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Gay Student Rights Bill Generates Fervent Debate, but Fails by 1 Vote

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Assemblywoman Sheila Kuehl, a onetime television actor, talked about losing a TV series because she was gay and “the horror that’s involved in knowing you will be the target of discrimination.”

Assemblyman Tom Torlakson (D-Antioch) cited his bisexual brother, who died of AIDS, in urging his colleagues to put an end to gay-bashing.

An anguished Assemblyman Herb Wesson (D-Los Angeles) spoke about the shame that has eaten away at him for 30 years because he did not reach out to a gay co-worker.

But passionate testimonials ultimately were not enough to turn the tide early Friday for legislation by Santa Monica Democrat Kuehl that would ban discrimination against gay students in public schools.

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Kuehl mustered 40 votes in the Democratic-controlled lower house for her controversial bill--one short of the needed majority. But the riveting two-hour debate was extraordinary, one of the few times this year that the ornate chamber has been a stage for such dramatic oratory.

Even before the final tally was announced about 2 a.m., supporters blamed a statewide public relations campaign by anti-gay groups aimed at moderate Democrats as a chief reason that the measure, AB 222, came up short. The drive has featured mailers, newspaper ads and protests largely targeted at Latino lawmakers.

And legislative opponents warned that Kuehl’s proposal would open the door to a sweeping gay agenda in public schools.

Assemblyman Bruce Thompson (R-Fallbrook) said the bill was not about “civil rights, but it’s about special rights” for gays, and predicted it’s “the issue that will divide this state and country more than any other.”

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Several lawmakers described the issue as far more complicated than represented by Kuehl.

Assemblywoman Charlene Zettel (R-Poway) said that as a Latina growing up in communities with few other Latinos, she “went home at night and cried” many times because she was different from others. Still, Zettel said, she was troubled by the measure: “I don’t think this 30 pages is simple.”

But Kuehl strongly objected, saying her bill, called the Dignity for All Students Act, would have barred discrimination against and harassment of homosexual students. Similar legislation died in the Assembly in the last legislative session.

Standing next to her desk at the back of the chamber, Kuehl told her colleagues, who were sitting in rapt attention, of the hurt and pain she experienced from discrimination. “You put it way down somewhere where you’re not going to think about it every day,” she said.

Kuehl, the Legislature’s first openly gay member and an actress on the 1960s comedy “The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis,” said she may revive the proposal--opposed by 37 lawmakers, including seven Democrats--next year.

She maintained that the defeat will not derail what she described as the last great civil rights quest of the 20th century.

The anti-discrimination legislation was one of the relatively few measures that failed to pass the Assembly, which met until the early morning to meet a deadline to send scores of measures to the Senate.

In other Assembly action:

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* Charter schools--A controversial bill was passed to give charter school workers the right to unionize. Originally the bill would have required charter schools to affiliate with unions and was opposed by charter school advocates; a majority of them withdrew that opposition after the bill, AB 631, backed by the state teachers union, was changed. It passed 53 to 17.

* Playgrounds--A bill intended to improve public playground safety was approved 55 to 6. The measure by Speaker Antonio Villaraigosa (D-Los Angeles) would establish a grant program to help playground operations meet new safety standards set by the state Department of Health Services.

* Gas stations--Responding to complaints from the elderly, the lower house passed, 43 to 30, a measure, AB 531, by Assemblywoman Nell Soto (D-Pomona) to require gas stations to provide free air and water.

* Hospitals--The Assembly rejected a second Kuehl bill, intended to force hospitals that receive public funds, including church-run facilities, to either make reproductive health services available or create a referral system for people seeking abortions and contraceptives. The measure, AB 525, prompted by the growing number of Catholic hospital takeovers and mergers, fell 10 votes short of passage.


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