Is San Diego the New Home of LGBT Activism?

Is San Diego the New Home of LGBT Activism?

Most people think of New York’s 1969 Stonewall riots as the flashpoint that launched the modern LGBT rights movement. But demonstrations — and even riots — protesting police abuse of lesbian gay, bisexual, and transgender people occurred on the West Coast years before a collection of Stonewall patrons line-kicked their way into history.

Still, Stonewall’s vaunted position as the seminal moment in the struggle for LGBT rights, equality, and dignity reigns so supreme that even Los Angeles’s Pride festival calls itself "Christopher Street West," a nod to the original home of the Stonewall Inn in New York. Then there's San Francisco, where residents have been marching, protesting, picketing, and agitating for the better part of five decades, rightly earning the city the honor of being informally labeled the country's "gay mecca."

But some high-profile national LGBT leaders and allies say these cities have some stiff competition from California’s second-largest city, San Diego. The coastal city on the U.S-Mexico border, 500 miles south of San Francisco, has in recent years become a major force in LGBT activism.

Surprised? Well, maybe you shouldn’t be. Having largely shaken off its conservative image, San Diego circa 2014 is not your father’s surf city. For decades now, a core group of San Diego activists has been steadily pushing the city forward on several fronts when it comes to LGBT equality. Many of those triumphs have been both substantive and symbolic.

"Think about it: The first street in America to be named for a gay civil rights leader is not in San Francisco," explains longtime activist and San Diego Pride cofounder Nicole Murray-Ramirez. "The first Harvey Milk Street is in San Diego."

San Francisco’s sterling reputation as home of the gay rights movement is well-deserved, says Ramirez. But San Diego’s LGBT community has done more lately to further the cause of equality than that of any other American city, Murray-Ramirez contends.

As evidence, he points to a steady stream of openly gay San Diegans who have handily won elections to public office, including former State Sen. Christine Kehoe, former City Councilman Carl DeMaio, San Diego Unified School Board president Kevin Beiser, City Council president Todd Gloria, County Supervisor Dave Roberts, and California Assembly Speaker Toni Atkins.

Earlier this year, Atkins briefly served as acting governor when the state's three higher-ranking elected officials were all out of California. It may have been a temporary position, but for a few hours, the country's first openly gay governor happened to be a San Diego lesbian. 

"Going back several years, long before other major cities had done it, [San Diego] elected a lesbian named Bonnie Dumanis district attorney," Murray-Ramirez notes. "We have had gay and lesbian City Council members, gay judges, school board members, and currently, a gay man as school board president, and a gay man — Dave Roberts — as county supervisor."

But why compare cities' perceived ranks in the struggle for equality to begin with? Why compete for bragging rights at all?

One reason may have to do with attracting people, investments, and other resources. Each year, the nation's largest LGBT advocacy group, the Washington, D.C.-based Human Rights Campaign compiles several lists rating companies, universities, and even cities for their LGBT-friendliness, and the availability of equal opportunities for gay people. Many of the organizations and institutions that earn high marks on HRC's equality indexes issue press releases highlighting their perfect grade as a way to attract talented employees, better students, and loyal customers. Both San Francisco and San Diego scored a perfect 100 on HRC’s Municipal Equality Index each year since it's been compiled (the first one came out in 2012).

Notwithstanding whatever value exists in competitive comparisons between the two cities, a younger generation of San Diego activists is less bullish than Murray-Ramirez about where San Diego ranks in a match-up against San Francisco.

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“San Francisco still has it,” says Will Williams, a 24-year-old transgender man and San Diego City College political science major who founded San Diego Trans Pride this year.

He spent months carrying a sign urging San Diegans to “decline to sign” a petition circulated by right-wing groups hoping to repeal California's groundbreaking law guaranteeing trans students access to sports teams and facilities corresponding with their gender identity, known as the Student Success and Opportunity Act. Ultimately, the transphobic coalition failed to gather enough legitimate signatures to put a measure on the ballot by which voters could repeal the law, also known as AB1266.

"There is definitely a strong activist community here in San Diego; and we're doing a lot of really good work here," Williams says. "But I think San Francisco just has more."

Williams points to San Francisco's generally more progressive culture, along with long-standing organizational and institutional infrastructures, as key factors that make it an easier place to do the kind of activism he says is needed to secure more acceptance and equality for LGBT people locally, regionally, nationally, and globally.

By contrast, Williams argues that San Diego's well-established local organizations — like the LGBT Community Center, San Diego LGBT Pride, and San Diego Human Dignity Foundation — do effective work, but within a narrow scope.

And while some might point to the nine military bases in the greater San Diego area as a possible hurdle to equality, another young activist says that's exactly what makes the city the national headquarters for activism among LGBT members of the armed forces.

"I would say San Diego, as far as military activism, is by far number one," says Sean Sala, organizer of the nation's first uniformed, active-duty military contingent to march in an LGBT Pride parade. A year before that historic march, Sala and other active-duty members of the military risked dishonorable discharge for marching openly at San Diego Pride in 2011, prior to the repeal of "don't ask, don't tell."

This year, however, it was an out elected official who was the most anticipated San Diego Pride Parade first. Assemblywoman Toni Atkins’s homecoming was not only that of the first San Diegan to be elected by her peers as speaker of the California State Assembly; she was also the first lesbian to be named to the post. Naturally, she was San Diego Pride 2014's grand marshal.

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"San Diego, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Long Beach, Sacramento — California’s largest cities all have dynamic LGBT communities who are pushing the envelope on activism," Atkins tells The Advocate. "I [was] delighted to serve as grand marshal of the San Diego Pride Parade and I was honored at the warm reception our delegation received marching in the San Francisco parade."

Bay Area Reporter political columnist and assistant news editor Matthew S. Bajko is a 13-year veteran of LGBT media, currently covering statewide politics for the San Francisco-based outlet. He remembers meeting Atkins back when she was a political novice from San Diego who had come to San Francisco to attend a Victory Fund workshop, hoping to gain skills from the organization that helps fund LGBT political candidates in local elections nationwide.

"She was thinking of running for office for the first time," Bajko recalls. "A few years later, I interviewed her as speaker of the Assembly."

Bajko says that very few LGBT politicos from San Francisco go to San Diego to raise funds for campaigns. But, he notes, many San Diego LGBT candidates for public office, including Atkins, still go northward for that purpose.  

"I don't think [San Diego has] surpassed San Francisco so much as caught up," says Bajko. "I'd say we're now on an even playing field. San Diego has come a long way."

According to Atkins, there is no contest, no scorekeeping, when it comes to civil rights.

"We’re not in a competition, but in a collaboration where we share ideas and best practices and spur each other on to greater success," says Atkins.