Four decades of progress and fun
By George Vernon
The San Diego Democrats for Equality are celebrating 40 years of working within the Democratic Party and greater community to further progressive values and candidates — and they’re ready to celebrate!
The club will host a 40th Anniversary Brunch on Sunday, Nov. 7, featuring former Assembly Speaker John Perez with current and past club members, and the general community is also invited.
The mission statement of San Diego Democrats for Equality sums up well what the organization has sought to do for the past four decades: “a progressive democratic LGBT and allies San Diego-based organization that aims to unify and organize all those interested in supporting and furthering progressive democratic values guaranteed to all Americans regardless of sexual orientation, gender identity, race, class, ethnicity, religious affiliation, or age.”
Since its founding in 1975, the club has worked hard to support both candidates and issues that benefit LGBT equality. In fact, the club was named the San Diego Democratic Club until mid-2011 when the organization decided to rebrand itself as San Diego Democrats for Equality.
According to the club, back in 1975, there was an overall lack of support for LGBT issues within San Diego politics, even among Democrats.
Club founder Bob Lynn and other founding members had difficulty finding 30 people willing to put their name to paper to help secure the club’s charter for fear of being outed. They were able to round up a few courageous non-LGBT friends who came forward to help meet the 30-person threshold and a charter was procured. Early meetings were held in private homes because politicians and others did not want to be seen in a public place attending a gay club meeting.
The club’s history in San Diego’s LGBT community is long; the only LGBT organizations in San Diego older than the Democrats for Equality are the San Diego LGBT Community Center and the Imperial Court de San Diego (faith-based groups Metropolitan Community Church, and Dignity San Diego also pre-date 1975). The Democrats for Equality was one of the few social and political outlets available to LGBT people and their allies at the time to help affect change.
The club slowly became an emerging force in the 1980s and began using computers to create LGBT voter lists, giving the club the opportunity to have a greater reach. It was also during this decade that the club began to produce its voter information guide, a popular tool to this day for many in the community who want to cast their votes for LGBT-friendly candidates.
Stephen Whitburn, a former San Diego Democrats for Equality president — who was also endorsed by the club when he sought elected office — praised the organization for its role in making San Diego a better place for the LGBT community.
“The club’s been instrumental in making San Diego the LGBT-friendly city it is today,” he said. “Its early leaders harnessed the size and fundraising power of our community, giving it political muscle. Then, the group played key roles in the city council elections of [out lesbians] Christine Kehoe and Toni Atkins, and it was effective in helping pass laws prohibiting discrimination.
“I think the thousands of people who’ve participated in the club over the past four decades can be rightfully proud of its place in our community’s history,” Whitburn said.
Certainly, the devastation of HIV/AIDS hit the club hard, as it did many other LGBT-community based organizations, with several club members losing their lives, including two prior club presidents, Dr. Brad Truax, and Doug Scott.
Club members became actively involved in Life Lobby, a forerunner to Equality California, which was a federation of local organizations throughout the state that helped lobby for greater awareness of AIDS/HIV issues. Club leaders say that the AIDS crisis forced many people to come out of the closet and become more engaged in the fight for LGBT rights and it helped increase political mobilization by friends and family of those affected by the disease.
The women of the club also stepped up in support of club members and others in the community stricken with HIV/AIDS by forming the Blood Sisters, whose mission was to promote blood donations with the San Diego Blood Bank, American Red Cross, and other blood bank organizations, and to interface with those organizations on behalf of their gay brothers who were banned from donating.
It was in the 1990s and 2000s that the Democrats for Equality became a more robust organization and began to have a quantifiable impact upon the San Diego political scene. Prior to 1990, San Diegans citywide voted for all city council seats, making it difficult for an LGBT person to get elected. The club was very involved in the effort to pass a ballot initiative to establish district-based City Council elections in the city of San Diego.
The creation of the Third Council District ensured that the LGBT community could use their influence effectively to elect an LGBT-friendly candidate and have a voice on the San Diego City Council. The District came about largely through the research of Democratic Club member Charles McKain, who ignored advice from some other community leaders and developed a case for an LGBT “community of interest” in the Hillcrest/North Park areas, based on voting patterns and other factors, even concentrations of subscribers to The Advocate.
Ushering in district elections and providing a driving force for the creation of an LGBT-friendly council district were important first steps. Long-term success required that a viable candidate for that council position be found; and Christine Kehoe was that candidate.
Kehoe’s election — the first openly-LGBT person to hold public office in San Diego, and which the club played a very large role in — ushered in a new era of political power for the local LGBT community.
Since Kehoe’s election, the club has continued to play a major role in advancing LGBT candidates and causes in the region.
“Over the past four decades, San Diego Democrats for Equality has played a substantial role in getting us closer to full equality for LGBT San Diegans,” said Councilmember Todd Gloria. “They should be credited for helping to elect Christine Kehoe to be our region’s first out elected official and passage of many legislative efforts that made our city a national leader in the LGBT civil rights movement. I am grateful to the San Diego Democrats for Equality and value their partnership.”
Toni Atkins succeeded Kehoe in the District Three council seat in 2000, and is now the Speaker of the California State Assembly.
“San Diego Democrats for Equality is one of the oldest LGBT groups in the country, and has been an important part of our community since it began 40 years ago,” Atkins said. “In that time, the club has fought tirelessly and successfully for fairness, dignity, justice and equality. As a former vice president of the group, I know I would not be where I am today without them. I wish my home club a very happy 40th anniversary and continued success long into the future.”
The club was very active in the fight against California’s Proposition 8, and continues to play a key role in the local Democratic Party structure.
Current Democrats for Equality member Jess Durfee became chair of the San Diego Democratic Party from 2004-2013. He also served as chair of the California Statewide LGBT Caucus from 2007-2011 and became the first San Diego member of the Democratic National Committee in 2008. He also served on the national Stonewall Democrats for 11 years.
Club leaders say that accomplishments like this among from club members would have been unthinkable 10-20 years prior.
Doug Case, who served twice as president of the club (1991-1992, 2011-2014) and served on the executive board for 26 consecutive years from 1988-2014, noted how much political power the club has helped the community gain.
“San Diego Democrats for Equality is a genuine institution in the San Diego LGBT community that has re-shaped politics in the city of San Diego,” Case said. “Many in the community rely on our endorsements in making their ballot choices because they know our decisions are based on a rigorous evaluation of candidates and issues by our membership.”
Case also currently serves as vice chair of the city of San Diego Citizens’ Review Board on Police Practices.
Craig Roberts, another long-time member, said that being part of an organization like this is also a great time.
“My 22 years of participation with the San Diego Democrats for Equality has enriched my life immensely,” Roberts said. “I’ve made dozens of friends, been able to go to 21 consecutive California Democratic Party conventions and two Democratic National Conventions and, as part of the club, helped make San Diego a better place for the LGBT community. It still blows my mind that, through my participation in the club, numerous elected officials recognize me and know me by name. And while much of it was hard work it was, and continues to be, a lot of fun.”
The 40th anniversary brunch, scheduled for Saturday, Nov.7, will be held at The Prado Restaurant, 1549 El Prado, in Balboa Park. The event runs from 11 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. Former Speaker of the Assembly John Perez is the special guest.
Tickets are $40 for club members and $50 for friends of the club and include brunch buffet and cash bar. For $250 sponsorship, guests receive two tickets, two mimosas, and acknowledgment. Additional sponsorship levels are available. For tickets or additional information visit democratsforequality.org/event/40th.
—George Vernon is a local freelance writer. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.