Leslie Katz, California, 1988
Board of Supervisors
San Francisco, California
Elected San Francisco Democratic County Central Committee 1988
Elected President, San Francisco Community College Board November 1994
Appointed to the Board of Supervisors May 1996
Elected November 1996
Essay by Leslie Katz for Out and Elected in the USA
There are moments when serving as one of the few open lesbian elected officials in the country seems a daunting responsibility. However, the challenges and opportunities presented are incredibly gratifying and rewarding. In my first month in office I was able to co-author San Francisco’s Equal Benefits Ordinance (EBO) legislation. This groundbreaking legislation requires any entity that contracts with the City of San Francisco to provide the same benefits to its employees’ registered Domestic Partners as it offers to its employees’ spouses.
I felt that taking the lead on this landmark law was a moral imperative. Fortunately, it was met with extraordinarily broad public support. The voters in San Francisco recognized the importance of local leaders going beyond the usual issues and setting examples for the rest of the country. One self-identified “little old married Catholic lady” wrote a letter urging us to keep up the fight. I knew then that we had gone far beyond a simple ordinance. We had touched people in a significant way about the nature and importance of dignifying our relationships.
The experience of passing and implementing the EBO, and of subsequently beating back the legal attacks on the law by the airline industry and the Religious Right, sometimes bordered on the surreal. As a guest on one news program, I was seated facing a blank wall while talking into the camera. The producer did not provide me with a monitor, so that the other guest, a minister from Virginia, was completely out of sight. He shouted into my earpiece that the ordinance was “part of the homosexual agenda!” I responded by pointing out that “the Chamber of Commerce supports it wholeheartedly,” and if they are part of the “homosexual agenda” they are most welcome. I still wish that I had been able to see his face at that moment, although his silence painted its own picture.
A few months later, the local Catholic Archbishop challenged the ordinance. Knowing of the Church’s importance in our City, I seized the opportunity to broaden the support for the EBO in the religious community. I led a delegation of City officials in a negotiation session with the Archbishop to find common ground. In a surprisingly short time, we found it: universal health coverage. Since the Archbishop’s primary objection was of condoning either same or opposite gender couples “living in sin,” we reached an agreement whereby all employees could designate any adult member of their household to receive spousal equivalent benefits.
Once we demonstrated that we could work with the Catholic Church, almost all other City contractors fell in line and recognized that we were serious not only about passing the legislation but also about ensuring that it was workable. Suddenly, Fortune 500 companies began to comply with the ordinance. I started to receive letters from Gay and Lesbian people across the country thanking us for helping them to receive health benefits, but more importantly, for having their relationships dignified and recognized by their employers and by a governmental body.
To date, nearly 6,000 businesses are in compliance with the Equal Benefits Ordinance, over a million employees work for employers who offer domestic partner benefits, and over 100 health insurers offer domestic partner coverage, up from only 14 insurers when the ordinance was initially passed.
When I first took office, I was often identified as a “Lesbian Supervisor” although I consistently advocated for a broad range of issues and residents. However, the longer I have been in office the less this moniker has been used. Lately, I am referred to as the “technology Supervisor” or the “tree Supervisor” for my environmental work. There is certainly a growing sense in the City that the Gay and Lesbian politicians can and do represent the entire community. This kind of change in attitudes has resulted in very strong support for Gay and Lesbian human rights issues from the average San Franciscan, demonstrating the importance of having out public figures.