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An LGBT ‘caucus’ for Capitol staff

A gathering of gay rights activists at the state Capitol. (Photo: Karin Hildebrand Lau)

Bish Paul descended into Empress Tavern’s basement downtown and was greeted with a surprise.

Over 50 capitol staffers mingled beneath the brick arches a block from the state Capitol. LGBT aides and allies drank and chatted, discussing Sacramento’s LGBT community and shared Capitol connections.

“It was loud … . I started taking a video and said, ‘I expected 20 people, this is insane.’” — Bish Paul

Supporters showed up in droves to support the first mixer of the LGBT staff association in June, PRIDE month. Organizers believe the association, formed earlier this year, may be the first in the country.

Paul, who helped create the group with the help of elected officials and other aides, was stunned. The 32-year old scientist-turned-staffer started recording on his phone.

“It was loud … . I started taking a video and said, ‘I expected 20 people, this is insane,’” Paul said in the Capitol basement coffee shop a couple weeks after. “I kept hearing throughout the night, people say, ‘I didn’t know there were so many queer people in the capitol.’”

The Capitol LGBT Association’s mixer brought together people who worked with each other, but didn’t know the others were queer. The camaraderie was palpable, Paul said, as staffers talked about LGBT issues and how to come out to their parents and elected officials.

The association is the first non-ethnic group of Capitol staff members, joining the Asian Pacific Islander Capitol Association, California Latino Capitol Association and the California Capitol Black Staff Association.

“I went from group to group. One gathering of Asian lesbian women didn’t know there were so many of them here,” Paul added. “Some Latino men were meeting for the first time.”

Its mission? To recruit and retain more LGBT staffers inside and outside the building.

The association is the first non-ethnic group of Capitol staff members, joining the Asian Pacific Islander Capitol Association, California Latino Capitol Association and the California Capitol Black Staff Association. The groups offer opportunities to network and be part of a community.

The association’s organizers see their goal as critical.

“This is about making sure we have a seat at the table,” Paul said.

“Right place, right time”
The group started with a question.

Paul came to Sacramento as a science and technology fellow, after getting his doctorate in molecular Biology.

His program introduces scientists to the policy-side they may need to accomplish their work, while providing technical experience to legislative offices.

The idea for a staff association came up several times. Paul asked who might lead it. No one raised their hand.

He was placed in Assemblymember Evan Low’s office, who chairs the LGBT Caucus. He became an LGBT consultant for the caucus, a role the prior person left open.

That meant he went around and spoke with LGBT people in the Capitol, asking, what would they like to see from the caucus?

With a polarizing Trump administration signaling possible rollbacks to LGBT civil rights, Paul was told they couldn’t be taken for granted. More gay, lesbian, queer and transgender staff and legislators were needed.

The idea for a staff association came up several times. Paul asked who might lead it. No one raised their hand, so Low asked, ‘Why not you?’

“Everyone was super supportive. I had experience in community organizing, so I was happy to volunteer. But I was just a facilitator,” Paul said, quick to clarify. “This was everyone’s creation.”

The organization grew to 15 founding members and over a 100 staffers and allies on a mailing list. Next January, the group will vote for officers. For now, the group is busy crafting bylaws to make the organization last, with as diverse a membership as possible.

“When I got to Sacramento after 2002, when the caucus formed, California ranked among the bottom of states in legal protections for the LGBT community.” — Mark Leno.

Paul, like other members, felt he was in the right place and the right time.

So did others, including association vice president Carrie Holmes, a Senate aide of several years.

“I didn’t set out to be in the role I am. Most of the time, everyone probably feels that way. Leadership takes hard work and commitment,” Holmes said. “But with this group, we have the ability to make something diverse and effective and exciting. That’s an opportunity.”

Roots grow
The LGBT Caucus, made up of senators and Assembly members, helped the staff association get started. It has eight members, an all-time high out of the 120-member Legislature.

It wasn’t always so many.

