REMEMBERING NOT TO FORGET: Sometimes, we are told, a cigar is just a cigar. At the same time, we are reminded, there’s no such thing as a coincidence. I now find myself caught in the crossfire between these two opposing notions when it comes to City Hall’s “Wizard of Odd” float in this year’s Summer Solstice extravaganza. In it, Mayor Helene Schneider marched up State Street dressed as Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz, lip-syncing the words to “Over the Rainbow,” as Judy Garland — the real Dorothy — sang the words over loudspeakers. Schneider and her fellow councilmembers — dressed as the Scarecrow, the Cowardly Lion, and the Tin Man — not to mention City Administrator Jim Armstrong as the Wizard himself — all marched under an archway of balloons arranged to resemble the pattern of a rainbow. Normally I don’t go looking for subliminal body language, but this poked me in the eye: the mayor “singing” the national anthem of the gay pride movement while marching under the flag of the gay pride movement. And all this just three days before the Supreme Court was set to issue two of the most important rulings on the subject of gay and lesbian rights ever. Wow, I thought, what a playfully bold statement from a council not known for being either. Naturally, I assumed Schneider was behind it all. She, after all, had been banging the gong for gay marriage since 2000 when she lead the charge in town against Proposition 22, which changed state law to ban same-sex marriages. When courts quickly decreed Prop. 22 unconstitutional, marriage extremists set out to rewrite the constitution. To that end, they passed Prop. 8, which last week, the Supremes dispatched to the dustbin of history.
Given S.B.’s long tradition of rigid discretion on matters of sexual orientation, I was thrilled by City Hall’s errant enthusiasm. I would be told afterward — by all parties concerned — that I was seeing things that just weren’t there. Maybe so. But maybe not. This is the same City Hall, after all, that former mayor Harriet Miller ran with an iron fist for seven years. It’s worth remembering that Miller’s life partner of many decades, Elizabeth, happened to be a woman. They lived together; they moved from town to town together. And when Elizabeth became ill, Harriet nursed her, comforted her, and ultimately buried her. But Miller would insist to the very end she was not a lesbian. She and Elizabeth, she would insist to anyone with the temerity to intrude, were sisters. Local gay activists talked about “outing” Harriet, but quickly thought better of it. No one messed with Harriet. She was too tough.
Now that the Supreme Court has legalized same-sex marriage in California, what seemed unthinkably impossible suddenly became inevitable. But it wasn’t always that way. And even in S.B., the closet can be a dark place, indeed. I remember getting called by Tom Roberts, then the first openly gay man to run for City Council, asking if I really had to mention he was openly gay in an upcoming news article. I did. Roberts’ work as a gay rights advocate was not incidental to his political identity; it was essential to it. In spite of this, because of it, or both, Roberts won. When Texas billionaire Michael Huffington moved to S.B. to buy a Congressional seat in 1992 and then a Senate seat two years later, there was no shortage of reasons to recoil. He was a rich, spoiled carpetbagger. His still infamous wife, Arianna Huffington, was a harridan shape-shifter of the first order. And he was a total cipher. But fueling the hatred right-wing Republicans had for Huffington was their conviction he was gay. Because of this — at least in part — they actively conspired with Democrat movers and shakers to make sure Democrat Dianne Feinstein got reelected. He lost by the narrowest of margins and later came out, first as gay, and then later as bisexual. In 1996, when liberal Democrat Walter Capps was running for Congress, I was given strict instructions by his campaign manager not to broach the issue of gay rights with him. The issue was too hot, the outcome too close. If I did, I was told the interview would be over. Capps, to his credit, was never good at being handled and raised the issue himself. Somehow, in spite of his support for gay rights, he managed to win. Even a staunch liberal feminist like Hannah-Beth Jackson would encounter significant turbulence over the issue. Ten years ago, when still in the Assembly, Jackson abstained on a bill that would effectively extend full marriage rights to couples already enrolled in domestic partnerships. Jackson — then a major advocate of such partnerships — balked, arguing it would set back the cause to pursue a bill doomed to failure and designed only to inflame the opposition. Many of Jackson’s supporters in the gay and lesbian community, however, felt betrayed and took to picketing outside of her Assembly offices. Those fences have since been mended. Perhaps the most tragic political victim of The Closet was Diana Hall, the former North County prosecutor and judge who was arrested on domestic-violence and drunk-driving charges after her life partner, Deidra Dykeman, threatened — for the umpteenth time — to out her. Hall and Dykeman owned a home together; they owned dogs together. But Hall desperately feared she’d be unseated as judge if North County voters knew she was lesbian. But even after winning reelection in 2002 — trouncing a North County prosecutor fired for having porn on his office computer — Hall still clung to the closet. This caused serious tension with her partner, out of which came the altercation, the 9-1-1 call, and the charges against Hall. The irony is that North County voters, so allegedly intolerant, had no trouble with judge “Bobby” Beck, a famously brusque, no-nonsense judge who everyone correctly assumed was a lesbian.
Given this history, little wonder the Powers That Be would deny City Hall’s Solstice float signified anything but a fun frolic. In a don’t-ask, don’t-tell universe, that’s exactly what they’d have to say. If I were them, I’d say, “Ding-dong, the witch is dead.” And I’d celebrate by smoking a cigar.