Achtenberg's Third Act

Roberta Achtenberg bristles when anyone dares say that Williw Brown is the one who gets things done. "I have gotten things done my entire life, right?" she says, citing when her accomplishments as a law school dean, her 800-page book on sexual orientatio

"It was like, 'Oh!,' " she recently told Out magazine. "Someone once asked me if I became a lesbian for political reasons, and I know some people do so, but for me, being a lesbian was about sex. It was about my deepest, most intimate feelings."

Though she struggled with the moral and religious commitment she had made to her husband, a law professor -- and though the time was made even more difficult by the mourning she was doing over the death of her mother -- Achtenberg decided to divorce. In 1975 she began a new life back in San Francisco, submerging herself in civil rights battles that included the gay and lesbian community.

Achtenberg's resume soon bulged at the seams. For a year she taught at Stanford Law School. In 1976, with a mission to train public interest lawyers, she joined the faculty at the New College of California School of Law. Two years later, at age 28, she became school dean -- the youngest in the nation, she says proudly.

By 1982 she had become director of the Lesbian Rights Project of Equal Rights Advocates, a group that battled discrimination; in 1989 the project evolved into the National Center for Lesbian Rights, and Achtenberg was executive director. She formed the Bay Area Lawyers for Individual Freedom; she edited a book on sexual orientation and the law. She joined a community of gays and lesbians fighting homophobia and consolidating their gains.

Her private life blossomed. Fellow activist and trial lawyer Mary Morgan -- soon to become a San Francisco Municipal Court judge, the first openly lesbian judge in the country -- became her lover and long-term partner. And with prompting from friends like Superior Court Judge Donna Hitchens -- and the help of Debra Chasnoff, the Oscar Award-winning documentary filmmaker -- Achtenberg decided to take the next step. She challenged Assemblyman John Burton.

Unseating the formidable Democrat would have been a sizable task for even the most seasoned veteran. Achtenberg, the new kid on the block, lost the election but won a solid 36 percent of the vote.

"Was it early on," I ask her, "that you decided you wanted to become a politician?"

"No," she fairly barks.
I wait for her to explain. There is silence.
"You didn't even think about student government in high school?" I try again.

"Yes, I was a class president and all those things. But, no -- to want to be a politician?" she says, inscrutably. "Can you imagine such a thing? I wanted to be a lawyer," she says. "I had no idea why. But it seemed like you could stand up for people that way."

On the Board of Supervisors, Achtenberg stood up for open government, children and family issues, and environmental matters. She wrote the city's Sunshine Law, which offers public access to nearly every government function. She chaired then-Mayor Art Agnos' task forces on family policy, and on the Commission on the Status of Women; she battled for a domestic partnership law and a ballot measure for a children's budget; she penned a major water recycling bill; she supported needle exchanges, health care, AIDS prevention, and domestic violence prevention programs.

In San Francisco, at least, "standing up," Achtenberg-style, wasn't likely to get you plugged by a right-wing bullet. The Board of Supervisors by this time boasted African-American President Doris Ward and three gay members -- Harry Britt, Carole Migden, and Achtenberg, followers in the footsteps of the city's first openly gay supervisor, Harvey Milk. But in Washington, the sniper fire got ugly.

When Achtenberg's dedicated campaign work for Clinton sparked the HUD nomination -- along with confirmation hearings and blazing headlines -- she became the nation's most public target for homophobic bile. Jesse Helms, chief bigot bully, described Achtenberg as a "damn lesbian" who'd been "working her whole career to advance the homosexual agenda." Others called her an "intolerant radical activist," a bad parent, a religion-hating atheist, an AIDS spreader, and a woman who terrorized the Boy Scouts of America (she and other supervisors had taken a stand against the organization for its anti-gay policies).

Republican senators chewed sandwiches while they watched videotapes of a five-second appearance Achtenberg made with Morgan in a San Francisco Lesbian and Gay Freedom Day parade, trying (unsuccessfully) to catch a glimpse of the women kissing. Achtenberg "is not your garden-variety lesbian," Helms informed the Senate.

"He wasn't talking about me," Achtenberg now says. She takes a sip of coffee. "There was no human person he was talking about, right?" she says. "Because anybody who knew me would know this man didn't know me. What he knew was ignorance, prejudice. He knew a caricature of people that he had in his mind, and he played that fantasy out on the floor of the Senate.

"I mean, the only part that was personal is that I wanted to win, right? This was my life." She smiles, and savors a bit of Schadenfreude. "But then I did win," she says.

And now she has to win something larger: the trust of a city that feels wounded by budget cuts, homelessness, an ailing transit system, job layoffs, health crises, high rents, and low pay.

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