Issue:  Vol. 48 / No. 12 / 22 March 2018

LGBT Oaklanders
flex their political muscle


Oakland City Councilmember Rebecca Kaplan. Photo: Jane Philomen Cleland
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Five minutes shy of midnight at the January 5 Oakland City Council meeting, resident Sean Sullivan approached the microphone to speak out against a mayoral appointee to the board of a local theater because of the man's contributions in 2008 to Proposition 8, the campaign to pass a ban against same-sex marriage.

The openly gay Sullivan had patiently waited nearly six hours in order to voice his objections to seeing Lorenzo Hoopes given another term on the Paramount Theatre board. Little did he realize then the turn of events his short speech would lead to in the pursuing weeks.

The resulting controversy garnered media headlines and gave voice to growing frustrations from LGBT residents of their having been overlooked for city commissions. Oakland Mayor Ron Dellums ended up pulling not only Hoopes's name but also the names of three other people he had nominated to help oversee the downtown entertainment venue.

Last month Dellums met with a small group of LGBT leaders who, in turn, have submitted to him the names of four out people qualified to help run the theater. It is likely that when the mayor resubmits his appointments, expected sometime this month, there will be an openly gay nominee among them.

Should that person win approval from the City Council, they would be only the fifth out commissioner currently serving on an Oakland public oversight body.

"I didn't foresee the path that it would take," Sullivan, who unsuccessfully ran for an Oakland council seat in 2008, recently told the Bay Area Reporter. "I am extremely hopeful of seeing an LGBT person on the Paramount board."

The flap over Hoopes's appointment is just the latest example of how LGBT Oaklanders are flexing their political muscles. Since capturing the at-large council seat in the 2008 election, lesbian City Councilmember Rebecca Kaplan has helped spearhead a more visible LGBT presence at City Hall.

From hanging a rainbow-colored Pride flag in the window of her council office to advocating for LGBT people to serve on city boards, Kaplan has worked to see that more attention is given to LGBT causes and concerns. She is only the second out person to serve on the council in a city that has the most lesbian couple households per capita in the Bay Area and the largest population of black LGBT couples, according to 2000 census data.

"We are a city with a huge LGBT citizenship but not the institutional structures to help support the LGBT community," said Kaplan during a recent interview at Oakland City Hall.

To help create and fund that support Kaplan revived an LGBT Roundtable started by Danny Wan, the city's first gay councilmember, which meets every other month and can attract up to 60 people. Key projects roundtable members have identified include seeing Oakland open its own LGBT community center and re-launch its Pride festival, which is slated to return after a years-long hiatus this Labor Day weekend.

Another top priority is seeing services for LGBT youth be funded through various city departments and avenues. And many hope to see LGBT entrepreneurs choose Oakland to start their business in to meet the growing demand for services located in the East Bay.

"I see LGBT community development intertwined with economic development in Oakland," said Kaplan. "People want to spend their money in Oakland so it benefits the local community and local businesses."

While friends call Kaplan the "Energizer bunny" – her days are booked with back-to-back meetings about myriad projects – she demurs from taking full credit for the growing political power of the LGBT community.

"I am more a facilitator. I am helping people to do it," said Kaplan, who is likely to run for mayor this year. "The bulk of the actual work isn't being done by me or my staff. People have gotten re-energized with the roundtable."

An awakening

Half a dozen people interviewed in recent weeks about the state of Oakland's LGBT political power credited both Kaplan's presence at City Hall and the failed effort at defeating Proposition 8 two years ago for sparking an awakening among the city's queer residents.

"It is very encouraging and exciting," said Sullivan. "When I ran very few people even in the LGBT community seemed to think that was important to have an out person on the council. Now post-Prop 8 and with an activist LGBT member on the council in Rebecca Kaplan, people are seeing the importance of being out and being a vocal person as a whole."

The passage of the anti-gay law has awakened what had been a largely unseen political force in Oakland, said 30-year resident Leslie Ewing, executive director of the LGBT-focused Pacific Center in Berkeley.

