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How four Californian ‘Political Animals’ helped set the stage for marriage equality in the U.S.

Christine Kehoe, Carole Migden, Sheila Kuehl and Jackie Goldberg were the first four openly gay people in the California Legislature.
(Outfest)

Women have a way of leading society into its sociopolitical future, putting their livelihoods on the line for what can be seen as the greater good. Like Claudette Colvin, the first person arrested for resisting bus segregation in Montgomery, Ala. Or Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors and Opal Tometi, the creators and founders of #BlackLivesMatter.

The stories of these women, and countless others, often collect dust on the shelves of history as younger (and often male) leaders take up their movements’ mantle. But with “Political Animals,” a documentary about California’s first openly gay legislators -- all women -- and how they set the stage for nationwide marriage equality, director Jonah Markowitz is aiming to properly contextualize the present-day LGBT movement. The film is screening at Outfest on Thursday.

For the record:

3:09 PM, Jul. 14, 20163:09 p.m.: This article originally said an interview took place in Jackie Goldberg’s downtown office. It took place in Sheila Kuehl’s office. This article originally posted at 4:00 a.m.

“I feel like we haven’t had a lot of queer history centered around women’s contributions and, in a broader context, a lot of women’s stories haven’t been told about their contributions to many civil rights struggles throughout the country and the world,” he said. “We all know about Harvey Milk, and though [he was] extremely important to our struggle, these women also played a significant role. They’re important, yet often overshadowed.”

“Political Animals” tells of the formed sisterhood between Sheila Kuehl, Carole Migden, Jackie Goldberg and Christine Kehoe, the first four openly gay people -- male or female -- in the California Legislature. Kuehl was the first, elected to the Assembly in 1994, followed by Migden in 1996 and Goldberg and Kehoe in 2000. While elected officials, they together passed the state’s anti-discrimination and bullying law for gay and lesbian students, included crimes against gay and lesbian people in the state’s hate crime bill and developed the first domestic partner registry in the country. And all of this came before the Proposition 8 case that brought about the final push for marriage equality nationwide.

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But it wasn’t easy. In an interview with The Times, in Kuehl’s downtown office at the Kenneth Hahn Hall of Administration where she serves as a Los Angeles County supervisor, with Goldberg in attendance, Kuehl now 75, described the political atmosphere when she, as the first lesbian, was elected in the mid-’90s.

“When I was elected, it was a Newt Gingrich election time and the first time in 25 years that Republicans were a majority in the Assembly – and they were a very new kind of Republican that we’ve grown used to now, but then was a little different,” she said. “The bring-your-Bibles-to-the-floor-and-quote-from-them, very religious, very right-wing kind.”

This didn’t make for a simple time, even though the Democratic caucus, on the whole, was supportive and happy to have another first under their belt. (They had already elected their first black and Latino representatives.)

One of Kuehl’s first attempts to put forth a bill was to protect gay students from discrimination at school. It took five years to get enough votes.

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I was not prepared for the level of open hostility and Bible reading and accusations that you’re going to burn in hell.

Jackie Goldberg

“It was exhilarating and disappointing and heartbreaking and exciting all at the same time,” she said.

When Goldberg, now 71, joined Kuehl in the Assembly six years later, after already serving as an open lesbian for 16 years on the LAUSD school board and the city council combined, she too was thrust into what she called a homophobic (and sexist) environment that took an emotional toll.

“I was not prepared for the level of open hostility and Bible reading and accusations that you’re going to burn in hell,” she said. “The first few times I was there, Sheila had to come and keep me from leaving.”

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In the film, Markowitz, along with his co-director Tracy Wares, intersperses C-SPAN footage of the floor debates with interviews of the four women. In a number of instances, other governmental officials likened being lesbian and gay to bestiality and referred to homosexuality as unnatural and ungodly. It was never meant to be personal, though, as both Kuehl and Goldberg remember their colleagues saying.

“We had to keep reminding them: ‘How could it being anything but personal? You’re talking about me, my family,’” said Goldberg, who is now a professor in UCLA’s social justice program.

To deal with all of the opposition, the group found solace in their friends and family, and each other. They weren’t trying, necessarily, to equate same-sex relationships with opposite-sex ones as they were accused. They just wanted to protect people, students in school and folks who wanted to see their dying partners in the hospital. In fact, marriage equality was unthinkable.

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“It was never the big issue,” Goldberg said, noting that external pressure eventually made marriage the focus. “I’m not saying it was not important, because it has such an important symbolism in our culture, but it wasn’t my priority. I was worried about education and kids and housing discrimination.”

The domestic partner registry bill, drafted by Goldberg, however, would make the legalization of same-sex marriage inevitable, Kuehl said. It was called AB205 and, when passed, allowed California’s registered domestic partners to be extended all rights and privileges available to married, heterosexual couples. (Passed in 2003, it was the first such law in the country.) But neither Goldberg or Kuehl actually thought marriage for gay people would come to pass as it did on June 26, 2015.

“In an eight-year span -- and I’m going to keep my fingers crossed on this one -- the first African American president, first woman president and gay marriage?” said Kuehl. “There are three things I never thought would happen in my lifetime. I never thought it would happen so fast, but like every other civil rights movement, it didn’t happen that fast.”

But with the current presidential election looming, Goldberg warns that people must remain committed to consistently fighting for equality – especially if recent attempts, and successes, to limit things like affirmative action and voting rights is any indication.

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“I’m worried because I thought we had made changes that couldn’t be undone and they have been undone,” she said. “I no longer have the faith that when you win something, you get to keep it. It makes me lie awake at night. But it keeps me being an activist.”

And that’s why Markowitz and Wares titled the film, which won the Los Angeles Film Festival’s documentary award earlier this year, as they have, because “we felt that these women were such forces of nature, so powerful and strong and determined,” Markowitz said.

“They were like animals, fierce and primal in their desire to make sure everyone around them they felt responsible for was protected,” he said. “Like a mother lion and her cub, they were out there trying to protect all of us.”

And they still are.

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What: “Political Animals” at Outfest

When: Thursday at 5 p.m.

Where: Directors Guild of America, 7920 Sunset Blvd.

Tickets: $15

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More info: outfest.org

Get your life! Follow me on Twitter: @TrevellAnderson.

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