Roy Ashburn: Out and about


Roy Ashburn was smitten by politics as a kid on the Central Coast. At 12, he was pedaling his bike to Ronald Reagan’s gubernatorial campaign headquarters in San Luis Obispo, hanging out and helping out. He would grow up to be a Kern County supervisor for a dozen years, then an Assembly member and a state senator for another 14 years, representing some of the most conservative turf in California and casting some of the most conservative votes in the Legislature. Ashburn will be termed out come December, but his life as a “family values” politician all but ended months ago, in the early morning hours of March 3. He was arrested for DUI after he’d left a gay club, and soon thereafter acknowledged that he was gay. His DUI cost him his driver’s license for a time and put him back on a bike, pedaling his life in an altogether new direction.

How different has your life been since your arrest?

Totally and completely. Obviously I stopped drinking. All of my normal routines were stopped because of no driver’s license, no car, the penalties that are proper for my offense, and I’m going through those step by step, but I guess the bigger change is within me, and that’s one that I’m learning as I go.

For decades you worked so hard to keep your sexual orientation under wraps. This must have been a torment, but in another sense, was there an element of relief?

I’m sensing relief now. I had not consciously decided to come out, but there’s no doubt looking back that I had become increasingly bold about attending gay events, like pride festivals, and going to dance clubs and bars. Last year I attended Las Vegas Pride and San Diego Pride.

Were you looking over your shoulder?

A little more in San Diego than Las Vegas.

You’ve been obsessed with politics since you were 8.

I asked my mother to take me to San Luis Obispo to watch Richard Nixon on the back of a train as he campaigned for governor, doing what they called a whistle-stop tour. I can remember vividly being in that crowd at the train station and seeing Nixon deliver a speech.

And when you were 12, you dragged your parents to register to vote for Ronald Reagan?

I watched the 1964 [Reagan] speech about why [Barry Goldwater] should be elected. I was totally captivated, so in 1966, when Reagan decided to run for governor, I asked Dad and Mom to go with me to San Luis Obispo to register as Republicans to vote for Reagan, in the campaign office there next to the mission. I used to pedal my bike to the campaign office after school [to work] for Ronald Reagan. He came to San Luis Obispo; the organizers of the rally asked me to be at the foot of the steps of the bus when he stepped off. I have a picture; it was in the newspaper. It was electrifying.

Why Republicans?

I never was interested in being a Democrat. I watched the Democrat conventions — in those days they were actually somewhat meaningful, and remember, they were gavel to gavel, play by play of what was going on in the convention hall. I watched all of the conventions, but from the very beginning, it was always Republicans.

At some point, you must have realized a public career was incompatible with being open about your sexual preferences.

Something happened that I guess caused me to realize that. When I was in sixth grade, the police had a raid in the sand dunes [near San Luis Obispo] and a bunch of gay men were arrested, probably charged with indecent activity. That sticks in my mind — the publicity and the shame around it. One of my teachers was one of the people. The talk among the kids, the talk among the adults, the talk in the community, the press — at that time the choice was pretty clear: If you were gay and open, it was a life of shame, ridicule, innuendo about molesting and perversion. It was a dark life. Given that choice of whether you come out or whether you’re in secret, I mean, there really wasn’t a choice.

You worked for members of Congress, then were elected to public office yourself from Kern County. Were your sexual preferences in the back of your mind, or did you just go about your business?

The answer is both yes and no. I was married and had children. And I had a career and a passion. I also had a huge secret. But given my circumstances and my responsibilities, it wasn’t an overwhelming issue for me. The desires were always there, but my focus was primarily on — well, pretty selfishly — on me and my career and my family.

Barry Goldwater had a gay grandson and didn’t think government had any business in anybody’s bedroom. But the recent brand of Republicanism has championed anti-gay issues.

I truly believe the conservative philosophy as embraced by Goldwater: that the government has no role in the private lives of the citizens. In the 1980s, there was a coming together of the religious right and the Goldwater right, sort of a marriage of convenience. It propelled Ronald Reagan to the presidency. Reagan never repudiated that but — this is just my view — I don’t think he really embraced it either. In no way do I want to put down people of strong religious convictions; I happen to have very strong religious beliefs myself. But it was a merger of those two, and the religious [right’s issues] were about same-sex rules, same-sex marriage, abortion, gun rights, these sort of core, litmus-test issues.

