Thousands of Gay Activists Converge on State Capitol : Demonstration: Five are arrested in protest of bias bill veto. Colorful spectacle shocks many onlookers.


Angered by Gov. Pete Wilson’s veto of gay rights legislation, thousands of demonstrators converged on the Capitol Friday in a largely nonviolent protest described by one state police veteran as the most “intense” to hit Sacramento since the 1960s.

The protesters blocked some building entrances, snarled downtown traffic and tossed plastic bags of red paint--symbolizing blood--against the Capitol facade. Friday night, marchers blockaded the tower bridge over the Sacramento River for a half an hour and paraded through the historic Old Sacramento district, an area popular with tourists. A brief attempt by a small number of protesters to march onto Interstate 5 was stopped by police. At least five arrests were reported by authorities, who also said two of the 200 police officers at the scene sustained minor injuries.

Demonstrators arrived from across the state by car, bus and jet, and marched in hot and muggy weather through downtown Sacramento chanting, “Wilson is a liar!” The protest lasted all day and into the night with a candlelight vigil.


At a noontime rally, speakers harangued the governor, accusing him of reversing himself and vetoing the bill that sought to ban discrimination against gays in employment.

“You’re beautiful when you’re angry!” San Francisco activist Luke Adams told the noisy, raucous and colorful crowd, estimated by Sacramento police at 3,500 to 4,000. Protest organizers placed the number as high as 12,000.

Wilson remained in his corner office Friday. A spokesman said Wilson also would have been targeted for protests if he had signed the bill. Members of his staff were reported busy looking over a new proposal for redrawing legislative boundaries in California.

The bill that Wilson vetoed nearly two weeks ago would have added sexual orientation to the list of categories--such as race, sex, age, physical handicap and marital status--protected under the state’s Fair Employment and Housing Act. The governor, who describes himself as a supporter of gay rights, said he vetoed the bill because such discrimination is already covered by existing laws and because it would unfairly burden business.

The depth and breadth of the resulting outrage in the gay community--including daily demonstrations in Los Angeles and elsewhere around the state--has surprised even some longtime activists. The veto controversy is being viewed as a watershed political event for California’s gay and lesbian population.

“Like the blacks, the gays are an oppressed people,” said Charles Clay, a black, gay Los Angeles resident who joined other activists bused to Sacramento for the event. “It’s time for ordinary persons to make a difference. It’s time for us to stand up and send a message not only to Wilson, but to the White House, that we won’t be treated as second-class citizens.”

Clay and others from Los Angeles rode here in a bus bearing the banner “Gay and Lesbian Freedom Ride.” He compared this protest to the “freedom rides” that marked the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s.

Robert Nemchik, a 27-year-old member of ACT UP Los Angeles who said he has AIDS, was another “freedom rider.”

“This is what keeps me alive now. This is what it’s all about,” Nemchik said of the protests. AIDS, he said, “is a hellish thing. But it’s raised my consciousness level and my spirituality and it propels me to keep wanting to go.

“I would like to think before I die that everyone gets the rights they deserve. I want to go thinking I made a difference.”

Cmdr. Dennis Williams of the State Police said there hadn’t been a protest so “intense” at the Capitol since the days of the Vietnam War and the organization of the United Farm Workers.

While most of the rhetoric was political, the demonstration did have its flamboyant, even whimsical, side. Protesters in business attire marched side by side with those outfitted in leather, their flesh pierced with steel pins.

Steel barricades ringed the Capitol, and scores of state police officers in riot gear stood shoulder to shoulder on the Capitol steps to stop protesters from surging into the building. The crowd broke into chants of “No Violence” after some began pushing against the officers.

Protesters draped the building with the rainbow banner that gay activists have adopted as their flag.

Tom Nolan, a San Mateo County supervisor, urged protesters to back a proposed statewide initiative that would place the anti-discrimination issue before voters.

Urvashi Vaid, executive director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force in Washington, exhorted the crowd to make gay rights an issue in the 1992 presidential campaign.

Several speakers ranked Wilson with such conservative nemeses of gay rights as Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N. C.), Rep. William Dannemeyer (R-Fullerton) and the Rev. Louis Sheldon, leader of the Traditional Values Coalition.

“This is our response to the bigots of the world . . . people like Dannemeyer who call us revolting,” Vaid told the crowd. “Revolting? You bet we are!”

Friday morning, protesters jammed the lobby of a building where Sheldon, whose Anaheim-based organization was among the most strident foes of AB 101, the anti-discrimination bill, keeps an office.

Security officers managed to evict demonstrators from the building and keep others out, but not before they had reached Sheldon’s locked fifth-floor office, and banged on the walls. Sheldon’s lobbyist later complained that the noise was so loud that windows rattled. By afternoon, the building management said it had removed the name of Sheldon’s group from the lobby directory for safety’s sake.

Demonstrators met with both support and mockery from motorists and office workers who saw and sometimes were caught in a march that stretched for several blocks during the afternoon. Some spectators cheered; most viewed it in stony silence.

Protester Steve Solomon of Los Angeles, looking back at the people viewing the protest, said, “This is kind of small-town and pretty conservative.”

He said the vetoed legislation was important to him in part because he may have been denied a job promotion because he is openly gay.

Confrontations turned intense on occasion. A uniformed guard from American Mutual Security, angry that demonstrators had blocked an intersection near the Capitol, jumped from his pickup truck and sprayed Mace at the crowd. That prompted protesters to pound on his truck and rock it from side to side until police came.

Another stranded motorist, Tony Francis, 64, figured it was all for a good cause. “I think the gay rights movement is as legitimate as any other movement. I totally support them.”

As speakers lashed out at Wilson from a podium set up at the main entrance to the Capitol, state workers watched from windows. Many made flippant remarks and smirked.

“See that guy out there in the orange dress and crew cut?” one state maintenance worker standing inside the main entrance asked a friend, who then picked out the man in question and cracked a joke.

Later, the man in the orange dress--Jeff Boxhorn, 28, of Orange--marched down K Street, and shrugged off the comments. “Maybe they need to look past the pageantry and the colors,” said Boxhorn, who cares full time for a friend with AIDS and said his outfit was a political statement. He is convinced that Wilson’s veto of the legislation will let discrimination to continue at a time when gays need protection.

Some of the protest was carried off with whimsy, part demonstration, part parade. One man carried a sign that said, “We’re taking the Capitol, now let’s redecorate.”

The rally was held on “National Coming Out Day,” meant to encourage homosexuals to make themselves known in their communities.