“When I got to Sacramento after 2002, when the caucus formed, California ranked among the bottom of states in legal protections for the LGBT community,” said Mark Leno, California’s first openly gay state senator. “Now, it’s at the top.”

Leno left the Legislature last year and is now running for San Francisco mayor. He helped craft the state’s first bills to legalize gay marriage, which then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger vetoed.

Low is a member of the Asian Pacific Islander caucus. He said it was important for groups like the staff association to work with other groups, like the LGBT caucus does with other caucuses. The caucus supported California’s travel ban to LGBT-discriminatory states and against government-sanctioned murders in Chechnya.

Low said he knew some staffers who work for conservative lawmakers and were afraid to come out.

“Over 40 percent of homeless youth identify as LGBT, because they were kicked out of their home. Oftentimes the six caucuses meet to discuss areas of interest,” said Low, D-Campbell.

“Even in California, you might see equal protections on paper but in practice, the story is different. That’s why we’re doing everything we can to provide the blueprint for basic protections for people, whether that’s an attack on the Muslim community with the travel ban, women’s rights with defunding Planned Parenthood or eliminating Obamacare.”

The LGBT Caucus now has members from Riverside and Fresno counties.

“Supposedly old wisdoms, that there are certain hurdles that can’t be surmounted — they all can be, finally,” Leno said.

Looking back on the radical rise of support for LGBT rights over the past decade, Leno said the changes happened quickly. “Who today could even imagine that there was ever any controversy?” he asked.

 

Fights left to win
When it came time for photos in those first meetings, some Republican members stepped out of frame.

Low said he knew some staffers who work for conservative lawmakers and were afraid to come out. Paul hopes the organization provides a safe, anonymous space.

Evan Minton is the first openly transgender staffer at the Capitol. He’s also co-chair of the Democratic Caucus of Northern California and said he took the role because representation matters.

The organization will likely not take policy positions initially, but may do so if the group agrees.

“Friends and I have made informal changes within the Capitol. I came in as Heather and came back as Evan,” he said. “The Rules Committee knew someone was transitioning, so they created their first multi-style gender restrooms.”

Minton said acceptance for trans people has only come about in the last three or four years. Looking back on the association’s time together, he was deeply touched when they crafted their bylines.

“It felt historic. The plans we have are really forward thinking and are as inclusive and diverse as possible. We need to support each other and further the causes that are deep in our hearts,” he said.

Minton has been public in his transition, sharing updates on Facebook. He’s seen some harassment, but a lot of support, too.

“For my policy-making friends, I feel like it opened their eyes some. Hopefully other people who are struggling find that pride in themselves, that ability and courage to go forward. It’s just so needed – trans folk, queer and people of color need a seat at the table,” he said. “That representation is vital.”

The organization will likely not take policy positions initially, but may do so if the group agrees. For now, organizers said, a space to gather is enough.

An article came out soon after, the first written on the group. Paul sent it to his mom, who was proud.

Organizers officially launched the association on Harvey Milk’s birthday, May 22. Milk’s birthday is an annual tradition of the caucus. Over 100 people came to support.

They got some advance notice.

Ten of the organizers visited each of the Capitol’s 120 offices to hand out invitations, encouraging legislators to tell their staffers and come as a show of support for them.

The group ran out of cake, even after cutting it into tiny pieces.

Later, after the mixer, Paul told his husband about how well the organization was going.

An article came out soon after, the first written on the group. Paul sent it to his mom, who was proud.

She’s planning to visit family in India, where being homosexual and same-sex marriage is still illegal.

After the election, Paul’s family was concerned about being discriminated against as immigrants.

“Now, she’s going to go back to her family and tell them why they should fight back,” Paul said.

“She said she would tell them, ‘We need to talk about him. He’s doing stuff our family has never done and we should be proud.’”


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      “It was loud … . I started taking a video and said, ‘I expected 20 people, this is insane,’” Paul said in the Capitol basement coffee shop a couple weeks after. “I kept hearing throughout the night, people say, ‘I didn’t know there were so many queer people in the capitol.’”

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