Sheila James Kuehl (D)
Born May 3, 1941
State Senator, District 23
Santa Monica, California
Elected to State Assembly November 1994
Re-elected 1996, 1998
Elected to State Senate November 2000
In her youth, Shelia Kuehl was known for her portrayal of the irrepressible Zelda Gilroy in the television series, "The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis." She is perhaps better known now for her legislation that protects students from anti-gay harassment and discrimination in California's schools and universities.
Essay by Shelia Kuehl for Out and Elected in the USA
In 1994, when I was first elected to the California State Assembly, all the stories the next morning were headlined, "Lesbian elected to Legislature." Well, it was news. There had never been such a first in our state. I knew it was important, even though most of the work I had done up to then revolved around helping victims of domestic violence or working on custody and child support and other family law issues. Now I represented 400,000 Californians and all the laws in the state were my concern.
But, of course, the Community cared as well. And so many of the hopes and expectations of my constituents, colleagues and friends began to revolve around whether or not I would, indeed, be a stand-up lesbian legislator or, as some of my less proud colleagues put it, a legislator "who just happens" to be gay or lesbian.
I remember when I was in law school in Cambridge in the early 70's, Elaine Noble was serving in the Massachusetts legislature and she was out. One night, she told us about one little old (straight) lady who had grabbed her sleeve on the street, right after the election. "Now, remember, dearie," the woman had cautioned, wagging a little, bony finger, "you're there for ALL of us." People were worried that Elaine would be there only for the gays, and the truth is, I am there for us, but I'm also there for everyone else. And Elaine was a great legislator, showing us that these things are not mutually exclusive. Here's what I’ve learned:
1. There is plenty of law to be made. It's very hard to be a single-issue legislator when your community, your movement, now 800,000 constituents and tons of very vocal friends are all tugging at your sleeve on the street. So I carry bills to protect the environment, fund after-school programs, protect gay and lesbian students at school, bar the creation of new landfills in the state parks, protect transgendered people under the hate crimes statutes, keep holocaust survivors from being taxed on their reparations, fund all kinds of health care including AIDS research and services, strengthen child support enforcement, and more, more, more.
2. I also have to stand up for my community, even though it will often break my heart when I lose. Straight colleagues join me but it will almost always fall to me and to other gay legislators to take the lead. Still, it is those moments of which I am most proud, at the end.
3. I do it because the world is watching. Every year, hundreds of LGBT youth, their hair a rainbow, their skins a rainbow, their hearts on their sleeves and in their throats, come up to Sacramento to sit across a hundred desks and plead their humanity to my colleagues in the Assembly and in the Senate. They look to me and to Carole Migden to tell them how beautiful and how right they are. It's worth every harsh word I get anywhere else.
4. I really feel I have the power to save lives. We are the ones who put sexual orientation in the civil rights bills, the funding bills, the hate crimes bills, the anti-discrimination bills. Even as I grieved over the hideous murder of Matthew Shepherd, I prayed that some child somewhere in my state is still alive because we have made it clear that the state will punish the "lesser" crimes of assault and battery more severely if they are randomly committed out of hatred of a group.
5. It's possible to be very funny, too. I was privileged to serve as Speaker Pro Tem of the Assembly, which means I presided over the Floor and called on the Members who wish to be recognized for debate. In the middle of one late night session, very tired, I called on my colleague Rod Wright from Los Angeles, who had just returned following his recovery from prostate surgery, erroneously calling him Ms. Wright. Not missing a beat, Rod said, on his mike, "Madame Speaker, the cuts didn't go quite that deep." I replied, "I'm really sorry Mr. Wright, I've actually been looking for Ms. Wright most of my life." There was a short pause while folks absorbed that and then everyone totally cracked up.
Honestly, this is the best job I've ever had.
For information on a touring exhibit version of Out and Elected in the USA: 1974-2004, contact Ron Schlittler at firstname.lastname@example.org.