CA Senate leader Atkins moves to end LGBTQ travel ban

  • by Matthew S. Bajko, Assistant Editor
  • Wednesday March 29, 2023
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Senate President pro Tempore Toni Atkins. Photo: Twitter
Senate President pro Tempore Toni Atkins. Photo: Twitter

Despite LGBTQ rights coming under attack in statehouses across the country, lesbian California Senate President pro Tempore Toni G. Atkins (D-San Diego) is moving to end the Golden State's ban on using taxpayer money for travel to 23 states that have passed anti-LGBTQ legislation over the past eight years. It comes as San Francisco leaders are also expected to lift the city's similar travel ban policy.

But it is in contrast to the stance the author of the state's travel ban policy, gay Assemblymember Evan Low (D-Cupertino), had taken earlier in March. He had told the Bay Area Reporter at the time that he remained convinced his Assembly Bill 1887 establishing the ban on all but emergency travel to states on the "no-fly list" remained effective policy.

"We don't have any intentions of backing down and changing our position on the state-funded travel ban," Low had told the B.A.R.

Atkins on Wednesday announced her Senate Bill 447 called the BRIDGE Act, which stands for Building and Reinforcing Inclusive, Diverse, Gender-Supportive Equality. It would scrap the travel ban policy for a marketing program in those states attacking LGBTQ rights that Atkins said would "encourage acceptance of the LGBTQ+ community."

How much money would be allocated toward the marketing effort is to be determined, according to Atkins' office. In a statement provided to the B.A.R. ahead of its official release late Wednesday afternoon, the 60-year-old Atkins noted how "the idea of being accepted as a lesbian was a foreign concept" when she was growing up in rural Virginia.

"Times have changed, but for so many in the LGBTQ+ community, the feelings of isolation and fear remain. Lifting the travel ban and putting a program in its place that would infuse inclusive, nonpartisan messages in other states is a way that California can help build a bridge of inclusion and acceptance," stated Atkins. "At a time when LGBTQ+ rights and protections are being rescinded, and the very words we use are being weaponized, putting understanding and kindness at the forefront is more important than ever."

Atkins added that the goal of her legislation "is to speak to people's hearts and open minds. That's a pursuit that would have made teen Toni — that southwestern Virginia girl afraid to be herself back then — so proud."

Low's office told the B.A.R. it didn't have a comment "at this time yet" as of the paper's noon print deadline Wednesday.

During a press briefing with reporters Wednesday afternoon, Atkins was asked several times if the original travel ban was a failure. She denied that.

"I think AB 1887 was successful," she said, referring to Low's bill, adding that leaders in states like North Carolina and Georgia initially did change laws or institute bans, such as the moving the NCAA men's basketball tournament games out of the Tar Heel State in 2016. "It was effective in what we were trying to do. I think we sent a message loud and clear."

She also talked about experience and the legislative process. "You try to address things. It's a fluid process," she said. "You only learn by trying. [AB] 1887 wasn't ineffective. The polarization is not good. We can continue to polarize or shift and take a different approach."

Over the years as more states have been added to the no-fly list, some unintended consequences became apparent.

"That was we need to change hearts and minds," Atkins said.

Atkins said that she had a "very positive conversation" with Low and values his input.

Atkins said the funding for the marketing campaign would likely come from the state's GO-Biz program and be funded through donations. "I am mindful of the financial situation we're in in California," she said, adding that businesses and other groups want to help but have felt stymied by the travel ban.

Atkins was asked how the program would ensure that money from any contracts would not go to companies in red states who donate to the politicians crafting all the anti-LGBTQ laws.

"We'll look for a nationally recognized organization," she said, explaining she envisioned the type of ads seen during the Super Bowl. "Nonprofits or nonpartisan — that was my inspiration. It's about the human connection. I doubt that GO-Biz would contract with a company that does not espouse those views."

SF policy

San Francisco's policy known as 12X bans not only travel but also contracting with businesses headquartered in the 30 states now covered by it. It was expanded from targeting those states that had passed anti-LGBTQ laws since 2015 to also include those with restrictions on abortion access and voting rights.

This month a majority of San Francisco supervisors voted to allow city agencies and departments to enter into construction contracts with companies in the 30 states. And later this spring the board is expected to revoke the entire policy covering bans on travel and doing other business in those states.

"I had been toying with the idea of just dealing with the contracting and leaving the travel ban in place. But the more I heard from city departments on how the travel ban is working in practice, I don't think it makes sense either," gay District 8 Supervisor Rafael Mandelman, who is the lead author of the ordinance to completely jettison the city's 12X policy, had told the B.A.R.

Atkins authors 2 LGBTQ bills

Atkins' bill to end the state travel ban is the second piece of legislation she is carrying this year that directly addresses LGBTQ rights. She also is the author of a bill aimed at protecting access to gender-affirming care for transgender individuals.

Last week, Atkins announced her SB 487 that is largely focused on protecting providers of abortion in California from various legal repercussions but also includes providers of gender-affirming care services. It would ensure that a health insurer, or health care service plan, couldn't penalize a licensed California health care provider who performs such services.

In addition, the bill would restrict Medi-Cal from automatically suspending a provider's license should another state's Medicaid program suspend them for performing abortion or gender-affirming care services. Atkins' office noted that SB 487 would not shield a provider from facing suspension or other consequences for any other wrongful or illegal acts, as determined through existing law.

With other states moving to criminalize the offering of abortion and transgender health care, SB 487 would protect providers from facing additional retaliation and repercussions in California should they face civil, criminal, or other punitive actions because of services provided in another state, or because they provided services to a person from out of state.

"SB 487 would shield our providers from sanctions so that there is no disruption in their ability to perform abortion care in California, where abortion is legal, and was enshrined by voters in our state constitution," stated Atkins.

The bill would also prohibit insurers from discriminating against, or refusing to contract with, a provider who may have been sanctioned in another state for providing prohibited or restricted services that are legal in California. With many states starting to restrict or outlaw gender-affirming care, such a provision "is needed now more than ever," noted Atkins' office.

"SB 487 will help ensure providers can continue to perform abortion and gender-affirming services without facing any penalties, even as other states continue to pass restrictions and outright bans on this type of health care," stated Sacramento-based Dr. Kelly McCue, the District IX chair of the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists.

The two bills this legislative session mark a rare instance of Atkins authoring legislation focused on LGBTQ rights since she took over leadership of the Legislature's upper chamber in 2018. She last authored LGBTQ-related bills the year prior.

In 2017, Atkins authored SB 179, which created a third gender marker on state-issued identification documents for people who identify as nonbinary or intersex. She also that year carried to passage SB 310, the Name and Dignity Act that made it easier for transgender people incarcerated in state prisons or county jails to change their legal name or gender marker. It also required corrections officials to use the new name of a person who obtains a name change and to list their prior name only as an alias.

This year and next are Atkins' last chance to spearhead legislation in Sacramento, as she will be termed out of office in early December 2024. She was first elected to the state Assembly in 2010 and was elected to her Senate seat six years later.

Updated, 3/29/23: This article has been updated with comments from Sen. Atkins' press briefing.

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