With a population of 1.3 million, San Diego is the nation's eighth-largest city. America's Finest City, as is the motto here, has also become a powerhouse of LGBT politics. Some are surprised to learn that first street in the U.S. named after Harvey Milk is in San Diego. But that's just the start; San Diego's LGBT firsts are nothing short of amazing.
But out gay Third Council District Councilman Todd Gloria’s tenure draws to a close next year due to term limits. Like former State Sen. Christine Kehoe and current California Assembly Speaker Toni Atkins who served the council district before him, Todd has written a historic chapter in the story of this city's decades-long LGBT civic leadership. Their work is part of the fabric that forms the history of LGBT politics in America.
In 1991 only 49 of the nearly 500,000 elected officials in the United States were out. We lived with military service bans against open service and without marriage equality, inheritance and adoption rights, or workplace discrimination protections. With LGBT people making up only 0.01 percent of our elected leaders, it’s no wonder our issues weren’t a priority.
That's why the Gay and Lesbian Victory Fund was formed that year. A group of local LGBT advocates led by the late Charlie McKain combed through data to recommend a council district that encapsulated businesses and social services important to our community. We shared common progressive values with our neighbors, and the modern Third Council District was born. Soon after, Christine Kehoe become San Diego’s first openly LGBT elected official.
Kehoe earned the respect of her colleagues and the admiration of her community for effectively representing all residents of the district while facing pubic sneers and anti-LGBT epithets. Around the same time, a young student named Todd Gloria was listening to a professor say that a gay person could never be elected to office. Fortunately, people like Kehoe proved that teacher wrong, and we replicated the accomplishment with Toni Atkins in 2000, then Gloria in 2008. Both Kehoe and Atkins were so effective that they ascended to historic leadership roles in the state legislature, and Gloria’s meteoric rise has been nothing short of ceiling-shattering in its own right.
Our work progressed — from creating hate-crimes registries to enacting domestic-partner benefits for employees to the establishment of an Equal Benefits Ordinance, and more. When tear gas was thrown into the pride parade or thugs accosted Hillcrest men leaving a bar, we had leaders to help the community respond and activate city assistance. We were at the table and we were winning.
After 22 years of LGBT leadership, some have asked if it’s important that the next council member be from the San Diego LGBT community. I argue it that is vital to our district’s and city’s future success.
For decades, council districts have helped provide legislators with the diversity of experience and perspectives that ensure our government remains responsive to all San Diegans. Being at the table matters; it builds trust for all San Diegans and signals a commitment to being a truly inclusive city.
To suggest that we have come so far in our policies that it no longer matters who we elect is not just short-sighted, it’s wrong. Anti-equality forces are ready to roll back our progress at any opportunity, and intolerance remains overwhelming in too many places. Young people need role models in elected office to inspire and give them hope, and all LGBT San Diegans and Americans want to know that one of their own is present, who understands their perspective and who would be responsive to their unique needs. Look no further than the inability to pass employment nondiscrimination legislation in Congress, states' attempts to bar LGBT patrons from businesses, or ontinued anti-LGBT graffiti targeting, and harassing local establishments to know our work is far from over.
Further, with a lineage of council members in succession who identify as lesbian or gay, there’s the concept of a district that has evolved to become synonymous with the LGBT community. The practical impact and symbolic power in the lives of LGBT people who know that one of our own is always there for them is hard to overstate. That's the essence of democratic representation. Losing our presence on legislative bodies after decades of being there and when we are still underrepresented in the overall number of elected offices would be a hit to our identity. It would feel personal for tens of thousands.
Successful LGBT representatives have shown that progress comes through education, alliances, and relationships. Supporting our allies in their causes has been and will continue to be reciprocated in ways critical to our progress. They in turn stand up for us in their communities to change hearts and minds on the question of LGBT rights. Only together can we tackle the complex, common challenges we share in discrimination, health disparities and environmental conditions, creating economic opportunities for disadvantaged individuals and businesses, and facilitating housing and services for those in need. We need leaders who must live with the consequences of inaction to keep full equality burning at the forefront of our civic debate.
San Diego isn’t just on that road, it’s pioneering the path. Like Kehoe, Atkins, and Gloria before me, I am thrilled to be a candidate for the same office as a proud member of the LGBT community to represent our district, which includes many neighborhoods with a high density of LGBT people, and build on my predecessors' work. I am working hard to improve our communities and help our city progress. When I talk to neighbors as a candidate ready to serve them, I’m heartened to know I have the wind at my back from hundreds of LGBT activists and allies who share my appreciation for the special nature of our district and the honor that I will continue to bring to the office. As a community, we have fought too hard to have a seat at the table to get complacent and let that go.
CHRIS WARD is a candidate for San Diego City Council in District 3. He is a Senate chief of staff, board member for the San Diego LGBT Center and San Diego Human Dignity Foundation, and community planner and volunteer. He and his partner are homeowners in University Heights in San Diego and proud parents of a young daughter.