I Wish I'd Written That

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

A week ago last Monday, I rode down the elevator with a thin, short-haired reporter who wore a long-sleeved T-shirt, cotton pants, and a battered pair of cycling shoes. We were exiting a Downtown press event where the gentleman had sat in the front row, joked that the event had caused him to wake too early, and generally acted with an air of self-possession that I found faintly intimidating. I shouldn't have.

As we left the elevator, the man turned to me and said some kind, self-effacing words. He introduced himself as freelance journalist Joe Dignan. And soon we were unlocking our bikes, chatting about riding, writing, and San Francisco news stories. Dignan had a classic Italian racing bike from the 1970s, which he said he'd been using since he was a teenager, and now took everywhere on his reporting rounds. He mentioned a story in which he'd written about the statewide political coalition that has formed around the issue of gay marriage, without letting on that among U.S. journalists, he'd done some of the most thorough, insightful reporting on this issue.

After we parted I felt charmed to have made Dignan's acquaintance, and hopeful that I'd run into him again.

I won't.

Four days later, Dignan collapsed in a gym and died of a heart attack, according to an obituary that ran in the Chronicle.

Dignan was 49, survived by a 13-year-old daughter, and was well known for his tireless but ultimately failed effort to keep St. Brigid Catholic Church at Van Ness and Broadway open for religious services. The Board of Supervisors was scheduled to honor Dignan July 11.

I'd like to honor Dignan for the unsung contribution he's made to journalism. Dignan's obituary says he came to journalism late in life (after a career in theater) as the fulfillment of a longtime dream. He indeed reported with the energy of someone who'd found a calling, providing thoughtful coverage of myriad San Francisco issues, with a special focus on gay rights.

The profession that seduced Dignan is in a funk right now, what with fretting about competition from blogs, corporate mergers, layoffs, and press-bashing from the left and right. Taking a moment to reflect on Dignan's all-too-short cub-reporting career might help cure these blues, and ignore the white noise. Here was a guy armed with just a bicycle, a notepad, and a list of freelance clients, yet he succeeded in helping readers make sense of the world.

Judging from the articles he contributed to publications such as Gay City News, San Francisco Bay Times, the Bay Area Reporter, the San Francisco Bay Guardian, the Sacramento News and Review, and the Washington Post, Dignan was an extraordinarily prolific reporter and writer prone to making an extra five phone calls in order to produce a telling contextual detail. He repeatedly broke important stories, while providing rich context and analysis for California trends and events. Just before he died, Dignan's apparent legwork and analytical skill put him ahead of the California press corps on one of the most significant stories in the state. He was virtually alone in documenting how the battle over gay marriage in California has been accompanied by a quiet yet profound ideological sea change regarding gay rights, similar to the national change in racial sensibilities that accompanied the civil rights movement. Then, the idea that blacks deserve equal treatment under the law moved slowly and steadily from a controversial notion to a national matter of faith.

In California, the idea that gays deserve equal rights is no longer controversial among Democratic politicians. That may not sound like news, but it is actually earthshaking, because it may portend a national civil rights revolution.

Not long ago, Democratic legislators in moderate Central Valley districts and in religious and socially conservative Latino and black districts feared that the gay marriage issue might be used against them. In last month's primary elections, Democratic candidates who supported a fall 2005 gay marriage bill did not suffer at the ballot box. The issue simply wasn't raised in Democratic primary campaigns.

This portentous non-event came about as voters and politicians changed their minds on gay rights, bit by bit, epiphany by epiphany, election by election, until now you don't really hear much about successful California Democratic politicians who oppose gay rights.

Because this came about gradually, it was easy to miss as a story. But Dignan didn't. His journalism has profiled individual politicians who've made what might have seemed an unlikely commitment to support gay marriage. He described how the coalitions built during California's gay rights struggle may serve to provoke political change in other areas, such as the November gubernatorial election. He noted the importance of the fact that this change has taken place in California, the country's largest state. American cultural revolutions, such as the end of slavery, the civil rights movement, the sexual revolution, and widespread opposition to the Vietnam and Central American wars, started as localized explosions that gradually reverberated throughout the rest of the country. Acceptance of gay rights is currently rippling from San Francisco to Sacramento, through San Bernardino and throughout the state. And it will continue rippling across the country. The California statehouse debate on gay marriage is the current vortex of this phenomenon, and Dignan's stories read like dispatches from the eye of the storm.

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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