Gavin Newsom was a pioneer on gay marriage. Now he’s trying to make LGBT history as governor

Since becoming California governor, Gavin Newsom has promoted his efforts to strengthen LGBT rights and representation.

He made the governor’s office logo a rainbow during Pride Month. He’s touted his selection of the highest-ranking openly transgender appointee in state history.

His office was so eager to make more history that it announced it had flown the gay pride flag for the “first time ever” at the Capitol earlier this week. Newsom walked back the claim after some observers pointed out that lawmakers had raised the flag over the Capitol for a few hours nearly 30 years ago.

Yet it was another signal that Newsom, who became a national figure in 2004 when he issued marriage licenses to same-sex couples as San Francisco mayor, wants to make state government even more inclusive of gay people than his predecessors.

The Democratic governor has appointed many LGBT people to boards, commissions and administration positions as part of a larger effort to hire people who reflect the demographics of the state.

Several say that diversity helps the administration craft better laws.

“When we have a workforce that reflects California, then we have the opportunity to have that collective experience influence public policy,” said Ana Matosantos, Newsom’s cabinet secretary and second-highest-ranking aide.

Matosantos said being a member of the LGBT community means she knows what it’s like “to fight for your seat at the table or where you have to hide a portion of yourself to be recognized or be safe in a particular environment.”

She said her experience with marginalization helps her think about how government policies exclude other groups, such as people with disabilities or black mothers accessing the health care system.

“It makes you think about what are all the other ways in which we continue to have biases and changes we can make to be able to make a more just society,” she said.

When families of black men killed by police pleaded with lawmakers and the governor’s office to raise the standard for when police can shoot suspects, Newsom’s chief strategist Daniel Zingale said he understood their fear.

Zingale hasn’t personally been a victim of police brutality, but as a gay man he said he’s familiar with feeling that your community is being targeted by law enforcement.

Zingale helped broker a compromise with lawmakers, police and the families advocating raising the standard, which now looks likely to become the first update to California’s use-of-force law in nearly 150 years. He said it’s one way his identity has helped him and his other LGBT colleagues empathize with marginalized communities as they shape policy in the governor’s office.

“Having grown up LGBT in this state gives us some insight into what that’s like, what that feels like, and the importance of those in government treating all communities equally,” Zingale said. “Being a member of the gay community helped me see some of what was being called out on that issue of excessive force.”

Mike Madrid, a Republican political consultant who advocates for Latino representation in government, said he thinks it’s important to have LGBT representation. But he said the idea that being from one marginalized community allows you to understand the marginalization of another is “absurd.”

“That line of thinking is extremely problematic... Being sympathetic is not the same thing as being able to relate,” Madrid said. “That is something a white gay man can’t do for me as a Latino man. It’s something I can’t do for an African-American woman.”

Lisa Middleton is another Newsom appointee who says her identity as a transgender person has helped her see inequities in government. As a government employee in the 70s, she recalls opening her health care benefits book and reading that no transgender health care services were included in the plan.

In April, Newsom appointed Middleton to the CalPERS board, which oversees state worker pension funds and health plans, where she said she intends to ensure the health services she oversees are inclusive.

“I know what it is like to be discriminated against because of who I am in health care decisions,” she said.

Newsom is not the first California to appoint openly LGBT people or advocate for their rights.

During his first two terms as governor in the 70s and 80s, former Gov. Jerry Brown appointed the first openly gay UC regent. That move led to a contentious hearing in the Senate, where Sheldon Andelson was ultimately confirmed to serve on the powerful commission with no votes to spare, according to Bee archives. Brown also appointed the first openly gay judge to the California Court of Appeal, Jim Humes, who had served in his cabinet.

Brown also illuminated the Capitol dome in rainbow lights and draped the flag over a balcony in 2015.

In 1999, then-Gov. Gray Davis expanded the rights of same-sex couples by giving domestic partnerships many of the same benefits as legally married couples.

Zingale, who served in Arnold Schwarzenegger’s administration, said he sometimes disagreed with the Republican governor’s positions on LGBT issues, but has since come to consider him an ally who even offered to officiate Zingale’s marriage.

Brown and Newsom are “the two most committed governors to LGBTQ equality,” said Rick Zbur, executive director of LGBT-advocacy organization Equality California.

But Zbur said Equality California sees an even greater opportunity to expand gay rights and representation under Newsom.

Zbur pointed to his organization’s efforts to require schools to train teachers to be supportive and sensitive of gay and transgender students as an example.

Brown vetoed that plan last year after it was approved by the Legislature. Zbur says the organization is trying again this legislative session and hoping to have better luck with Newsom.

Although Brown did appoint many LGBT people to various boards and commissions, a 2015 study commissioned by Equality California found the number of openly LGBT people on state boards and commissions to be “astoundingly low,” Zbur said.

Newsom has a chance to fix that, he said.

Related stories from Merced Sun-Star

Sophia Bollag covers California politics and government. Before joining The Bee, she reported in Sacramento for the Associated Press and the Los Angeles Times. She grew up in California and is a graduate of Northwestern University.
Support my work with a digital subscription