It seems like a domino effect. First President Obama came out in support of marriage equality on May 9, then the NAACP on May 17 and Republican former Secretary of State Colin Powell on May 23.
“It’s historic and important that the country’s oldest African-American civil rights group has voted to endorse same-sex marriage and condemn efforts to codify discrimination or hatred in the law or our Constitution,” Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa told Frontiers in a phone interview May 23. “What I think the faith community doesn’t quite understand—we’re calling on the government to provide marriage equality in civil marriages. What individual faith denominations do is up to them. And I think that’s becoming clearer to more and more people in the faith community, and why increasingly you’re seeing more denominations take positions in support of marriage equality.”
Villaraigosa recalled how he spoke about LGBT discrimination on the floor of the Assembly in 1994. “I used to call it ‘the last frontier of the civil rights movement.’ I believe that to be true. I know a lot of people say it now, but I was supportive of marriage equality in the ‘90s when I got elected.”
This is an important point for the LGBT community to remember as Villaraigosa gavels the Democratic National Convention to order Sept. 4 in Charlotte, N.C. This is progress: President Obama seeking re-election and Villaraigosa ensuring Obama’s convention is a showcase for Democratic ideals—both straight men of color who unequivocally support LGBT equality.
In California, Villaraigosa’s support for marriage equality is well-known. Not only did he oppose state Sen. Pete Knight’s discriminatory bill in1997, but he co-chaired the ‘No on Knight’ (Prop. 22) campaign in 2000—in both English and Spanish, “back when it was a much tougher issue in that community than it is today.”
Last Jan. 20, Villaraigosa spearheaded Freedom to Marry’s ‘Mayors for Marriage’ campaign with the mayors of New York, Houston, San Diego and Boston. “We had about 25 people,” he says. “There are now more than 200 mayors across the country that have signed onto marriage equality—both Democrat and Republican.”
In March, Villaraigosa endorsed the effort to place a marriage plank in the Democratic Party Platform.
Frontiers asked if he thought the plank would actually make it into the platform.
“Oh, yes. No question about it,” Villaraigosa said. “I mean, it’s up to the delegates, but I fully expect that marriage equality will be part of the plank of the Democratic Platform.”
He is not concerned about Occupy Wall Street protesters at the convention. “People understand that we’re going to work to win the hearts and minds of as many people in as many states as possible,” he said. “We’re just too far down the road. We’re going to go to Charlotte, and we all need to focus on what we have in common and make a stark contrast between who we are and what we stand for and who [the Republicans] are and what they stand for. That’s what I’m going to focus on.”
Villaraigosa expects LGBT convention speakers. “I’m not picking who’s speaking. I think the campaign’s going to do that. But I’m certainly going to be involved on some level—absolutely. We should have a diverse lineup and a plank that represents our values.”
Villaraigosa does not think Obama was pushed into support for marriage equality by Vice President Biden’s surprising comments. “I knew [Obama] was going to make a statement,” Villaraigosa said. “I’m proud of the way the president has led on marriage equality. I think it was a bold and courageous decision. There’s certainly going to be people who disagree with it, but when you have the courage of your convictions, when you’re authentic, when you stand up for equality before the law—it speaks to character. It speaks to who we are as a nation and who we are as a party.”
For Villaraigosa, this is personal—aside from the fact that his cousin is openly gay Assembly Speaker John A. Pérez. “I’m a big believer in authenticity and equality. I used to work for the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission for seven years when I was president of my union. My job was to enforce our civil rights laws. I’ve been doing this since I was a kid. This is fundamentally who I am,” he said. “I’ve never done the political calculus and said, ‘Is this going to make me unpopular?’ Even when I’ve staked out positions that have been very forward-looking, I think I’ve gotten away with it because they’re consistent with who I am.
“So, ultimately, I knew and believed that the president [would support marriage equality] because it’s consistent with who he is,” Villraigosa said. “This is who we are. I wouldn’t be here if there wasn’t a Civil Rights Act and a Voting Rights Act. I wouldn’t be here if there wasn’t a Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks and a Cesar Chavez and a Dolores Huerta and people like Harvey Milk. Open up the country to say that all of us deserve a shot. ... I think we’re going to win this election. ... In the end, I think when you’re authentic and true to your values, it inures to your benefit. I believe that.”