Did you feel uneasy with that combination? You did help to organize and speak at a rally in 2005 against a legislative bill sanctioning same-sex marriage.

How I ever got into that is beyond me. I was very uncomfortable with that, and I told one of my confidantes, “I’m never doing that again.” It was not what I wanted to do, it wasn’t me, but I helped to organize and lent my name.

A lot of people, gay or straight, are probably wondering why you voted even against issues like insurance coverage for same-sex partners.

The best I can do is to say that I was hiding. I was so in terror I could not allow any attention to come my way. So any measure that had to do with the subject of sexual orientation was an automatic “no” vote. I was paralyzed by this fear, and so I voted without even looking at the content. The purpose of government is to protect the rights of people under the law, regardless of our skin color, national origin, our height, our weight, our sexual orientation. This is a nation predicated on the belief that there is no discrimination on those characteristics, and so my vote denied people equal treatment, and I’m truly sorry for that.

When it comes to marriage, I’m getting the feeling that you’re mulling over whether government ought to be in the marriage license business at all.

It’s a very complicated issue, marriage, but it seems to me that the government’s role is to protect a civil contract, whether it’s to purchase a home together, enter into whatever financial or legal arrangement, including marriage. The whole issue of marriage as a 5,000-year-old tradition, a religious context, a historical context — what government’s role is, is the sanctification of the legal bond. Then it seems to me a matter for a church or some other societal organization but not for government.

What have you been talking about with the gay groups you’ve been meeting with?

The same things we’re talking about. I don’t have an agenda. I don’t have a plan. I don’t have an expectation. I just want people to know who I am and what’s in my heart. I kept that from people. I concealed it from everyone for almost all my life, so I’m [now] privileged to work with people from all aspects of life, including organizations devoted to advancing the rights of gay and lesbian and transgendered individuals.

Recently in the Senate you spoke in favor of a resolution calling on Congress to repeal “don’t ask, don’t tell.”

For that day I knew I had to say something. I already had prepared what I was going to say about serving in the military, and I actually had it written out because I wanted to be precise. But I had to preface it with something else, to give context to why all this time in elective office and being so deeply hidden, why was I now standing and speaking on this subject matter, and so I did.

You’ll probably be regarded as a go-to spokesman for a lot of gay issues from here on out. Are you OK with that?

I’m just trying to tell the truth from the reality of the life I’ve lived, which has been an amazing life. I have had the privilege of serving in elective office for 26 years and dealing with important legislation, and I did so with a huge secret and in many ways a career built upon lies and deceit. Now that the truth is known, actually I am comfortable talking about these things.

What legislative accomplishment are you proudest of?

It’s multifaceted. I’m the author of the bill which created what we call CalWorks. The Thompson-Maddy-Ducheny-Ashburn Welfare-to-Work Act of 1997 [was about] the proper role of government in trying to provide help to poor people. Two million Californians are no longer on welfare.

Yours is a pretty conservative district. What have you heard from constituents?

My constituents are very understanding, remarkably accepting people. Many are the descendants of Dust Bowl migrants, and they brought with them the values of that part of the country. They also brought an openness and friendliness and work ethic. These are wonderful people, and I shocked them. I mean, I shocked them to the core with this revelation. Understandably they would be upset, they would be angry, they would be disillusioned, disappointed. The person they had supported and known and donated to — I was someone other than what I had always portrayed myself to be. And even in the light of that, most people have been very kind to me.

You’re divorced, with four daughters and grandchildren. So here’s where I ask about your family, and you can tell me to buzz off.

The things we’re talking about were my choices. It was my choice to keep it secret; it was my choice to be a gay man and be married and have children. It was my choice to build a life on lies in order to conceal myself. That obviously had a big effect on my marriage and my children in ways that I don’t fully comprehend, but it’s my responsibility and not something to be talked about in interviews.

Fair enough. What happens now?

I like my [Senate] job very much. I wish we didn’t have term limits, which is also another really bad Republican idea we ought to repeal. I’m doing the things necessary for me to fulfill my obligation for breaking the law. I’m in DUI classes; I’m coming to terms with my alcohol abuse. At the same time, I don’t know that I’ve ever felt more optimistic about the future for myself. I don’t know what the future holds, but I think it’s going to be incredible.

This interview was edited and excerpted from a longer taped transcript. An archive of Morrison’s interviews is online at