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Newsom signs bill intended to end discrimination against LGBTQ people in sex crime convictions

California Governor Gavin Newsom speaks during a news conference.
California Gov. Gavin Newsom speaks during a news conference.
(Eric Risberg / Associated Press)

Discrimination against LGBTQ people in sex crime convictions will be outlawed under a new law signed by Gov. Gavin Newsom late Friday evening.

The measure, Senate Bill 145, will amend existing state law that allows judges to decide whether an adult convicted of having vaginal sexual intercourse with a minor should register as a sex offender in cases in which the minor is 14 years or older and the adult is not more than 10 years older than the minor.

Currently, adults who are convicted of having oral or anal sex with a minor under those circumstances are automatically added to the state’s sex offender registry. SB 145 will eliminate automatic sex offender registration in those cases and give judges discretion to make that decision.

Newsom’s decision to sign the legislation promises to have both a state and national political impact. Along with opposition from Republicans in the state Legislature, supporters of President Trump and far-right conspiracy theorists have seized on the bill in an attempt to use the measure as a political wedge issue and rallying cry, with some falsely claiming on social media that California is legalizing pedophilia.

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Assemblyman Chad Mayes, an independent from Yucca Valley, warned fellow lawmakers about the potential political consequences just moments before he voted in favor of SB 145 on Aug. 31, the final night of the state legislative session.

“This is one of those bills you will take a political hit for,” said Mayes, who left the Republican Party in 2019. “But we also know that it’s righteous and just. This is the time to step up.”

The bill’s author, state Sen. Scott Wiener (D-San Francisco), said the disparity in current state law that SB 145 will address is a remnant of California’s old anti-sodomy laws, many since repealed, that were intended to criminalize sex between gay men.

The intent of SB 145, he said, is to address cases in which two people close in age — an 18-year-old and 17-year-old dating in high school, for example — are in a sexual relationship. The 18-year-old can still be convicted of a sex offense but should not automatically be registered as a sex offender, a lifelong designation that is an impediment to finding employment, a place to live and other necessities of life, Wiener said.

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“It’s appalling that in 2020, California continues to discriminate against LGBTQ people, by mandating that LGBTQ young people be placed on the sex offender registry in situations where straight people aren’t required to be placed on the registry,” Wiener said in a statement Friday night. “SB 145 simply ends that discrimination by treating LGBTQ young people the exact same way that straight young people have been treated since 1944.”

The vast majority of the criticism toward the bill was focused on a provision that has been in the state’s sex offender registry law for decades — the 10-year age gap between the minor and the adult.

Republican Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas recently accused California Democrats of believing “we need more adults having sex with children,” and Donald Trump Jr. used the bill to attack his father’s opponent in the presidential race, tweeting, “Why are Joe Biden Democrats working in California to pander to the wishes of pedophiles and child rapists?”

Nathan Ballard, who worked as an aide to Newsom when he was mayor of San Francisco, had said Newsom may have been wise to veto the legislation and recommend that state lawmakers change the provision with the 10-year age gap, given how the Republicans were weaponizing the issue politically.

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Dana Williamson, a Democratic political strategist and Cabinet secretary to then-Gov. Jerry Brown, said sex offender registry laws discriminating against the LGBTQ community have been a long-standing problem in California, and she had urged Newsom to sign the bill into law despite the attacks.

Williamson said Newsom will probably come under fire, but she doubted signing the bill would harm him politically given his history of support for LGBTQ rights.

“It’s the double-edged sword of leadership,” she said.

Newsom has been an outspoken champion of LGBTQ rights since he was mayor of San Francisco and directed the city to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples in 2004. That defiant act became a catalyst for a nationwide political battle over the issue that ended when the U.S. Supreme Court affirmed the right of LGBTQ people to marry in 2015.

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Newsom’s history-making decision faced opposition from the right and in his own party. Republicans pounced on the issue, and some Democrats feared same-sex marriage would energize social conservatives during the 2004 election. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) said at the time that Newsom was partly to blame for John Kerry’s presidential loss.

Wiener said opponents have deliberately distorted what the legislation will do in order to exploit anti-LGBTQ sentiment for their own political gain. He noted that police chiefs and prosecutors supported the bill, something he said they would not do if it put children at risk.

Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. Jackie Lacey helped draft the bill, which was supported by the California District Attorneys Assn., the California Police Chiefs Assn. and the California Coalition Against Sexual Assault.

“This bill allows judges and prosecutors to evaluate cases involving consensual sex acts between young people, regardless of their sexual orientation, on an individual basis. I drafted this bill because I believe the law must be applied equally to ensure justice for all Californians,” Lacey said in a written statement before the bill was signed by Newsom.

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Among Wiener’s legislative colleagues, it was a Democrat, Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez of San Diego, who delivered one of the most impassioned attacks on the bill.

“I cannot, in my mind, as a mother, understand how sex between a 24-year-old and a 14-year-old could ever be consensual, how it could ever not be a registerable offense,” Gonzalez said during debate on the bill on the Assembly floor Aug. 31. “I challenge everybody: Give me a situation where a 24-year-old had sex with a 14-year-old, any kind of sex, and it wasn’t predatory.”

State Senate Republican Leader Shannon Grove of Bakersfield also castigated the bill, posting on Facebook after it passed that California Democrats had “placed protecting sexual predators over protecting our children.”

Wiener called those arguments grossly disingenuous. He noted that the 10-year age difference provision in California’s sexual offender registry law has been on the books for decades and said that none of the lawmakers criticizing the bill have attempted to change the law to address judicial discretion in cases involving heterosexual sex with a minor.

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“If it’s been a problem, people would have heard about it. You would have had district attorneys complaining about it,” Wiener said. “It didn’t become a problem until the gay people came forward and said please treat us the same way.”

Grove said she objects to the bill’s removing the provision in current state law mandating that adults convicted of having anal or oral sex with a minor — who might be 10 years younger than the adult — be added to the sex offender registry.

“California shouldn’t go down that path, regardless of what type of sex it was,” Grove said.

Wiener said that he’s received hundreds of death threats because of his work on the legislation and that an adherent of QAnon, a fringe, pro-Trump conspiracy theory, published his home address in a social media post.

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Wiener and others who voted for the legislation said weathering such attacks was worth it in order to change a law that they argue discriminates against LGBTQ people.

“I ran for office to try to make positive change in the world, and that means sometimes you get attacked, and sometimes you get attacked viciously,” said Wiener, who is chairman of the California Legislative LGBTQ Caucus. “The LGBTQ community deserves equality and we can’t shy away from that. And the Democratic Party needs to stand for something.”


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