LGBT lawyers honor civil rights leader
by Matthew S. Bajko
At age 71, Alice Huffman has seen her fair share of bruising battles for equal rights in her lifetime. A longtime leader in the civil rights movement, Huffman has certainly paid her dues and earned the right to a peaceful retirement.
Yet Huffman isn't sitting back on her laurels. She has become a key player in the LGBT community's fight for marriage equality.
Through her position as president of the California State Conference of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), Huffman pushed her organization to stand side-by-side with LGBT groups in urging the state's lawmakers to extend marriage to same-sex couples.
"I know some people may not like it, but gays and lesbians are entitled to the same rights African Americans have gotten," said Huffman, who lives in Sacramento. "So many things we were denied for years as African Americans. It was not right for us, it is not right for gays and lesbians."
Since 2004, when Assemblyman Mark Leno (D-San Francisco) introduced for the first time a marriage equality bill in the statehouse, Huffman has been vocal in urging for the legislation's passage. She said she did not hesitate when Leno asked for her support, and that she faced little trouble in convincing her executive committee to agree.
"We thought it was the right thing to do," said Huffman. "It seems to me that the NAACP, the oldest and boldest civil rights organization in the world, should support it."
After testifying on behalf of the bill, Huffman said a conservative NAACP member spit at her and other members upset with her pro-gay stance threatened to pull their membership.
"It is the most contentious issue we have taken on since I was state president," said Huffman, who was first elected in October 1999 and was re-elected for the fifth time last October.
She faced the same hostility when she pushed the NAACP's state conference to pass a pro-gay marriage resolution at its convention.
She recalled that she "had a little butterflies in my stomach wondering how we were going to fair. We had a very, very substantial debate but we were able to prevail."
At the NAACP's national level, Huffman has so far been unsuccessful in getting the organization to adopt a similar pro-gay marriage statement. Twice now her attempts to bring it up for a vote on the convention floor have failed, once because "our resolution was lost somewhere in the mail," said Huffman.
She will make a third attempt at the NAACP's convention this July. It does not come without some risks. Should it be voted down, it could silence NAACP National Chairman Julian Bond from continuing to voice support for marriage equality.
As of now, Huffman admits she doesn't have the votes.
"One reason I am not too successful at the national level is [Bond] absolutely does support this issue. He is always afraid people like me will get on the conference floor and we will lose. That will clip his wings and he will not be able to speak out," said Huffman. "By not having a policy at the national level, he is able to provide leadership."
Moving forward, Huffman hopes to see the ties between the LGBT and black communities only grow closer.
"Many gays and lesbians joined the NAACP because of our support. I just hope that our relationship continues to become stronger," she said.
Last year, Huffman was able to convince the NAACP's state conference to submit an amicus brief in support of San Francisco's lawsuit claiming the state's marriage laws are unconstitutional because they discriminate against gay and lesbian couples.
The case stemmed out of Mayor Gavin Newsom 's decision four years ago to order city officials to wed same-sex couples. The Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in the case next Tuesday, March 4, with a decision expected by June, just in time for Pride month.
Tonight (Thursday, February 28) Huffman will be the keynote speaker and receive the Community Ally Award for her work on behalf of marriage equality from Bay Area Lawyers For Individual Freedom, the Bay Area's GLBT bar association, at its annual dinner. She said she sees her involvement as a straight LGBT ally in the fight for LGBT rights as similar to those who were white and stood in solidarity with the African-American community.
"It has always been cross cultural. It wasn't just black people who spoke up for us," said Huffman. "We got many African American gays; they might be afraid to come out of the closet, but we got them."
She is the first woman to be president of the NAACP's California State Conference and oversees 62 local branches and more than 30 college chapters and youth units. In 2002 she was elected to the NAACP National Board of Directors, representing the country's Western region.
Her past experience includes ser
Currently, she serves on the Democratic National Committee and is a member of the Rules Committee for the California Democratic Party. She is also a superdelegate for presidential candidate New York Senator Hillary Clinton at this year's Democratic National Convention.
"I've never had so much attention as a Democrat in my life," said Huffman. "This primary season, the way it has unfolded, it's created a real sense of excitement and a diverse movement."
As for Clinton's remaining in the race, Huffman admitted that "it is do or die for Hillary" who has seen her support shrink as Democrats increasingly back her opponent, Illinois Senator Barack Obama .
"I would never have thought three months ago we would be sitting in this place. She was the frontrunner. I knew her a long time and encouraged her to run," said Huffman. "I wouldn't abandon her under any circumstances."
Though Huffman added that she has pledged that if Obama wins, she is "going to roll up my sleeves and work as hard for him as I am doing for Hillary. If Hillary wins, I hope the Obama people will do the same."
More LGBT commissioner news
At their February 7 meeting, the city's public library commissioners elected as their new president Jewelle Gomez , who is a party to the same-sex marriage case now before the state Supreme Court. Gomez is believed to be the first writer and the first out lesbian of color to head the library commission.
Gomez takes the reins of the commission as several other prominent lesbians have been forced out of leadership roles as Mayor Newsom has sought greater control over city departments and boards in his second term. She will preside over the commission as the Castro library branch shuts down for a yearlong renovation project and the city searches for a new director of the main library's James C. Hormel Gay & Lesbian Center.
"For me, this is a great time because with the current search for a new director for the Hormel Center there's a real opportunity to revivify activities there and do more outreach to lesbians and people of color in the LGBT community," wrote Gomez in an email.
Hale Thompson, elected last month as recorder of the Harvey Milk LGBT Democratic Club, has joined the Mental Health Advisory Board, which oversees delivery and development of mental health services in San Francisco. He is the third transgender person to serve on the board. He is also a member of the health department's Transgender Advisory Group.
Supervisor Gerardo Sandoval appointed Hale to the post. It is the latest gay-friendly move from Sandoval, who is termed off the board this year, and along with out lesbian attorney Mary Mallen, is vying to unseat Judge Thomas Mellon from San Francisco's Superior Court. Voters will vote on the judge race on the June 3 primary ballot.
At Sandoval's request, the supervisors adjourned their Tuesday, February 26 meeting in memory of Lawrence King , the 15-year-old Los Angeles student gunned down while at school earlier this month by a classmate allegedly because he had recently come out as gay and wore women's clothing.
In a statement, Sandoval said that King's tragic death "is a reminder of the discrimination and prejudice that continues to exist in our society and that we all have a responsibility to overcome. No one should be targeted for the clothes they wear or the people they love, and we as a community need to do everything we can to make sure that this kind of tragedy never happens again."
Web Extra: For more queer political news, be sure to check http://www.ebar.com Monday mornings around 10 a.m. for Political Notes, the notebook's online companion. This week's column looks at a push to find LGBT people for White House posts.
Got a tip on LGBT politics? Call Matthew S. Bajko at (415) 861-5019 or e-mail mailto:firstname.lastname@example.org.