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Only two of the 50 largest cities in America, Houston and Portland, Ore., have ever elected an openly gay mayor. Next year, San Diego could become the third.
Two well-known gay candidates are already officially in the race on the Republican side and a Democrat recently bowed out.
Just a few decades ago, the city’s gay community could hardly have imagined such a landmark moment. Local gays and lesbians weren’t very influential in politics, and electing one of their own to the City Council, let alone the highest office in the city, seemed far out of reach.
In the 1980s and 1990s, however, local gay political power began to grew, and openly gay people were elected to the City Council. One even became district attorney and is now one of the mayoral hopefuls.
Plenty of factors explain this political evolution, from greater acceptance of gays in American life to a shakeup in how the city of San Diego is governed. There’s another player whose role may be less obvious: AIDS, the disease that first made the news 30 years ago.
Despite its big death toll, AIDS created lasting bonds and allowed new leaders to replace those who were distracted by the epidemic. Lesbians, in particular, seem to have developed newfound influence, possibly because they stepped up to fill political positions left open by gay men.
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“We lost so many prominent leaders. On the other side, it awakened a lot of people to the fact that there had to be political support and action,” said Jeri Dilno, an activist who has run local gay organizations like the local gay community center and the San Diego Democratic Club.
In the big picture, it’s impossible to pinpoint exactly how much impact AIDS had on local politics since other factors were at play. Across the country, acceptance of gays grew during the years when the epidemic took its greatest toll. And in the early 1990s, the abolition of citywide elections for City Council in favor of individual districts allowed the gay community to concentrate its power for the first time and elect one of their own to local office.
Still, Dilno and Bill Beck, another long-time local Democratic political activist, say there was clearly a significant shift in the local political world after AIDS appeared in 1981.
One impact was obvious: gay men began to vanish from the ranks of political activists. Overall, AIDS has killed more than 7,000 people in the county in the past three decades, most of them gay men.
“When you walked through the streets of Hillcrest, you’d see men walking along who looked like they were refugees from a concentration camp,” Dilno recalled. “You could see this wasting and haunting look.”
In 1989 alone, AIDS-related illnesses took the lives of Dr. Brad Truax, a prominent local Democratic activist who pushed for funding and legal protection for AIDS patients, and Doug Scott, the former head of the San Diego Democratic Club. Also that year, hepatitis B — a disease that poses a special threat to gay men — took the life of activist Neil Good, who ran for City Council in 1987 as an openly gay man in a race that “brought pride and a growing sense of clout to the city’s gay community,” as the Los Angeles Times put it.
“It was devastating to the community to be losing people who were in the prime of their leadership potential,” said Dilno, an Air Force veteran who’s in her 70s and works for a consulting firm. “It wasn’t like they went out and got hit by a bus. It was a gradual loss.”
Many lesbians found themselves caring for their gay male friends and taking their places in the political world, Dilno said. “In the late 1980s and early 1990s, almost all of the major (gay) organizations were run by women. That was probably a result of the fact that a lot of the men were ill, taking care of partners or involved in some kind of AIDS activism.”
Beck, who co-owns a print shop with his husband, said AIDS unified the community by bringing men and women together. Lesbians “could have shunned us, but they moved forward into leadership positions.”
Before AIDS, lesbians often tended to be focused on the women’s movement, Dilno said. “There’s a lot of conjecture about how that that period of time created a stronger connection between the women’s community and the men’s community, which had different political aspirations before.”
However, one thing is clear: lesbians currently hold as many major local elected positions — three — as gay men do, even though their numbers in the community as a whole are probably much smaller. Census figures from 2000 suggested that there were twice as many gay men in the United States as gay women, according to an analysis by researchers at The Urban Institute. The analysis said San Diego is ranked 12th among metro areas most likely to be home to gay male couples, but it only ranked 47th for lesbian couples.
(State Sen. Christine Kehoe, Assemblywoman Toni Atkins and District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis are lesbians, while Councilman Carl DeMaio, Councilman Todd Gloria and San Diego school board member Kevin Beiser are gay men.)
AIDS had another effect on local politics, Beck said. Gay-led protests that pushed for more federal funding for AIDS galvanized the gay community, he said, and fostered greater awareness of politics in general. “The demonstrations and other kinds of things prepared us for entering the political world,” he recalled. Until then “we hadn’t been very political. People ran for office, but they didn’t have much of a chance until the redistricting changed.”
That moment came in 1990, when the City Council created regional districts that directly elected members of the City Council and opened a door for geographically based groups like gays and ethnic minorities to gain more influence. That same year, City Council reflected the gay community’s clout by overwhelmingly approving a landmark measure banning discrimination against gays by businesses, landlords and employers.
Census figures from 2000 show that the highest proportion of gay couples in the city live in the Hillcrest, North Park and Normal Heights areas, which are mostly part of District 3. The district has had a gay councilmember since 1993, when Kehoe became the first openly gay person elected to the council. Two other gay politicians — Dumanis and DeMaio — are definitely running for mayor.
Since the AIDS death rate began plummeting in the mid-1990s, few politicians have talked much about the disease. With issues like same-sex marriage in the background, no issue directly connected to gays seems likely to become a major topic in the mayoral race. Instead, the city’s financial mess and its dwindling services are at the forefront.
Meanwhile, gay politicians no longer just represent the greater Hillcrest area. Some of them — like DeMaio and Dumanis — haven’t made their sexual orientation crucial to their political identity, although they both have close ties to gay activists.
Still, the gay community remains a political force, one that’s virtually guaranteed to keep a seat on the City Council as San Diego maps out new districts. As that process heats up, veteran gay activists are once again speaking out, flexing the political muscles that grew as an epidemic raged.