L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa’s LGBT Legacy
Karen Ocamb

(Editor’s note: This is an expanded version of “Villaraigosa Leaves Office But Not His LGBT Friends” in the current print edition of Frontiers, including much more from the June 3 interview with the mayor on why he’s so LGBT-friendly —Karen Ocamb)

Before and after his enthusiastic participation in the LGBT Heritage Month/L.A. Pride kick-off weekend, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa engaged in intense “friendship diplomacy” with new Chinese President Xi Jinping. Chinese TV reported that Villaraigosa’s visit to Beijing last month was  “to lay the groundwork for President Xi Jinping’s meeting with Barack Obama in L.A.” The two presidents met in Palm Springs June 7 and 8.

Villaraigosa told CCTV that President Xi “called Los Angeles the epicenter of the sub-national relationship between the United States and China.” China is the top trading partner for the Port of Los Angeles, which sees imports and exports to the tune of $120 billion, according to the Daily Breeze. And yet when reporting on that business trip—paid for by the Port of L.A. and the Los Angeles World Airports—KPCC’s blog headline read, “Lame duck L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa travels to China on a trade mission.” 

That headline is an example of how the press has often derided Villaraigosa since his 2007 affair with a Telemundo reporter and the subsequent end of his 20-year marriage. Villaraigosa has often acknowledged that affair as a personal “failure,” and he is aware of how much it hurt people who expected more from him as the tough kid from Boyle Heights who got elected in 2005 as L.A.’s first Latino mayor in 130 years.

“I think that disappointed a lot of people,” Villaraigosa told the New York Times last year.  “I think that was probably the biggest thing. People just felt let down. I had to work to regain their trust.”

Many in the LGBT community were also disappointed, and some even agreed with critics who claimed the mayor had been seduced by the glamour of Hollywood. But when Villaraigosa’s legacy is finally written in the context of the worst economy since the Great Depression and the disinclination of President George W. Bush and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to help cities, his accomplishments may find greater acclaim.

“We grew our police force, tackled our gang problem and made L.A. safer than it’s been since the 1950s,” says Villaraigosa’s gay senior advisor and deputy chief of staff Matt Szabo. “We doubled the size of our rail network and are putting 410,000 people to work over the next 30 years. We cleaned up our port, greened our city and opened 650 acres of new parks. We took on education reform and have seen tremendous improvement. We pushed for changes at LAUSD and have doubled the number of schools reaching the state's academic goals."

So far stories about Villaraigosa’s legacy have not included his substantial work on behalf of the LGBT community. He came to LGBT attention in 1994 as a candidate for the California Assembly (A.D. 45) seeking the Stonewall Democratic Club endorsement. Once elected, Villaraigosa, who was soon appointed Democratic Assembly Whip and Majority Leader, and Shelia Kuehl—the first openly gay person elected to the state legislature—joined forces to form the first Gay and Lesbian Legislative Caucus. That year he also announced his support for the freedom to marry.

In his interview, Villaraigosa said:

“I had been president of the ACLU and we represented the LGBT community in many, many battles, but I can’t say I was an activist per se. I was generally a progressive, so I was tangentially involved with those issues—very supportive. But I can’t say I was someone known to take up that cause. But I remember going to Stonewall and being asked about—at the time, civil unions and anti-gay discrimination—all the things that were happening. This was 1994 and I was running for the Assembly. And I was supportive, of course, of all of the issues they raised. And then, as I was walking out, someone said, ‘What would you think about marriage?’ And I stopped for a second and said, ‘You know, I never thought about it. But, yeah, I’m for it.’

And I think why I’ve been so strongly in support has a lot to do with my upbringing, this notion of right and wrong, tolerance, embracing all people—that my mother gave us. So, if it was a new issue, it wasn’t difficult for me to resolve. Even issues of first impression. And I remember saying on the floor [of the Assembly] a number of times that this was the last frontier—that racism, sexism are mostly frowned upon. But that homophobia and discrimination against the LGBT community is still encoded in our laws and tolerated by some elements of our society. So early on I joined Shelia and the LGBT Caucus when she asked me to. I think at the time we called it the Gay & Lesbian Caucus.”

