The following came in a Jan. 27 email from our Bay Area correspondent.
On Thursday, January 22, San Francisco’s Most Holy Redeemer Church hosted a town hall meeting for Equality California, the state’s largest homosexual lobbying group. Equality California is best known for their work in legalizing same-sex marriage in California, but, as executive director Rick Zbur made clear at the meeting, they have larger goals.
The meeting began with the showing of a video describing future direction of the group. One speaker said, “we intend to use our mobilization capabilities to advance LGBT rights nationwide.” Another gave an example of this in practice: “[Equality California] employed its strengths in outreach and organizing earlier this year against legislation in Arizona that would have created a so-called religious exemption from the anti-LGBT discrimination that exist in that state.” That legislation was created to protect the rights of, e.g., photographers or bakers who refuse to participate in same-sex weddings because doing so would violate their Christian faith. Thanks to Equality California and others, Christians in California and other states have been forced to pay large financial settlements and close their businesses rather than violate their faith.
After the video, Mr. Zbur said “What will guide our work is what is important to the members of California’s LGBT community and we will engage on anything, whether at the local level, state level, national level, or even internationally, depending on whether or not it is important to our community and whether we as an organization have the capacity to make positive change.” Zbur then laid out Equality California’s new policy objectives and spent a few minutes discussing how it can help LGBT illegal immigrants, and facilitate LGBT access to health care.
Following this, Cynthia Laird of the Bay Area Reporter, who served as moderator, asked questions.
Q: I know that when we talked you had mentioned something about Equality California planning a faith initiative. What would that entail?
Mr. Zbur: “So we’ll be announcing the details, but I’ll give you a little bit of a preview. We’ve been in discussions with a group of faith leaders throughout the state who’ve actually already been engaging in work to both educate and outreach to the faith communities about the LGBT community and to advance LGBT equality and acceptance in the faith community, talking with them about providing a home and support for that and part of their ministry.
“The group of faith leaders are Christian, Jewish, Muslim, includes a large group or them, so for us it recognizes the fact that some of achieving our goal of full acceptance of LGBT people will require us I think to have more outreach and education within faith communities and so that’s a priority for us and we are hoping that this new initiative is completed, but we’re hoping soon to announce the details of the faith initiative that is sort of really aimed at more outreach in the faith communities in California.
“I think that other than that what makes me really excited is that you look at where the opponents of full equality are coming from, they’re using faith based arguments and religious exemptions to try and carve away the legal rights that we have already earned here in California and in other parts of the country, so having a group of faith leaders who are standing with us in our fight for full equality and acceptance, I think will be something that’s going to be important for us all as we engage in the political advocacy that we need and in the public education to sort of protect the rights that we have already earned.”
Q: Do you see some of these religious liberty laws they’ve tried to get started in other states over the last year or so? And they did have an effort in California that I don’t think went anywhere. Do you see this happening again in the legislative session, and if so will Equality California oppose that?
“Well, we definitely would oppose it. You know, I haven’t heard very much about them doing that, I think they’re focus is on unraveling AB 1266, that’s what we we’re hearing their focus is, but in California I haven’t heard anything recently, but obviously we would oppose it. The thrust really though, I think is at the federal level with the version of ENDA that passed the Senate that included a broad religious exemption that we were very very uncomfortable about, and most of the LGBT organizations that weighed in expressed a lot of nervousness about the decision to pass it with that broad religious exemption, and so we’ve already spoken out against that.
“I think the thing that makes me nervous is the fact that it passed with that version and we’ve got a lot of states now that I don’t think that the next phase of us earning civil rights protection is going to happen at the federal level with Republicans in control of both houses of Congress. It’s really going to happen, as it has in California, in the states that don’t have that. So I’m really nervous about this religious exemption being used to sort of weaken civil rights laws that pass in the states. So that’s, we’ll continue engaging on that where we see it.”
You just mentioned AB 1266, which is the law that went into effect last January, that provides that all students have access to the same facilities [bathrooms], including transgender students too, athletics and other things too. What do you see in different parts of the state around implementing that and how can Equality California help with that. You did mention earlier you were working on some school issues.
“We’ve been partnering with other LGBT organizations, not us alone. The ACLU, one of our partners, has been really taking a lot of leadership on this. For example, I think it’s next week we are participating in a pretty big convening meeting in the Coachella Valley in which I think there is something like 8 or 9 smaller school districts that the ACLU and Equality California are helping provide some training for members of the school district and administrators and the school board on AB 1266 implementation.
“What we’re finding is implementation is spotty, that a lot of districts really don’t want to do it, that AB 1266 is one of those laws that there is a fair amount of controversy on. We saw a member of the California Assembly who lost re-election in Orange County and one of the key issues that was raised in her political campaign was the fact that she voted for AB 1266. So I think our opponents know that is an area where the public, where there is a lack of full understanding among the public. And they’re using that as a bit of a wedge issue.
“So we think that we need to really engage in education ahead of a potential ballot measure that they may very well try to put back on the ballot in the 2016 election cycle. They did try to gather signatures for 2014 and just fell short in gathering enough signatures to get on the ballot but we’re hearing that they are going to try again and so that’s an issue that we’ll be working on with the Transgender Law Center & the ACLU & National Center for Lesbian Rights and all of our partners”
Q: Now that the legislature is back in session, what are some of your legislative priorities for this year?
Zbur discussed a data collection bill; a decriminalization of HIV bill; and finally, a third legislative initiative:
“We are talking to the ACLU about co-sponsoring a bill that would update sex-education criteria that are imposed in the schools, and there are requirements now that sex education programs in a very general way address and educate kids about the diversity of what a family looks like and because the standards are so general most school districts don’t really do what was intended by the existing legislation. So that the curriculum is being updated, the ACLU really wants more standards than that, so we’re really going to be focused on that as well.”
Laird then asked if California’s Right to Die bill is something Equality California would take a position on?
“We might. I personally sort of understand the importance to our community, so that one of the things I personally believe is that every person should have the right to make decisions about their own lives and the time that they end their lives for various reasons, in consultation with their doctors, and doctors should have the right to sort of help people when they make those kinds of decisions.
“So I think I understand the importance to all, to every person, frankly, but I think that there are folks in our community that it may be especially important to, and so, I hadn’t really thought about it that much and we haven’t really dialogued with our legislative staff, we’ll sort of wait to hear what our community thinks…We probably wouldn’t sponsor a bill because it is probably not a strong enough nexus for us, but we do take positions on things and so that’s how we’ll look at it.”
Laird then asked Zbur about Equality California’s position on the new PrEP drugs, and their cost.
Wikipedia describes PrEP: “PrEP, an acronym from Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis, is the use of prescription drugs by people who do not have HIV/AIDS as a strategy for the prevention of HIV/AIDS. It is an optional treatment which may be taken by people who are HIV negative, but who have substantial, higher-than-average risk of contracting an HIV infection.
“PrEP is intended for use with condoms. Contrary to all medical advice, PrEP is sometimes used in the gay community by those who do not wish to use condoms and who intend to have bareback sex. There are social groups which both support and oppose the use of PrEP.”
Zbur’s said Equality California is “very focused on it…It has the potential to impact lives in our community…some folks are very critical of PReP.” Zbur said, “It’s about individuals making decisions over their own lives…making choices that they want to make.”
Zbur then took four questions from the audience: on the cost of the PReP drugs, on mental health issues in the LGBT community, on Equality California’s organizational structure, and a meandering question on the different health department attitude towards “private spaces” in bathhouses in San Francisco and Los Angeles.