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Going steady with

Going steady with


Los Angeles mayor Antonio Villaraigosa is being described as a rising Democratic star, maybe even a future president. But will he keep his vision of total equality for gays and lesbians alive?

Less than one week after his inauguration as the mayor of the nation's second-largest city in July 2005, Antonio Villaraigosa surprised his gay fans by opening Outfest, a renowned LGBT film festival. As he stepped onto the stage the crowd rose to its feet and roared. It was the first time a mayor of Los Angeles had spoken at the event's curtain-raiser. For Villaraigosa, it was a familiar setting.

"We love you," someone in the crowd yelled. Others shouted out compliments on his good looks. And the married father of two only laughed and said thank you.

A charismatic former activist who grew up in the tough streets of east Los Angeles, Villaraigosa, 53, has been hailed as a national political figure, appearing on the cover of Newsweek under the headline "Latino Power." He's a devout Roman Catholic backed by top conservative church leaders, including Cardinal Roger Mahony, archbishop of Los Angeles.

But he's also a staunch supporter of gay rights who in his six years as a state legislator never backed away from an unremitting commitment to equality [see sidebar]. It's not just for votes, either. He puts out his money to prove it. "When the [anti-same-sex marriage] Knight bill came along in 2000, I put $10,000 of my own money in [to try to defeat it]," he says proudly. And he has impressed many gays and lesbians by combining his last name, Villar, with his wife's, Raigosa--similar to what numerous same-sex couples have done.

Sitting in a plush armchair inside his stately city office, Villaraigosa seems more like a casual acquaintance at a cocktail party than an imposing national figure. Looking characteristically dapper in a stylish dark suit with a purple tie, he sips from a large cup of coffee and makes small talk about home life. He speaks slowly, giving thought to each word, but there is a tension about him, as if he is coiled and ready to strike at the mere mention of the country's toughest political issues, including ours.

"Antonio is a rock star," says longtime gay rights leader Torie Osborn, who serves as special adviser to Villaraigosa. "When you're a rock star you carry a lot of influence. That goes a long way on the more controversial issues, and he's taking us with him."

Is he?

When you attended the Outfest opening night ceremonies last year, gay men were all but whistling at you. How did that make you feel? Oh, I know they're joking [chuckles]. I've attended almost every Christopher Street West [pride] parade [in West Hollywood]. Sometimes, especially when I was younger, they'd have these big signs saying he's a 10. I always liked that.

Do you have many gay friends or family members? Yes. I have two openly gay nephews out of three; I have gay cousins. In the 1950s my mother had gay couples over for dinner.

If one of your children came out, what would you say to them? I'd love them. I'd embrace them. I've always said that. The two nephews I mentioned, I love them like my own sons. I love them dearly.

A lot of people are describing you as a model for success without having to give up your convictions. Do you agree? I do believe that when we get elected we bring with us our values. I think it's very important for us to be advocates for a hopeful and generous America that welcomes all its people.

You became an activist at a young age, even protesting with civil rights leader Cesar Chavez. How did that lead to your support for gay rights? I'm only here today because there was the Voting Rights Act in this country. I believe that when you open up the door of opportunity for one of us, you open it up for all of us. When you deny basic civil rights to one group, you deny it to all of us. So early on, especially during the years when I was president of the ACLU, gay and lesbian civil rights issues were very important to me, and when I got to the legislature I continued in that effort.

How is it that you've made it this far while so strongly advocating for gays? I come by these values honestly. I think people see that. I'm consistent. We live in a country founded on the principle that we all have the right to pursue happiness. That's not just for some of us, it's for all of us. Love is an intrinsic component of happiness. I don't think the government should be getting involved in [how people express love].

You're being described by most people as a national figure, yet most national Democratic leaders are not nearly as supportive of same-sex marriage as you. Why is that? I think too many people worry about the weather vane of public opinion and forget that we're elected to reflect our values, our experiences--to be able to stand up for what's right even when many people don't agree.

You're not worried about reelection? We all want to get reelected. But even on the issue of immigration reform I stood up and welcomed 500,000 immigrants. On the issue of civil rights for women I've always stood up. Why wouldn't I stand for the GLBT community as well?

Still, it is surprising that such a prominent Catholic Latino leader is as supportive as you are. I grew up in the Catholic Church, and I am devout in the sense that I have a deep and abiding faith in God. But I believe in God as loving and benevolent, accepting of all his children.

Have you experienced a backlash from other Latino leaders over your support for same-sex marriage? I have from time to time, but you're always going to have people who are upset with a position you take. I don't preoccupy myself with those who take umbrage with my views on issues. I respect other views, and I've always been very respectful that the views I come with are just those: my views.

A lot of people don't agree that gays and lesbians deserve the rights that you would offer. How do we change that on a national level? By talking to people in a way that touches them. I believe very strongly in family values. I think that promoting loving partnerships in a world that increasingly discounts the role of the family is a very good thing. And we should always nurture a healthy skepticism of the role of government to intrude into our lives. [We need to] speak to whether we want government legislating what we do in the privacy of our homes, what we do in terms of whom we love, and in terms of whom we wish to enter into a relationship with.

When you say "we," whom are you talking about? I use the "we" nomenclature a lot with those whom I empathize with. The LGBT community is a community I've worked with for many years now. They've supported me over the years. I can only be thankful and honored.

How can gays and lesbians hold other Democratic leaders' feet to the fire when they start to backtrack on our rights? They've got to hold their Democratic and Republican leaders accountable. Sometimes, to be honest, they focus too much on trying to get one party to do more and fail to hold accountable the other party. The issue of civil rights for all should be at the top of the agenda for both parties.

When it comes to the parties, it seems like the Democrats are laboring under a Republican spin machine in which everything they say is labeled as a sign of weakness, especially in an election year. How can they break out of that? I think it's important for us to speak to America's values, to speak to a broader view of what faith is all about, what family values are about. We can't be afraid to challenge those who would so narrowly define these issues so as to exclude not just gays and lesbians but a broad swath of Americans. Almost always, these people who advocate bigotry have a very broad application for their wrath.

Yes, but challenging those who narrowly define civil rights issues does not seem to be something most Democratic leaders are doing. I choose to spend my time focusing on what we can agree on--on articulating my concern for gay and lesbian civil rights. You miss an opportunity when you don't advocate equality for all.

As a legislator you worked on a bill to include gays and lesbians in public school curriculums. Why was that important to you? Working with [out legislator] Sheila Kuehl, I got that bill out. That bill was dead, and I got it out during my speakership because it was important. I've always believed that young kids should be nurtured and supported in a way that gets them to dream and reach the stars. We can't limit those dreams to one group of students.

Before the school diversity bill was vetoed by the governor this year, Kuehl watered it down as a kind of compromise. That upset a lot of gays and lesbians who have had to face unfavorable compromises on issues from military policy to civil unions. When do we get what we deserve without compromise? When we've done the hard work of building broader support. That's why I say coalitions are so important. You mentioned my willingness to be strong about my views. I am. But I'm also not afraid to do the hard work that it takes to get others to join me.

Some people are talking about you as a future governor or even president, and many gays and lesbians are beginning to wonder, When are you going to sell us out? [Chuckles] Judge me by what I've done and by what I do, not by some unfounded speculation about what I might do. The best way to see where somebody is going is to look at where they've been.

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