1994 was also the year in which Newt Gingrich achieved his Republican Right Wing Revolution impacting Congress and Republicans everywhere. For instance, seeing the turning tide of GOP conservatism, Gov. Pete Wilson broke a 1990 campaing promise to Log Cabin Republicans to sign the gay rights bill AB 101 by vetoing it when it came to his desk in 1991. After their elections, Villaraigosa co-authored AB 1001, which was introduced by Kuehl, prohibiting discrimination against gays in employment and housing. Villaraigosa also fought for HIV/AIDS funding formularies against legislators who thought it was OK for gays to die.

In 1995, Kuehl introduced a bill that would ban discrimination against gay students by adding sexual orientation to the state Education Code’s list of protected categories: race, sex, religion and disabilities. It failed but was not forgotten. With the election of pro-gay Democratic Gov. Gray Davis in 1998 and with the election of Villaraigosa as Assembly Speaker, there was an opportunity to advance LGBT civil rights

Kuehl brought back the Dignity for All Students bill—AB 222—which was greeted with a torrent of anti-gay hysteria about how children would be taught that “traditional marriage” is “discriminatory” and parents would face “unimaginable problems.” Villaraigosa put his personal prestige on the line, but in June 1999, the anti-gay forces convinced eight Assembly Democrats to join the almost unanimous Republican caucus in killing AB 222. It failed by one vote. Stonewall Democratic Club President Eric Bauman condemned the Democratic deserters as “The Spineless Eight.”

“I only lost the first vote on two bills in my Speakership, and that was one of them,” Villaraigosa recalled. “And I swore to Sheila that I would get the votes—and I did. You know, when I was Speaker, I respected people’s right to have different views but obviously when they came to civil rights and human rights, I made sure that the Assembly was a place where we honored the civil rights and human rights of all people. And so the Dignity for All Students Bill was actually a war, and we won, and thank God we did.”

But Villaraogosa was termed out, so it fell to new Speaker Bob Hertzberg to secure passage of the Dignity for All Students Bill under a new maneuver, a name and number: AB 537, the California Student Safety & Violence Prevention Act of 2000, which prohibited “discrimination and harassment in education on all the same bases used in the definition of hate crimes under Penal Code Section 422.6 (a).”

Before being termed out, Speaker Villaraigosa stepped up in a major way to fight Prop. 22, the Knight Initiative. He even donated $10,000 of his own money to fight the initiative that defined marriage as only between a man and a woman. On March 7, 2000, California voters went to the polls and passed Prop. 22 by a margin of 61 percent to 39 percent—setting up the excuse Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger used to twice veto marriage equality bills passed by the California Legislature.

In 2001, Villaraigosa tried to unseat L.A. Mayor Jim Hahn but lost. Two years later, however, he defeated L.A. City Councilmember Nick Pacheco to represent the 14th C.D. on the City Council.

“If you represent Hollywood and Silver Lake and Echo Park, being for these issues wasn’t necessarily politically risky, any more than representing San Francisco,” Villaraigosa said. “But from the beginning, what I did that was different from anyone else is that I did all my press conferences in Spanish, too. I’m the first to do that at the level that I did. In fact, I would get invited to all the big press conferences around Prop. 22 because people wanted me to speak in Spanish, too. I’ve been part of every battle since the 1990s.”

In 2005, Villaraigosa ran for mayor and this time he won overwhelmingly. At an event thanking the LGBT community, he said that, second to the Latino community, it was the LGBT community that helped get him elected. He also noted—as a national campaign co-chair for Sen. John Kerry’s unsuccessful bid for President in 2004—that the gay community did NOT cause Kerry to lose as many Democrats argued at the time, with 11 anti-gay marriage initiatives on state ballots, thanks to “Bush’s Brain” Karl Rove. Villaraigosa told the LGBT community that Kerry just ran a bad campaign.

Some things did change in the first years after Villaraigosa became mayor—in particular, he stopped including the LGBT press in his regular meetings with LGBT leaders—an appreciated practice he had during his years as Speaker. He also seemed to take personally and hold a grudge against his critics, though he continued to be popular in appearances before LGBT audiences.   

