By Elizabeth Limbach
When Assemblymember John Laird (D-Santa Cruz) was elected mayor of Santa Cruz in 1983, he became one of the first openly gay mayors in United States history. Late in 2006, Laird was made chair of California’s Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Caucus, which was another groundbreaking political first when it formed in 2002. The caucus makes California the only state to recognize an official committee of openly gay government officials and operates as a forum for the California legislature to discuss LGBT issues.
The former Slug spoke with City on a Hill Press about times when openly gay politicians were not so common, and how the relationship between sexual orientation and politics has changed over the course of his career.
*CHP*: In the early 80s you made history because of your sexual orientation. Were you already “out” at the time of your election?
*Laird*: I found it hard to make it clear that I was gay because people didn’t always hold a press conference. But finally I was asked directly by a reporter before I was elected mayor. As a matter of fact it was his first question in an interview, he just sat down and said “Are you gay?” and I said “Yes.” Next thing I knew I was on the front page of many papers in Northern California. It was a major news story because I was in the first year of openly gay mayors ever.
*CHP*: Has it become more common to see openly gay officials since your time as mayor?
*Laird*: In 1985 we had the first meeting of openly gay elected officials and formed a national organization [International Network of Lesbian & Gay Officials]. There were 15 of us at that meeting; now there are a few hundred members, including judges, members of congress, and members of many state legislatures. While we still represent a small fraction of the total elected officials in the country, it is less rare. We have definitely made progress.
*CHP*: As a UCSC alumni and Santa Cruz resident, how do you feel your new position as chair of the LGBT Caucus reflects the ideals of the local community?
*Laird*: When I was elected mayor, the community responded very well and indicated their general support for civil rights and respect for the merit in people, not just their sexual orientation. And I was re-elected in 1985 with a very strong vote. I feel that when I was a trailblazer, Santa Cruz was very supportive. There will always be issues in any community of diversity of discrimination and harassment, but I think Santa Cruz has been a great community. As I’m doing non-discrimination work I am reflecting the values I saw when I was a local elected official in Santa Cruz.
*CHP*: Sexuality and politics have a complicated relationship. How is that relationship tricky, and how is it changing?
*Laird*: It’s changing in that it is not the stigma that it was 15 or 20 years ago. But I think what is always difficult is that I wish to be clear about who I am in order to change the stereotypes. And at the same time, it always requires that I be more personal about myself than other officials are. That is always a challenge.
My goal has always been to be completely clear and open about whom I am and then be the best representative of the issues that matter to the people in the district. Then, if I do a good job as an elected official, the negativity that used to attached to someone that is openly gay would diminish significantly.
*CHP*: And that negativity is shrinking?
*Laird*: It is. I was reelected to the assembly last November with 70% of the vote. I think that starts to send a message that [homosexuality] is not a negative issue; that I am going to rise and fall on how I fit with the district, not because I am a gay man.
*CHP*: Do you ever feel that people focus on your homosexuality when it really isn’t relevant?
*Laird*: I think in Sacramento I am viewed as the chair of the budget committee. While some may have thought that I was pigeonholed as something when I first got there, I think that I have done well in my role as legislator and that has made all the difference.
*CHP*: How has the caucus been an important step in advancing LGBT political equality?
*Laird*: Mark Leno and I were the first two men that are out to ever be elected to the state legislature. It was a history making moment. We had five members in the caucus the first term, and the last two years we had six. This is the largest of any legislative caucus, and it is the most official one that any legislature has passed. California is unique, and has been groundbreaking.
Everybody has been a strong leader in his or her own right, and that has been a significant thing in the caucus. This is a group of people that show individual leadership and ability in their own right in a major way.
*CHP*: It sounds like a very strong group.
*Laird*: It is, and it’s not a shy bunch [laughs].
*CHP*: Do you think other states will follow California’s example?
*Laird*: I think so, as they grow and have enough people to have a reasonable size. The Gay and lesbian victory fund (?) is working hard at what they call “horizon states,” which are states that have never had an out elected official at all. They are working hard to make sure that it is something that happens everywhere in the country.
*CHP*: How does the caucus give voice to LGBT officials?
*Laird*: It was really hard when there were not lesbian and gay members of the legislature to enact civil rights, and that has changed completely now that there are out members of the legislature.
*CHP*: What have been some of the caucus’ greatest achievements thus far?
*Laird*: The first year of the caucus we did the state domestic partners law, which gives virtually every right under state law that married couples have to people that are in a registered domestic partnership. We’ve done many other things to bring state laws and policies into conformance with non-discrimination.
*CHP*: What is next on the agenda?
*Laird*: I’m doing a major bill, AB14, to deal with 51 different nondiscrimination sections of the state law in March of this year. Mark Leno is reintroducing the marriage equality act, which will be a big issue this year.
*CHP*: In which direction do you see the California Supreme Court’s decision on same sex marriage going?
*Laird*: I think there are reasons for optimism, but the decision could go either way. For marriage advocates the bill is a very important thing this year. Mark Leno introduced it, but all members of the caucus are co-authors of the bill.
*CHP*: You focus on increasing equality for residents in California, a state that is relatively progressive as far as LGBT issues go. Do you see yourself taking any national action in the near future?
*Laird*: I have helped candidates in different places around the country and lobbied on national issues. Although I might be able to send a check, help or offer advise, ultimately it is really up to the voters and the people of that area.