20s, not because I'm an elected official, but because Tim was their teacher and they remember him fondly. The discrimination Briggs promoted would have deprived those kids of a great teacher and role model.

The challenges and the victories came slowly. We had to fight to win employment rights as domestic partners. We had to swallow "don't ask, don't tell," as a bitter compromise. We eventually won the right to serve openly and proudly in the military. For the first time in history, this year the president of the United States mentioned our struggle for rights at his inauguration.

AIDS, the disease that killed so many of my contemporaries, was a different kind of struggle. I remember times when I would look at my address book and see 20 or 30 names of friends who had died in the previous year. Yes, address book; it was that long ago.

I was first elected to office in the 1990s and began working on a new level. As a member of the school board, I made sure there was a curriculum for lesbian and gay sensitivity for all kids.

On the San Francisco Board of Education, then on the Board of Supervisors and now in the California state Assembly, I have never been a single-minded advocate of LGBT rights. The rights of all people are tied together and the struggle to win and protect those rights never ends.

What does that mean in the context of the U.S. Supreme Court decisions? It means that I can celebrate their affirmation of marriage equality, but I have to keep working so that transgender children in California schools do not suffer discrimination and humiliation.

I welcome the same court's decision that guaranteed homeless people the same rights as anyone else against the seizure of their personal property. I still have to keep working on the Homeless Person's Bill of Rights to ensure that California laws don't continue to treat them as subhuman in other ways.

I also share the concerns of those troubled by the court's decisions that erode affirmative action and gut the Voting Rights Act. Decisions like this make clear that past victories - like marriage equality - can be undone. Progress is never smooth.

I could go on and on. Actually, I plan to go on. While we celebrate what we have gained, we have to remain vigilant to hold onto the rights we have won. While I start to plan my marriage, I must keep working on behalf of others who don't yet enjoy full rights.

We have to keep making history.

Assemblyman Tom Ammiano, D-San Francisco, represents the 17th District.

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