I Wish I'd Written That

Deceased journalist Joe Dignan led coverage of California's movement toward gay equal rights

Though Dignan no longer pedals from appointment to appointment on his classic Italian racing bike, I hope there's some way he can read this journalist's homage:

Joe, I wish I'd written that.


Three days before I met Dignan, I spent part of a Friday afternoon in Assemblyman Mark Leno's beautiful office at Civic Center Plaza, talking about statehouse issues of possible reader interest. This was just before San Francisco's Gay Pride celebration, and Leno turned my attention to his stunning, 14th-floor view of Twin Peaks, where volunteers were piecing together a giant, cloth pink triangle.

"You know, we had a big victory June 6," said the impeccably groomed and easygoing Leno.

Leno wasn't referring to a particular race on that day's Democratic primary election ballot.

He was describing all of them.

The elections proved that Democratic legislators' worries that their support for a September 2005 gay marriage bill would hurt their chances at the polls were unfounded.

"Every Democrat running for office June 6 was for it. Now, gay marriage is like being pro-choice. A Democrat won't get party support without being supportive of gay marriage," Leno said.

Last September, the state Assembly passed a Leno-backed bill making the law defining marriage gender-neutral, marking the first time a state legislature passed a bill authorizing same-sex marriage without a court order. In the run-up to the party-line vote, Leno described his discussions with individual legislators, who were afraid their conservative Latino or Central Valley constituents might be alienated by a proÐgay marriage position.

But in California, the gay marriage backlash "just didn't happen," Leno said.

Leno said he'd suggested a political-zeitgeist story about how legislators from socially conservative districts had stuck their neck out on gay marriage in 2005, yet didn't suffer for it at the polls June 6, to reporters at the Los Angeles Times and the Chronicle to no effect. Now, he was pitching the story to me.

But what Leno didn't tell me — perhaps because he's canny enough to know that journalists don't like getting beat by other journalists — was that the story about the subtle, steady, and ultimately groundbreaking shift among California Democrats on gay marriage was owned lock, stock, and barrel by Joe Dignan.

Dignan told readers how legislators who are Latino, an ethnic group that's primarily Catholic and socially conservative, have come to back gay marriage as a Cesar Chavez-worthy civil rights issue.

In a story for the Gay City News, Dignan described an emotional catharsis experienced by Sen. Richard Alarcón (D-Los Angeles), a backer of the gay marriage bill. Alarcón told Dignan about the time in 1992 when he attended the funeral for his cousin Jimmy, who died of AIDS. Alarcón escribed how he spoke at the funeral, and told how his cousin was "in love with Diana Ross," and that for him, the experience of the funeral "was sort of a declaration that civil rights are not limited to people of color."

Dignan took this notion a step further in a Gay City News article published in mid-June, describing how United Farmworkers founder Dolores Huerta teamed with Leno in backing gay marriage.

"When Mark called me, I said, 'f course,'" Dignan described the 77-year-old Huerta as saying. Marriage is "a civil rights issue, a private issue, and a human rights issue."

Dignan went on to describe how the coalition Leno and Huerta had formed to back gay marriage might bolster Phil Angelides' campaign for governor.

The smart money, however, expects Schwarzenegger to win another term as governor in November. Few doubt Leno's gay marriage bill now has the momentum to pass the state's legislative chambers again. Yet Schwarzenegger is expected to veto any gay marriage bill to satisfy his Republican base. It will apparently require a Democratic governor to give same-sex partners the same rights as heterosexual married couples.

This political overcurrent, however, will serve to disguise the greatest part of the ideological movement among Californians, and their representatives, when it comes to gay rights.

Despite the soon-to-come Schwarzenegger juggernaut, Californians are bound to elect a Democratic governor sooner or later. And when that happens, the legislature will pass a gay marriage initiative, and the governor will sign it.

The event may receive slight notice, because by then political acceptance of gay marriage might not even be controversial, thanks to a California political reorientation described in Dignan's stories back in 2005 and 2006.

San Franciscans "should be patting ourselves on the back" for leading the gay rights charge, Leno said.

We should also thank the movement's leading chronicler, Joe Dignan.

(As of July 10, a selection of Dignan's stories could be read at www.dignan.com/articles.)

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