Monday, May 27, 2024

An ally passes, a new senator makes LGBTQ history

Dianne Feinstein died as she lived—dedicated to public service to the end. And to fill her vacated seat, Gov. Gavin Newsom fulfilled his promise to fill any vacant seat with a Black woman. And lucky for us, he picked a queer Black woman!

Dianne Feinstein cast her final vote on September 28, just hours before her death. She was voting to forestall a cataclysmic government shutdown being pushed by the far-right members of the House GOP. After Feinstein cast her vote she went home to her D.C. apartment and died that evening. 

Feinstein was the longest-serving woman in the Senate and at 90, was the oldest sitting member of Congress. Feinstein was first elected in 1992 when there were only three women in the Senate. Feinstein was the first woman to chair the Senate’s Rules and Administration Committee and the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. She was also a supporter of and ally to the LGBTQ community throughout her Senate tenure.

On October 1, California Gov. Gavin Newsom fulfilled a promise he made in 2021 to fill any California Senate vacancies with a Black woman. His choice is Laphonza Butler, president of EMILY’s List since 2021. EMILY’s List is the nation’s largest resource dedicated to electing Democratic pro-choice women to office. 

Butler is only the third Black woman senator in U.S. history and the first out Black lesbian to ever serve in Congress. Butler joins Wisconsin senator Tammy Baldwin as the second out lesbian in the Senate. Kyrsten Sinema (I-AZ) is an out bisexual. There are no out gay men in the Senate.  

Human Rights Campaign President Kelley Robinson said, “The appointment of Laphonza Butler to the Senate is a landmark moment in the fight for social, racial and economic justice. As the first Black lesbian to represent California in the United States Senate, Laphonza brings a compelling voice for abortion rights, the labor movement and civil rights into Congress. Her leadership is a testament to the legacy of Senator Dianne Feinstein’s strong record of pro-LGBTQ+ support.” 

Robinson said, “The threats to reproductive freedoms and LGBTQ+ families emanating from the Supreme Court and anti-equality politicians are twin crises that require immediate attention, and Laphonza Butler is an exceptional advocate on both of these issues. We thank Gov. Newsom for making an excellent choice in Laphonza Butler to succeed Senator Feinstein.”

Still, Newsom’s choice of Butler comes with some controversy. Three members of the House have been running for Feinstein’s seat: Barbara Lee, Katie Porter and Adam Schiff. Lee had hoped Newsom would choose her to fill the vacancy, but Newsom said it would be election interference for him to appoint any of the three candidates running. Initially he said he would appoint a Black woman “placeholder” until voters decided in November 2024—a plan Lee had tweeted was insulting and unacceptable. But on appointing Butler, Newsom said she could choose to run for the seat in 2024, should she want it.

Newsom’s choice of a Black lesbian to fill Feinstein’s seat is both fitting and a kind of coda on Feinstein’s long history with the LGBTQ community. It was the assassinations of San Francisco Mayor George Moscone and Harvey Milk, a member of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors and the first openly gay man to be elected to public office in California, that thrust Feinstein into an historic role. Feinstein served as the board’s first female president and as such announced the assassinations to the city in a press conference. “Both Mayor Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk have been shot and killed. The suspect is Supervisor Dan White.”

In an interview with the San Francisco Chronicle in 2008, Feinstein talked about finding the bodies of Milk and Moscone. She had felt for the pulse of Milk and her finger slipped in blood into a bullet hole. She said, “I remember it, actually, as if it was yesterday. And it was one of the hardest moments, if not the hardest moment, of my life. It was a devastating moment. For San Francisco, it was a day of infamy.”

The murder of Milk would likely be categorized as a hate crime today. White was an aggrieved former supervisor who was the board’s lone vote against a gay anti-discrimination ordinance. But Feinstein believed White’s rage was personal and political rather than homophobic.

The assassinations catapulted Feinstein, then 45, into another level of power as the first woman mayor of San Francisco, a position she held for a decade. That time was fraught for San Francisco as AIDS hit the city hard.

In a statement the morning after her death, Equality California, the state’s largest LGBTQ advocacy group said, “Senator Feinstein stood with our community back when few others did, fighting for funding and action to combat the AIDS crisis when most elected officials chose to look away.” 

But there were also conflicts. Feinstein’s administration ordered the bathhouses closed in San Francisco in an effort to slow the spread of HIV/AIDS, an action gay activists objected to. But Matthew S. Bajko, an editor and political columnist for the Bay Area Reporter, which was publishing pages and pages of obituaries throughout the AIDS epidemic,  told AP that Feinstein “dedicated huge amounts of city resources and funding, more so than the federal government was doing at that time, to try to stem the spread of this disease that was killing gay men in the city.” 

Feinstein also visited an AIDS hospice in Los Angeles in 1990, telling patients, “I was there at the beginning and I hope I’m there at the end,” the Los Angeles Times reported at the time.

Stuart Milk, nephew of the assassinated supervisor, said that Feinstein both championed his uncle’s legacy and made sure to keep it alive.

Milk said Feinstein had become “a consistent supporter of LGBTQ inclusion after a harder road for her to get there.” He also said that the senator was a sponsor of the Navy ship named for his uncle.

The Human Rights Campaign, the nation’s largest LGBTQ+ advocacy group, cited Feinstein’s “sterling record of support for the LGBTQ+ community.”

