Karen Ocamb

A Brief History of Equality California and LGBT Rights

Filed By Karen Ocamb | February 23, 2011 1:30 PM | comments

Filed in: Marriage Equality, Politics
Tags: Equality California, Geoff Kors, Harvey Milk Day, Jenny Pizer, Jerry Brown, Kate Kendell, Mark Leno, National Center for Lesbian Rights, New Jersey Garden State Equality, PROP. 8, Shannon Minter, Steven Goldstein

EQCA History Part 1: Introduction

Saturday night, Feb. 12, 2011, supporters of the statewide LGBT lobbying group Equality California gathered in the grand rotunda of San Francisco's City Hall for the annual Equality Awards. This year EQCA honored two LGBT heroines: new Attorney General Kamala Harris – whose hard-won victory in the 2010 elections was key for full LGBT equality – and Vicky Kolakowski, judge of Alameda County Superior Court and the nation's first elected openly transgender judge.

But while the hall was filled with dignitaries and longtime LGBT activists, including Phyllis Lyon, the night really belonged to Geoff Kors, EQCA's executive director, who announced his resignation from the organization last Dec. 2. As his friend and colleague National Center for Lesbian Rights Executive Director Kate Kendell, Kors friend and colleague, wrote in the Bay Area Reporter Feb. 10:

"[I]n 2002, we gained a fierce and effective advocate. Geoff Kors, the executive director of Equality California, built political bridges where there had been gaping holes, worked relentlessly at the state Capitol to try to reach across partisan aisles, won support for dozens of pieces of legislation that have touched the lives of every LGBT Californian, and transformed the state into the nation’s leading trailblazer for LGBT equality.

Geoff, who leaves Equality California [in March] after nine years, is one of the most accomplished political strategists and legislative advocates in our nation’s LGBT equality movement. He and his talented team diligently worked for our rights and protections, earning Equality California respect and the reputation as one of the most effective political advocacy organizations in the country."

After his election in 2010, then-Gov-elect Brown said:

"I want to personally extend my gratitude to Equality California and to Geoff Kors who has done so much to advance equality and justice in our state and who was instrumental in mobilizing LGBT Californians to support my candidacy for governor. When I take office, I look forward to continuing my partnership with Equality California as I work to meet the many challenges our state faces."

Steven Goldstein, Executive Director of New Jersey's Garden State Equality, agrees:

"Geoff Kors is one of the greatest leaders our movement has ever had. He transformed the pre-Equality California, pre-Geoff CAPE, which was so not worthy of the great state California is, into a powerhouse organization. So much of the heat our California sisters and brothers took, including Equality California, over Prop 8 was unfair, in my view and many others'. Geoff created a miracle. I, and many others, have studied his work and have found it inspirational for our own work."

Indeed, Kors' tenure illustrates the arc of social justice for LGBT Californians from the decadesEQCA's Geoff Kors  Photo courtesy Paige Green Photography when homosexuality was routinely derided as an "abomination" and "perversion" on the floor of the state legislature to the election of statewide officials who all support full equality in 2010. As Kendell and Goldstein note, a good measure of the equal rights laws secured for LGBT Californians is a direct result of the legislative and advocacy efforts of Geoff Kors, working in coalition with legislators and allies.

Unfortunately, many young LGBTs today only know of Kors from the No on Prop 8 campaign in 2008. In her BAR farewell to Kors, Kendell notes that Kors' primary job during the campaign was fundraising. Kendell writes:

"After Election Day, Geoff and Equality California took the brunt of the blame for the loss, despite the fact that neither he nor his team had a significant role in the campaign’s field or media strategy. We all have regrets about how Prop 8 played out. One of my regrets is that Geoff was not in greater control of our messaging and field work. Any critique - and there were legitimate criticisms of the campaign operation - was unfortunately directed mainly at Geoff and Equality California. Despite this undeserved blame, Geoff demonstrated an admirable equanimity and simply went back to work."

And Kors is still at work: Friday, Feb. 18 was the final day to file legislation to be considered this session. EQCA presented a package of 10 bills, including State Sen. Mark Leno's FAIR Education Act, a follow up to the historic Harvey Milk Day, that would require schools teach LGBT history and contributions; another Leno bill to "close the gap" between marriage and the state's existing domestic partnership law; a bill requiring cultural competency for healthcare providers; two anti-bullying bills; and a bill strengthening transgender protections in jobs and housing in the state's Nondiscrimination law.

Ironically, there is no written history of EQCA. What follows this week is a series of reports that serve as a historical snapshot of the political progress and climate before Equality California came into existence, Kors' tenure at EQCA and the gains made during those nine years. The history series is based on my research, my reporting and memory and the recollections and documentation from several people behind the scenes, including Kors, EQCA board members, NCLR Legal Director Shannon Minter and Lambda Legal Marriage Project Director Jenny Pizer, Sen. Mark Leno and others.

As Goldstein notes, other organizations and leaders have looked at how EQCA achieved so many rights in such a relatively short period of time - so hopefully this brief brushstroke will provide tips for others to consider and adapt into a strategy that might suit their locale or region. After all, if equality legislation is stalled at the federal level for the next few years, it becomes incumbent upon LGBT activists to "Go Local" and protect existing rights and advance equality at the state and local level.

Here is a video EQCA produced to give you an overview of the organization:

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