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California Elects Historic Number of LGBTQ State Lawmakers

More than 10 percent of the incoming legislative class will be lesbian, gay or bisexual members, marking the proportionally most openly queer state legislature in U.S. history.

(TNS) — No state legislature in American history has ever been as openly queer, at least proportionately speaking, as California's incoming class of state lawmakers.

Voters elected a record number of LGBTQ people to legislative office in the Nov. 8 election, due in part to unusually high turnover at the state Capitol in Sacramento and an aggressive candidate recruitment effort.

More than 10% of the next Legislature will be lesbian, gay or bisexual members. Twelve LGBTQ legislators have already won their races but the total could reach as high as 13, if Palm Springs Council Member Christy Holstege wins her uncalled race for state Assembly. Either way, it's a dramatic increase from the eight LGBTQ legislators in office currently.

Community leaders and legislators said the boost in representation comes at a crucial time, as LGBTQ people face increasingly visceral right-wing attacks over issues like transgender rights.

"We're not done," said Assembly Member Evan Low, D- Sunnyvale, who chairs the California Legislative LGBTQ Caucus. "At a time when extremists have done everything they can to demonize our community, we've proven that California will continue to be a guiding light for our country."

The incoming group of legislators includes several firsts: Assembly Member-elect Corey Jackson, D- Moreno Valley ( Riverside County) will be the first out gay Black legislator; and Holstege would be the first openly bisexual female legislator, if she holds onto a sizable lead in her race.

No other state has come close to 10% LGBTQ representation in its state Capitol — Vermont and New Hampshire have 13 and 14 out lawmakers, respectively, but those states have vastly larger Legislatures. Only about 0.21% of elected officials nationwide are members of the community, according to Victory Fund, an advocacy group.

Surpassing the 10% representation mark holds important significance for the community: LGBTQ advocates have long estimated that roughly one in 10 people are members of the community. About 2.7 million or 9.1% of California adults identify as LGBTQ, according to a Census data analysis by the Public Policy Institute of California.

But the record size of the LGBTQ caucus won't just have symbolic meaning. Its members have ambitious policy proposals to help protect the community from attacks, both in California and beyond.

LGBTQ lawmakers said they plan to work on issues like the disproportionate effect of homelessness, substance abuse and suicide on the community. They also plan to debate how best to protect marriage equality in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court's decision to overturn the constitutional right to an abortion earlier this year, which raised fears that other personal rights could be in jeopardy.

"There's a lot more that's left to do for this incoming caucus," Holstege said.

Legislators also plan to use their platform to push back against growing conservative rhetoric about transgender and non-binary young people and issues like sports and gender-affirming health care.

Assembly Member-elect Rick Chavez Zbur, D- Los Angeles, said one of the issues lawmakers must grapple with is growing attacks on LGBTQ youth, as some school districts look to ban books about queer people or do little to protect students from homophobic and transphobic slurs.

Zbur pointed to the example of his daughter, who graduated from a high school in South Pasadena a few years ago. One day, Zbur said she went to school and found a classmate had written "kill all the f---g f---s" in her textbook, presumably because she has gay parents. The teen complained to a teacher, whom Zbur said gave her a bottle of Wite-out and told her not to make a big deal about it.

"We have pockets of hate in California that we still need to contend with," he said. "We have the opportunity to set the standard and provide the model for the rest of the country. We provide the model for the rest of the states."

Zbuer, who previously led Equality California, one of the state's largest LGBTQ advocacy groups, said he plans to carry a bill next year that would require LGBTQ cultural competency training for all public school teachers and staff. California is already in the process of developing such a training course.

While Democrats have controlled both chambers of the Legislature since the mid-1990s, and held the governor's office since 2011, the LGBTQ community has historically been underrepresented in Sacramento.

But the caucus has steadily grown in influence over the last decade — and notched major policy gains as a result. Its ranks include Senate President Pro Tem Toni Atkins, D- San Diego, who is a lesbian.

In recent years, LGBTQ legislators have passed bills to require state prisons to allow transgender people to decide whether they are housed in men's or women's facilities, allow pharmacists to furnish HIV-prevention medication without a prescription and require police officers to receive LGBTQ competency training.

LGBTQ leaders said such wins reflect how legislators have a hard time dismissing an issue when a colleague can speak to the problem from their life experience or the perspectives of their community.

"It's a lot harder to dehumanize us or use us as a political football when we're in the room, with a seat at the table," said Samuel Garrett-Pate, a spokesperson for Equality California.

But electing such a large class of new LGBTQ lawmakers didn't come overnight. It was the result of years of organizing and enlisting allies. It was also a matter of timing — about one third of the Legislature will be new next year, due to term limits and a rash of retirements after redistricting scrambled political boundaries.

That many open seats made it easier for LGBTQ candidates to post unprecedented gains for a single election cycle.

The other two new incoming legislators are Sen.-elect Steve Padilla, D- Chula Vista, a gay city council member and former mayor; and Sen.-elect Caroline Menjivar, D- Los Angeles, a lesbian, social worker and Marine Corps veteran.

Advocacy groups like Equality California and Victory Fund urged the state's redistricting commission to consider LGBTQ communities of interest when it redrew political boundaries last year.

Two districts the commission drew appear to have helped the community snag two additional seats: Zbur won a district that combined West Hollywood with other nearby communities with large gay populations, including Hollywood and Beverly Hills. Holstege is on track to win a district that similarly combined Palm Springs with nearby Cathedral City and Desert Hot Springs.

Candidate recruitment also played a strong role. Many of the incoming LGBTQ lawmakers were personally urged to run by Equality California leaders or veteran legislators, namely Low.

Holstege said the reassurance from community leaders helped convince her to run because it's never easy for LGBTQ candidates to enter the fray due to the nasty attacks they often face. In her race, the state Republican Party sent a mailer opposing her that read " California is BROKE," with the second word displayed in rainbow-colored letters.

The mailer attacked Holstege for the tax rate in Palm Springs, but she said the coloring felt like a clear "dog whistle" to tell voters that she's LGBTQ. She said she also faced biphobic attacks from some within the community, who questioned her identity because she is married to a man and has a toddler.

"It's a huge opportunity to show the diversity of the LGBTQ movement, to show that we don't look just one way," Holstege said. "There's a lot of voices in this new class that have been missing."

(c)2022 the San Francisco Chronicle. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
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