‘Political Animals’: California’s lesbian politicians carry on the legacy of Harvey Milk

Los Angeles: Forged in the white heat of California’s gay and lesbian counter-culture, the political careers of four women have changed the course of history for members of the LGBT community.

Carole Migden, Sheila Kuehl, Jackie Goldberg and Christine Kehoe, the first openly gay politicans to serve on the state legislature, spent more than a decade taking the fight for civil rights off the streets and into the halls of government.

They are the focus of Political Animals, a new feature length documentary celebrating their landmark civil rights victories and documenting the struggles they faced.

“One wonderful thing about being a lesbian and a women’s activist is that you learn very early that it doesn’t pay to be a good girl. You need to be a bad girl,” says Kuehl, 75.

Between them, the women are responsible for the first domestic partnership registry enacted by a legislature, the first anti-bullying bill protecting gay students and numerous other laws which have effected social change in California.

Migden, 67, worked for gay rights pioneer Harvey Milk in the 1970s and in many ways she and her three colleagues are the legacy of his profound impact on American politics and popular culture.

Milk joined the San Francisco Board of Supervisors in 1977, becoming one of the first openly gay elected officials in the US, before he was murdered by a former supervisor the following year.

Migden was asked to advise mayor Diane Feinstein on LGBT issues upon Milk’s killing, the subject of an acclaimed 2008 feature film starring Sean Penn.

‘Our own Pied Piper’

“As an openly gay man, unafraid, mature and one who achieved power in the straight world, Harvey Milk’s clarity of vision, audacity and supreme self confidence added dignity to gayness,” Migden told AFP.

“Our community recognized our own Pied Piper and embraced his pride and quest for visibility. Harvey showed me by example to be unabashed, to run for office, to fund-raise from all but vote independently.”

Migden authored legislation in 1999 which for the first time recognized domestic partnerships at the state level without court intervention.

Now a consultant specializing in bringing women into office, she is involved in the election campaign for Hillary Clinton, whom she says has “faced and overcome sexist attitudes throughout her entire career.”

Political Animals shows the tough bargains Migden and her colleagues had to strike to make progress as legislators who were often swimming against the tide to create social change.

A former child actress turned civil rights attorney and law professor, Sheila Keuhl became the first openly gay person to be elected to the California legislature, in 1994.

Perhaps her most notable contribution was the California Student Safety and Violence Prevention Act of 2000, which added sexual orientation to the list of prohibited bases for discrimination in schools.

“Students told me they would carry copies of the law in their backpacks and press them on teachers and administrators who were turning a blind eye to the daily harassment and abuse these kids were suffering,” she said.

Tenacity

Political Animals also celebrates the achievements of Jackie Goldberg, who spent six years in the assembly from the turn of the millennium, after starting out as a student civil rights activist.

The 71-year-old Berkeley graduate, a major player in the 1960s free speech movement on US campuses, was the first openly lesbian councillor elected to Los Angeles City Council.

In the state assembly she authored the Domestic Partner State Law in 2003 that provides same-gender couples with nearly the same rights as married couples.

The fourth of the quartet, Christine Kehoe, served in the assembly and then the senate for 12 years from 2000.

A Catholic who has stood against church teaching on homosexuality, Kehoe led San Diego’s “No on 64” campaign against a measure that would have quarantined people infected with HIV.

She describes Pope Francis as a “breath of fresh air” but adds: “Real change in Catholic teaching has not come yet. Like the Church’s deeply embedded misogyny, (its) hypocrisy about homosexuality will take a lot longer to change.”

Political Animals, which premieres on Saturday at the Los Angeles Film Festival, was the brainchild of Jonah Markowitz and Tracy Wares, LGBT filmmakers who first met in middle school in Boulder, Colorado.

“Needless to say we were immediately drawn into these women — Jackie’s tenacity, Shelia’s erudite poise, Carole’s brash and unapologetic strategy and Christine’s patient, emotional and unilateral ability to bring different parties to the table,” they said in a statement.

Top