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Mark Leno Defends His Gay Education Bill, Lawrence King

Mark Leno Defends His Gay Education Bill, Lawrence King


If it wasn't for California state senator Mark Leno (D-San Francisco), the nation's first legislation requiring public schools educate children on LGBT history would never have come to fruition. Leno introduced the bill, championed it, and saw it pass this summer. That accomplishment, along with his push for marriage equality, will be honored on Saturday at the Stonewall Young Democrats' 5th Annual Hero Awards in Los Angeles. (Transgender actress Candis Cayne, California assemblyman Anthony Portantino, and Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Donna Groman will also be honored by the Stonewall Young Democrats and Betty Yee from California's Board of Equalization.) Leno spoke to The Advocate about his education bill -- already being challenged by right-wing conservatives -- as well as about restoring marriage equality to California and the increasingly sensational trial against accused killer Brandon McInerney, who shot gay teenager Lawrence King in 2008.

The Advocate: The hero award must mean a lot to you since it comes from young people.
Leno: It's always great to be recognized for your legislative work, especially when it's by young Democrats. In this case, the Stonewall Democrats. I'm very honored.

You're being recognized at least partly for your work on SB48, the FAIR Education Act. Before Governor Jerry Brown signed the legislation in July, were you worried he would veto it?
There are never assurances, but he's long been a supporter of our community and the bill is very sensible in its construct. Our sponsors, both Equality California and the GSA Network, did a good job of encouraging their supporters to communicate with the governor's office through thousands of emails urging him to sign the bill. And, if I can be frank, the opposition was really based among the far-right fringe, basically religious extremists.

The effort to reverse the FAIR Act at the ballot has already begun. What can be done to make sure the FAIR opponents don't get the signatures they need to qualify the initiative?
There is a very broad based coalition made up of dozens of civil rights advocacy groups who have come together to organize, mobilize, and raise the necessary funds for a decline-to-sign campaign. And the bar is very high for the initiative proponents; they need to collect over 700,000 signatures in a matter of months. That comes to over 7,000 signatures a day.

When is their deadline?
The first weekend in October. With a couple million bucks to pay signature gatherers $5 a signature, it's potentially doable. That would be for the June ballot. If they don't make it for June, they can get it on for November, which is better for us than June. But there could still be a risk in November. It's just a fact of life, we've always got these kinds of challenges with everything we do in California because of the initiative process.

Is there anything that can be done to prevent these ballot initiatives that target minorities?
There have been hearings held, and in some cases, legislation introduced to amend our current initiative system. It's clearly lost its way and is the antithesis of what the reform governor Hiram Johnson had in mind -- which was when the special interests have their hands around the throats of the legislature and the legislature is not doing the people's work, the people should have the opportunity to gather signatures and do it themselves. Well, Hiram Johnson never imagined a $5 bounty on every signature. Now it's the special interests with millions of dollars that control the initiative process.

Can't we change it so people can't be paid for getting signatures?
Well, Governor Brown just vetoed such a bill. It would have prevented signature gatherers from being paid by the signature and would have paid them a flat contract for the job or an hourly wage, but he vetoed it. I don't remember what he said in his veto message. Schwarzenegger vetoed it before. Other reforms would require signature gathers to identify as paid or volunteer. If you're coming out of the supermarket and someone with a paid sticker on their lapel says, "Hey, sign this," you're going to be a little more suspicious than if they were a volunteer. We should also be looking at the number of signatures required and also the time allowed for signature gathering.

Arguments on the Prop. 8 repeal begin on September 6. Do you think we'll get some sort of resolution this fall?
I don't know if it will take a proactive effort on our part or if a judge can do it him or herself, but that would be to limit the impact of the decision to just California, as opposed to nationwide. In which case, if they were to overturn Prop. 8 and impact no other state by the decision, then our opponents would still appeal to the Supreme Court and the Court would probably say, "We're not touching this." Then we would have prevailed and we would not have to go the Supreme Court, which is an iffy place for us to go. How long it will take once the case is presented in court, I don't know.

Something I want to bring up is that we, collectively, the Democrats of the California Legislature, have passed more legal protections for LGBT Californians than any other state has for its LGBT population. Literally, scores of bills over the past nine years. We take great pride that California's state legislature, six years before New York's, put a marriage equality bill on our governor's desk -- not just in 2005, but again in 2007. Of course, our own governor [Arnold Schwarzenegger] didn't understand his own marriage vows but that's another story. But I'd like to think we're part of the ongoing process and set part of the stage for what New York was able to do. What we were lacking was a governor with the leadership skills and passion that Governor Andrew Cuomo exhibited.

Will there be more movement from the California legislature on the issue of bullying?
We certainly think SB48 will go a long way in changing the environment on school campuses. The point I've been making is students recognize from an early age that there are some kids who are different, and it's not uncommon for kids to taunt and tease and assault those different kids. Currently, we're not instructing them or informing them that these different kids are part of a community -- a community that has historically been demonized and discriminated against and in recent decades fought successfully for its civil rights. Hopefully, that's what SB48 will do -- inform these kids of the broad diversity of the human experience. That's what education should be about. We know this is not conjecture -- in school districts like Los Angeles's and San Francisco's where this inclusive education already occurs, every survey indicates that all types of bullying and harassment decrease.

Have you been following the Lawrence King trial? The whole defense argument seems to be placing blame on King.
It's despicable. Lawrence King, from every news account I read, was a very shy, effeminate young boy. And I have used Lawrence King's murder as an example of how we fail our children. When the assailant was asked by his teacher, "Why did you do such a thing?" The response was, "He was too girly." We're not teaching kids that we come in different sizes, shapes, and styles. Just because someone is different doesn't give you license to shoot them dead in your classroom.

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