Political Notebook: Lesbian SF judge retires after groundbreaking career
by Matthew S. Bajko
Next week friends and family will gather to toast the retirement of San Francisco Superior Court Judge Donna Hitchens , who became the first out person in the United States to be elected a judge when she won her seat on the local bench in 1990.
Technically, Hitchens isn't completely gone from the courtroom. Even though she officially retired last November 7, she continues to work part-time and hear juvenile cases when the local court needs someone to fill in.
In a recent interview with the Bay Area Reporter , Hitchens said she decided to retire because, having surpassed the 20-year mark working for the state, she had maxed out on her pension benefits, yet she was still being docked 8 percent of her salary.
"I am in a situation where I can retire and go in and substitute judge when they need an extra person. It ends up I am working five or eights days a month, so it is perfect," said Hitchens, 63, who is married to Superior Court Judge Nancy Davis.
Hitchens, who served one year as the court's presiding judge, graduated from UC Berkeley's Boalt Hall School of Law in 1977. She then helped launch the Lesbian Rights Project, which would later become the National Center for Lesbian Rights.
She has been heralded for her work in making the legal system more accessible for LGBT individuals, women, youth, and low-income people. Over the years she has won numerous awards for her judicial work and advocacy.
There is no one case that particularly stands out for Hitchens over her career. She said she enjoyed each and every day presiding over her courtroom.
"I was never bored. It always challenged me, both intellectually and my humanity to try to abide by the law and also do what was right for the people in front of me," she said. "It's been a wonderful journey."
Her decision to seek a judicial post, at a time when out people could not be appointed to the bench in California, has broken barriers and opened the door for more than a dozen other LGBT people to become judges, most recently the country's first out transgender elected trial judge in Alameda County.
"I am just incredibly proud of the amount of change that has happened over the last 20 years," she said. "I think that just collectively, the lesbian, gay, transgender, bisexual community has been very active in educating the public. I would like to think I was able to do some of that as my tenure as a judge."
Hitchens said she supports the current push to require the governor's judicial appointments secretary to ask judicial nominees about their sexual orientation and report how many LGBT judges are selected. Currently, only the appointment of minority judges is tallied and reported by the governor's office.
"I would like to see that. I think it would be very important to track lesbian and gay judges. When you look at the diversity of so many communities in California, it is just as important to know about gay and lesbian judges in terms of recognizing the diversity of life experience that people bring to the bench," said Hitchens. "And I think it is important that the community be able to look at counties where perhaps gay and lesbian judges are not being appointed and be able to advocate in those communities where there is much less diversity and representation."
Asked if she is interested in being selected for the soon-to-be vacancy on the state's Supreme Court, Hitchens was quick to say, "No thank you"
"I am too old. He needs to appoint somebody who has a longer tenure," she said.
She doubted an out person would be tapped for the seat considering there are no out state appellate court judges in California.
"We don't even have any out folks that I am aware of on the Court of Appeals yet, so I think that is an important first step," said Hitchens, adding that she believes Governor Jerry Brown class=gbthreadmessagerowauthorlinkwrapper> will make such an appointment during the course of his four-year term. "I am hopeful it will happen."
Former SF supervisor says King would have fought homophobia
During this year's San Francisco Interfaith Council event to commemorate Martin Luther King Jr. Day Monday, January 17, former city Supervisor the Reverend Amos Brown told the crowd that were the civil rights leader alive today, he would be fighting homophobia and supportive of marriage equality.
"And Dr. Brown challenged the religious leadership of SF sitting on the dais, including Archbishop Niederauer, to address homophobia and said that he respects the right of any religious institution not to perform same-sex marriages – but that these beliefs should NOT extend to civil marriage, 'we do not live in a theocracy, we live in a democracy,'" out former Supervisor Bevan Dufty posted on his Facebook account.
Dufty was referring to George Hugh Niederauer , the archbishop of San Francisco. In 2008 the Catholic leader enlisted the help of the Mormon Church in Utah, where he formally served, in passing Proposition 8, the state initiative banning same-sex marriage in California.
In a phone interview with the B.A.R. , Brown said he personally knew King and his family. He said he felt that the local religious leaders needed to be pushed on the issue of LGBT rights.
"For too long particularly the extreme right of the Republican Party and the faith community have made this a wedge issue in this country," said Brown, whose own views toward LGBT rights have evolved over the years.
He said religious leaders should practice what they preach.
"You don't want people being mean to you because you are different because you are Catholic or Jewish. Well, don't go around being mean to gays and lesbians because they are gay and lesbian," said Brown.
Alice Club elects new co-chair
As it prepares to celebrate its 40th anniversary later this year, the Alice B. Toklas LGBT Democratic Club has elected a new co-chair to lead it and is criticizing the local party's actions during last year's election.
At its meeting this month, the club installed longtime member Reese Aaron Isbell into the leadership post. He succeeds former Co-Chair Charles Sheehan and will work alongside Co-Chair Bentrish Satarzadeh.
For the last seven years Isbell has worked for openly gay state Senator Mark Leno (D-San Francisco), first on his campaign and then as a district representative in his local office. Prior to that he led a statewide nonprofit focused on tuberculosis.
He became involved with Alice when he first moved to San Francisco in 1999 and joined its board in 2004. For the last two years he was its membership co-chair.
His main focus this year will be on a possible special statewide election this spring, the fall races for mayor and district attorney, and helping plan the club's commemorations of its four decades impacting local politics.
"We are putting together a special committee to plan for our 40th activities. It may be a series of activities over the next two years highlighting Alice's role the last 40 years and where we are going next," said Isbell. "Often, the perception in the media is that Alice is the moderate club where [the Harvey Milk LGBT Democratic Club] is the progressive club. The reality is we are more broad-based. We have progressives and moderates on our board and in the club."
Yet the club is taking on the progressive-led local Democratic Party for what it considers to be unfounded attacks against moderate supervisor candidates in last fall's elections. It has asked the Democratic County Central Committee to review the role it played at its meeting January 26.
LGBT outdoors group to be honored
And congrats to the local chapter of Gay and Lesbian Sierrans, which is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year.
The outdoors group for LGBT individuals is expected to be honored today (Thursday, January 20) by the city's Recreation and Park Commission for its long-term involvement with habitat restoration work at Corona Heights.
The meeting is set to take place at 2 p.m. in Room 416 at City Hall.
Web Extra: For more queer political news, be sure to check http://www.ebar.com Monday mornings around 10 a.m. for Political Notes, the notebook's online companion.
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Got a tip on LGBT politics? Call Matthew S. Bajko at (415) 861-5019 or e-mail mailto:.