Feinstein added to her pro-LGBTQ bona fides by voting against the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), which banned federal recognition of same sex marriage, and the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” (DADT) military policy that required LGBTQ+ military service members to stay silent about their orientation. Feinstein was one of only 14 senators to vote against DOMA.

In a 2010 statement on DADT, Feinstein said, “It makes no sense to ask our gay and lesbian soldiers to put their lives on the line, while at the same time asking them to live in the shadows.” She voted to repeal DADT in December 2010. President Obama signed the repeal ending DADT December 18, 2010.

In 2022 Feinstein was the lead Senate sponsor of the Respect for Marriage Act, which repealed DOMA and required the federal government and all state governments to recognize same-sex and interracial marriages. President Joe Biden signed the act, solidifying the right to same-sex marriage. 

But Feinstein hadn’t always supported same-sex marriage. As mayor, Feinstein vetoed domestic partner legislation in 1982, a veto she later said she regretted. In 2004, when then-San Francisco mayor Gavin Newsom began issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples in violation of state law, Feinstein objected, saying that it was “too much, too fast, too soon.”

But as Kierra Johnson, executive director of the National LGBTQ Task Force, explained, Feinstein was always evolving and had come from a centrist position to a liberal one in a relatively short time simply by her interaction with and affection toward her gay constituents. 

Johnson said, “No one could ever say she was, you know, the biggest champion of LGBTQ issues and people when she started her journey. What I think is so powerful about who she is, is that we saw her evolve over time.”

In addition to Feinstein’s consistent support for LGBTQ causes and issues, as a senator Feinstein was also known for her advocacy of gun control, which she said was a direct result of her experience with the killings of Moscone and Milk. She fought hard for the assault weapons ban passed in 1994. Feinstein also was a champion of abortion access and  environmental protection.

Laphonza Butler has a long history of activism and engagement in pivotal Democratic issues, which Newsom cited in his announcement on Twitter/X.

A native Mississippian, Butler moved to California in 2009 after serving as a labor organizer for nurses in Baltimore and Milwaukee, janitors in Philadelphia and hospital workers in New Haven, Connecticut. A staunch union ally, Butler served for over a decade as president of Service Employees International Union Local 2015, which represents more than 325,000 nursing-home and home-care workers throughout California. SEIU Local 2015 is the largest union in California and the largest local representing long-term-care workers in the country.

SEIU tweeted Oct. 2, “As president of @seiucalifornia & @seiu2015, Laphonza Butler was a tireless advocate for working people. We are excited for her to bring her talent & passion to her new role. Congratulations, Senator @LaphonzaB!”

During her time as president of Local 2015 of the Service Employees International Union, Butler worked to raise the state minimum wage to $15 and increase income tax rates paid by the state’s wealthiest residents.

In 2015 Butler told the Los Angeles Times that labor unions were “building collective power in service of our broader society.”

She said, “We have to figure out how to build the broadest possible movement on behalf of solving big problems.” 

Butler added issues critical to her social justice platform, “We have a climate crisis. The criminal justice system is broken. We have poverty. No longer are our problems bilateral, between one union and one factory. It’s going to take the collective voice to solve those problems.”

In 2018, Butler was appointed as a University of California regent by Gov. Jerry Brown, a post she held until 2021. She has sat on the board of the national child advocacy organization the Children’s Defense Fund, political action committee BlackPAC and the Bay Area Economic Council Institute think tank. She’s a former director for the board of governors of the Los Angeles branch of the Federal Reserve System.

Butler’s time earning a degree in political science from HBCU Jackson State University was where she was inspired to become an activist, according to an interview with the Los Angeles Times in 2021. Her instructors, veterans of the civil rights movement, propelled her toward activism and inspired her commitment to social justice, she said.

“What are you doing for freedom? That was always the question,” Butler told the LA Times. “What are you doing for freedom today?”

She also said that the labor movement prepared her for politics, by teaching her “the patience of playing a long game and knowing how to have wins along the way.”

In a series of tweets, Butler thanked Newsom for the appointment and cited Feinstein’s legacy. 

Butler wrote, “I’m honored to accept Gov. @GavinNewsom’s nomination to be U.S. Senator for a state I have made my home and honored by his trust in me to serve the people of California and this great nation.”

She said, “No one will ever measure up to the legacy of Sen. Dianne Feinstein, but I will do my best to honor her legacy and leadership by committing to work for women and girls, workers and unions, struggling parents, and all of California. I am ready to serve.”

Butler was also a senior advisor to Vice President Kamala Harris’ presidential campaign in 2019 and to Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign. Harris, who was only the second Black woman senator in U.S. history,  swore Butler into office on Oct. 3.

Hillary Clinton tweeted, “A great choice for California and for the Senate. Congratulations, 


Butler maintains a home in View Park, California and Los Angeles, but while working for  EMILY’s List has lived in Maryland with her wife, Neneki Lee, and their daughter Nylah. 

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Victoria A. Brownworth

Victoria A. Brownworth is a Pulitzer Prize-nominated and Society of Professional Journalists Award-winning journalist whose work has appeared in The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Baltimore Sun, DAME, The Advocate, Bay Area Reporter and Curve among other publications. She is the author and editor of more than 20 books, including the Lambda Award-winning Coming Out of Cancer: Writings from the Lesbian Cancer Epidemic and Ordinary Mayhem: A Novel and the award-winning From Where They Sit: Black Writers Write Black Youth and Too Queer: Essays from a Radical Life.

Victoria A. Brownworth has 42 posts and counting. See all posts by Victoria A. Brownworth

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