"For the last five to 10 years we have seen a great influx of LGBT people moving to Oakland. Many are couples primarily raising families in Oakland," Ewing said. "There were a lot of people who perhaps in the past saw it as a bedroom community by many definitions, and suddenly the politics became very real."

Ewing said the community's recent response reminds her of how it came together back in the 1980s to fight AIDS.

"This energy

Oakland resident Sean Sullivan. Photo: Jane Philomen Cleland
and enthusiasm we haven't seen in a long time, not since the AIDS crisis," said Ewing. "I feel that this upsurge in the Oakland community finding its political voice really came about as a result of the activism around Prop 8 and marriage equality."

Openly gay Berkeley City Councilmember Kriss Worthington, a longtime fixture in the East Bay's LGBT political scene, said Kaplan may not want to admit it but she has made a "giant impact" on Oakland politics.

"I think it is in part her personality and in part the wide range of subjects she gets involved with. She is out there working on a hundred different issues and really having a big role to play in every issue practically that comes to the city council," he said. "There is now a network of other people who are also plugging in and raising issues."

Oakland Port Commissioner Michael Lighty, the first out person to serve on the powerful commission, is part of the renewed push to see that the LGBT community has a greater say in the Bay Area's third largest city. Three years ago he stepped down from the city's planning commission after having spent seven years on the zoning body.

In January when the council deadlocked on his appointment to the Port board, Kaplan was a key supporter behind seeing him be given the seat. Lighty credits her for the renewed LGBT activism in his hometown.

"Clearly, the election of Rebecca Kaplan is the key change. In 2008 she got more votes citywide than any candidate since Jerry Brown was mayor, which has real significance for our community," said Lighty, who with his partner of 17 years, Jay Farina, and a lesbian couple are co-parents to a 16-year-old daughter. "It wasn't like we didn't have any visibility before but it was much more ad hoc. Rebecca has been able to coalesce the community."

One person hoping to leap frog off Kaplan's electoral success is Administrative Law Judge Victoria Kolakowski, a lesbian transgender woman who is making a second attempt at winning an open seat on the Alameda County Superior Court in the June primary. Kaplan appointed the Oakland resident to the council's budget advisory committee last summer and this week endorsed Kolakowski in the judicial race.

Victoria Kolakowski is seeking a judicial post in June. Photo: Rick Gerharter

"There is more of a sense now of an LGBT political community in Oakland than I have experienced in my 20 years of doing LGBT politics in the East Bay," said Kolakowski, who is married to B.A.R. news editor Cynthia Laird. "Organizing around Prop 8 helped bring people together in ways that might not have been energized."

She also pointed to Kaplan's ability to work with people across the political spectrum in Oakland with being beneficial for LGBT residents.

"I also think we have been bringing together people from very different types of political backgrounds in the LGBT community here working together and often to promote LGBT visibility and involvement," said Kolakowski. "These are people you would not think of being political allies but they have been coming together."

In recent years there has been a greater awareness for the need to have LGBT civic participation in Oakland, she said.

"I think that is really paying off, especially with city appointments. And that is only going to help things in the future," said Kolakowski. "These are fairly low profile matters. So I think having front page articles about this pro and con made everybody have to step back and think, 'What is going on?'"

Even Lighty said he was taken aback by the Hoopes controversy, which is more par for the course in San Francisco.

"We haven't seen that struggle in Oakland. For Oakland it was out of character for how the community had been active," said Lighty, who is the director of public policy for the California Nurses Association. "It was the straw that broke the camel's back in a way. It did disrupt business as usual and I do think people were surprised."

Prior to moving to Oakland in 1998, Lighty lived in San Francisco and experienced what become known as the "Lavender Sweep," when three out candidates won election to city offices in 1990. He said he doesn't see Oakland duplicating that electoral success in this year's elections but can foresee it happening in 2012, when a gay candidate could even win a state Assembly seat.

"I see 2012 as a very favorable electoral environment for that kind of sweep," predicted Lighty, who said that he does not "envision" running for city council that year. "It will be really significant to see a lesbian or gay candidate appear for a state office ... that is the next step for the East Bay."

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