California has enacted a raft of LGBTQ-supportive legislation over the past few years – and that makes the state a leader in the defiance to the homophobic, transphobic policies of Donald Trump’s administration, says Assembly Member Evan Low.
“We believe that we are the home of the resistance,” says Low, who has just finished a stint as chair of the California Legislative Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Caucus. “We also represent the best values of humanity.”
Low, who has passed the caucus leadership baton to Sen. Scott Wiener, took time to discuss the California legislature’s recent accomplishments with The Advocate – and to reflect on the work that still needs to be done.
During Low’s two years as chair of the caucus, it grew to a record eight members, all Democrats. One member, Toni Atkins of San Diego, was elected president pro tempore of the Senate, the first woman and first member of the LGBTQ community to hold that position. Previously, she was the first woman and first lesbian to be Assembly speaker (a gay man, John Perez, had been speaker before her). The caucus also helped to form and sponsor an LGBTQ Staff Association in the capitol.
Even more important, though, was that the legislature passed 16 pro-equality bills, and they were signed into law by Gov. Jerry Brown (who was just this month succeeded by the likewise pro-equality Gavin Newsom). These included first-in-the-nation measures to mandate gender-affirming care for foster youth, honor LGBTQ veterans, recognize a nonbinary gender on legal documents, and codify June as Pride Month.
California also modernized its HIV criminalization law – knowingly exposing a partner to HIV without disclosure is no longer a felony, reflecting the medical advances that make it more difficult to transmit HIV. In another piece of legislation, the state mandated training on LGBTQ issues for law enforcement officers.
One bill that didn’t get passed, however, was one Low authored, to classify conversion therapy as consumer fraud. Low ended his effort to pass it it on the last day of the session in August. It had enough bipartisan support to get through both houses of the legislature, he says, but he wanted to build an even stronger case.
“I paused on the legislation in order to elicit support from the evangelical community,” he says.
Kevin Mannoia, the former president of the National Association of Evangelicals, wrote an op-ed for The Orange County Register in which he said LGBTQ activists and evangelical Christians could find common ground on the issue, although he thought the bill overreached. He left open the possibility of evangelicals and the LGBT caucus working together on the matter.
That fits in with Low’s plan. “It’s my full intent and desire to get more support from the evangelical community,” he says. Classifying conversion therapy as fraud for which patients could sue builds on California’s action to ban its use on minors by state-licensed therapists. The state was the first in the nation to enact such a law, back in 2012.
Not all has been rosy, however, for LGBTQ Democrats in California in the past couple of years. Ed Buck, a gay West Hollywood man who has donated to many prominent Democratic politicians in California and elsewhere, has been embroiled in scandal over accusations that he administered illegal drugs to black men; two have been found dead in his home, one in 2017, one just this month. No criminal charges have been filed against Buck, who denies any wrongdoing, but the investigation continues.
And last year, Eric Bauman, the gay man who chaired the California Democratic Party, resigned his position amid accusations that he had sexually harassed both men and women.
“We can always do better as a community,” Low says when asked about these matters. When people engage in egregious misconduct, “we have to hold them accountable,” he adds.
Also, while there’s diversity in the LGBT caucus, there’s a need to up the ante there, he says. The caucus has both men and women, and has Asian-American and Latinx members, but right now there are no out LGBTQ African-American state legislators in California.
Along with accountability and diversity, the goals for Low and the rest of the caucus over the next few years include combating homelessness, building on the existing bill of rights for LGBTQ seniors, finding a way to identify LGBTQ suicides in order to address the cause, assuring access to pre-exposure and post-exposure prophylaxis, and taking further steps to protect transgender people, the most marginalized of the LGBTQ community.
Low doesn’t discount that much progress has been made. When he was mayor of Campbell, Calif., in the early 2000s, he could officiate marriages, but he couldn’t marry a same-sex partner. That has changed, and so has the attitude of many conservatives toward LGBTQ equality – at least in California.
It used to be, he says, that Republicans in the legislature would respond to pro-LGBTQ legislation with hateful rants. Now, “not only do you have Republicans not spewing hate, but we have them voting with us,” he says. That’s different from what one sees in some other parts of the country, including in Washington, D.C. – another way in which California appears to lead the nation.
Low adds that he and the rest of the caucus are excited about working with Newsom, who was an early champion of marriage equality – in 2004, as mayor of San Francisco, he declared that the city would perform and recognize same-sex marriages. The marriages were eventually nullified, but the movement toward equality rolled on. Another highlight of the November election, when Newsom won the governor’s race to succeed the term-limited Brown, was the victory of Ricardo Lara in the contest for insurance commissioner, making him the state’s first openly LGBTQ statewide official.
Still, with equality not fully realized anywhere and an anti-LGBTQ administration in Washington, there is work to do. “It’s imperative that we continue to fight for what we believe in,” Low says.