Everything changed again when the California Supreme Court ruled in May 2005 that same-sex couples had the fundamental right to marry. Villaraigosa officiated at 11 marriages—including that of entertainment producer Bruce Cohen and Gabriel Catone—at L.A. City Hall on June 23, 2008.  

Villaraigosa was very active in the effort to defeat Prop. 8 at the polls—including speaking at protests in the pouring rain. After Prop. 8 passed in Nov. 2008, he was constantly visible—at the initial big protest in West Hollywood and the also sizable protest outside City Hall Downtown. He also “welcomed” protesters to the Equality Summit at the LA Convention Center when the LGBT community was trying to figure out why the No on Prop. 8 campaign failed.

But as mayor, many of Villaraigosa’s appearances were ceremonial and fun at LGBT events—including introducing the roster of elected officials at the Equality California galas—a roster that soon included his cousin, John A. Pérez, who quickly became the first openly gay Speaker of the California Assembly.

In June 4, 2011, Villaraigosa hosted the first annual LGBT Heritage Month, a somewhat somber occasion that also noted the 30th anniversary of HIV/AIDS. Six months later, Villaraigosa helped launch Freedom to Marry’s “Mayors for the Freedom to Marry” during the U.S. Conference of Mayors meeting in Washington, D.C.

"I organized ‘Mayors for Marriage Equality,’ where there were four of us [Vilalraigosa, Houston Mayor Annise Parker, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and San Diego Mayor Jerry Sanders]. I called individual mayors and got them on. There are now 349 mayors. I won’t say who, but there were folks who said ‘no,’ initially, and when we started to get all the names, then they came on but didn’t want to go to the press conference. And then when they saw all the people coming to the press conference, they actually came.”

When he was selected to be the chair of the National Democratic Convention, Villaraigosa told Politico he supported putting marriage equality in the party platform. “I think [marriage equality] is basic to who we are, he said. “I believe in family values and I believe we all ought to be able to have a family and marry if you want to. I don’t think the government should be in the business of denying people the fundamental right to marry.” The DNC adopted the Gay Marriage Plank on Sept. 6, 2012, with Villaraigosa gaveling down the vote.

“It has been the privilege of a lifetime to hold the gavel at this historic convention,” he said, referring to the re-election of America’s first African-American president and the passage of the marriage equality plank. “For the first time in history, a major party platform recognizes every American’s freedom to marry the person they love as a fundamental right. This is a reflection of our values as a party and what a growing majority of Americans in this country believe.”  

In a 45-minute interview at City Hall on June 3, Villaraigosa attributed his profound commitment to social justice is attributable to his mother.


“I’ve been involved in the movement for social justice since I was 15 years old,” Villaraigosa said. “My mom was a very embracing, very progressive woman for her time. In the 1950s and early ‘60s, we would have whites and blacks, Japanese-Americans—and, looking back, a gay couple—over for dinner pretty frequently. She was in a co-op for kids and there were a lot of progressive Jews who were there in that co-op. She always had this very diverse groups of friends. My mom taught us about sexism and racism and homophobia. I think that sense of humanity—that sense of right and wrong, those values of tolerance and understanding—were inculcated in us when we were kids.” 

Additionally, Villaraigosa said, the gays in his own family have influenced him deeply. “I have three nephews—two of them are gay. I have five cousins on my mother’s side—one is gay, one is bi and a niece from one of my five cousins is a lesbian. So my family, when you think of it, is such a small family, we’ve always been more than tolerant, embracing of all of our family members. I remember fighting for adoption for gay couples in the late 1990s, and I remember talking about my cousin John (Pérez). He wasn’t elected yet—no one knew who he was—but I remember thinking he was such a great uncle to his nieces and nephews. He always talking them out to eat, always doing things with them. What a great dad he would make! Who are these people to deny gay people fatherhood or motherhood?”

During the 2013 Mayor’s Garden Party for LGBT Pride at the Getty House, both CSW/L.A. Pride President Rodney Scott and Villaraigosa spoke movingly about being fatherless children. During our June 3 interview, Villaraigosa elaborated on his abusive father’s leaving when he was five resulted in him growing up in a world of women.

“He was an alcoholic and he terrorized us, so I never would have grown up with this strong sense of self that I developed—because I had a loving mother who gave us unconditional love and support,” Villaraigosa said. “I would have been very different if he had stayed in my life.”

Rather, he was brought up by women—his single mother Natalia Delgado, who raised four children, two girls, two boys, with the help of Villaraigosa’s aunt. Villaraigosa said:

“I was mostly with women. So I grew up—I had a very strong feminine side and as a boy, I would get teased about it. And I grew up in and around the projects, so over time I got very tough because I would get teased and because I had to go walk through there. I went to Catholic school and the projects … in Ramona Gardens so I had to walk through the projects every single day. I actually became—I think because of the ‘no dad’—I was very angry and I was always fighting. So I became tough but I grew up with and I still have a very strong feminine side. I cry at movies because we all did. I cried at The Lion King—no, seriously, when King Mufasa died—I was with my kids and I just started crying. People crack up. In my past, I’ve gone with women who don’t cry at the movies and I’m crying. I have a very strong feminine side. But I think it—I have a very tough side, too.  And I’ve been in a tough job and I think as a kid I was very angry. My cousin John is 15 years younger, my brother is 10 years younger so the boys were kind of afterwards. I was mostly around girls.

Everything good about me is because of my mom. She was the wind beneath my wings in every sense of the word. I think over time that unconditional love of hers helped turn me around. I think I stopped being angry some time in my late teens. I realized when I went back to school [after having dropped out of high school] that anger only hurts you and over time I just lost that anger. I worked on it, but I lost it and now I’m very much driven by love, by wanting to do good.”

There is a gray pall of sadness hovering like a pall over Villaraigosa as he nears the end of many years of public service. But he may return. He said, “This has been a real honor for me to be mayor, to be Speaker of the Assembly, councilmember—mayor of the city my grandfather came to 100 years ago. Never in my wildest imagination did I ever believe I’d be mayor of this great city and it’s been an absolute honor. I’m very grateful. I do believe in public service and I would like to one day serve again. Restoring luster to the California Dream is something I’m very interested in, which is why I’ll probably affiliate with a think tank or a university, kind of think through how we can set ourselves on a more sustainable path forward as a state. But we’ll see.” 

No doubt the LGBT community will be there to welcome him back to public service when and if he decides to return. 

CLICK HERE to view a photo timeline of Villaaigosa's commitment to the LGBT community. Captions below:

1.     Antonio Villaraigosa running for Assembly with his kids and Stonewall President Eric Bauman in 1994 CSW Pride Parade

2.     Villaraigosa and Gil Cedillo

3.     Villaraigosa as Speaker holding LGBT community leaders meeting—including Jackie Goldberg and Frontiers publisher Bob Craig (third from right)

4.     Villaraigosa as Speaker meets with L.A. Gay & Lesbian Center’s Lorri Jean and Sky Johnson

5.     Villaraigosa and longtime supporter Sheila Kuehl

6.     Newly elected mayor Villaraigosa hugs newly elected gay city councilmember Bill Rosendahl

7.     Villaraigosa when his cousin John A. Pérez is elected to the Assembly

8.     Villaraigosa at Equality California gala when Pérez is honored as openly gay Assembly Speaker

9.     Villaraigosa on stage with elected officials

10.   Villaraigosa marries entertainment producer Bruce Cohen and Gabriel Catone at L.A. City Hall on June 23, 2008

11.   Villaraigosa at No on Prop. 8 rally

12.   Villaraigosa at post-Prop. 8 protest downtown

13.   Villaraigosa Frontiers cover

14.   Prop. 8 declared unconstitutional—American Foundation for Equal Rights celebrates at rally in WeHo

15.   Villaraigosa with AFER Prop. 8 challengers Jeff Zarrillo and Paul Katami

16.   Villaraigosa thanked by AFER at going away party for Chad Griffin

17.   Villaraigosa with Deputy Mayor Torie Osborn at Garden Party

18.   Villaraigosa with deputy chief of staff Matt Szabo

19.   Villaraigosa with Suzy Jack and Justin Gonzales at Garden Party

20.   Villaraigosa with the late Frontiers publisher Mark Hundahl and David Stern

21.   Villaraigosa dancing 

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