Gay Sacramento leader Mangers reflects on service

  • by John Ferrannini, Assistant Editor
  • Wednesday June 26, 2024
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Dennis Mangers served as a member of the state Assembly in the 1970s, before he came out of the closet. Photo: Courtesy Dennis Mangers
Dennis Mangers served as a member of the state Assembly in the 1970s, before he came out of the closet. Photo: Courtesy Dennis Mangers

Dennis Mangers said he isn't the "gay godfather of Sacramento," as a local media outlet dubbed him 16 years ago. But the 83-year-old, who came out after serving in the state Legislature, helped kick-start political and AIDS service groups in the state capital, as well as its gay men's chorus.

"I certainly am just as active as I've always been," Mangers recently told the Bay Area Reporter.

That spirit of public service began when he and his late former wife Linda met in the early 1960s and were inspired by then-President John F. Kennedy.

"While it may sound corny, we really took seriously, 'Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country,'" Mangers said, quoting the late president. "Until our first child came along, we seriously contemplated going into the Peace Corps. But when our first child came along, we didn't feel at liberty to do that."

Mangers and his wife had two children. As a first grade teacher and later a school principal in Southern California, Mangers saw the plight of children in poverty and of the families of migrant farmworkers. He worked at an underprivileged school in Long Beach, he said.

"Linda and I had to actually buy school supplies, food — graham crackers in the morning — because teaching to hungry kids was just awful," he said. "The upper middle class schools where I student-taught seemed to have everything. I got to this school [in Long Beach] and a lot of very well-intentioned people got to a school that was under-resourced and understaffed."

This experience propelled Mangers into politics.

"I can't just complain about these things," he said he recalled thinking. "I have to do something about them."

After stints on the Huntington Beach Parks and Recreation Commission and the board of the Huntington Beach Union High School District, Mangers, a Democrat, ran in 1974 for an Orange County seat in the state Assembly against Republican Robert Burke. He lost but ran again in 1976 and won then successfully ran for reelection two years later.

At that time, Orange County was reliably Republican. Mangers said that "as you can imagine, it was a challenge."

"I tried in 1974; I ran against a Republican incumbent who'd run five times," Mangers said, referring to Burke. "He was very conservative. He beat me narrowly, but we did so well in the northwest corner of Orange County that the then-speaker [Leo McCarthy] told me if we started over again, then he'd support me if I met certain benchmarks."

Those benchmarks included registering Democratic voters and meeting volunteer quotas. Mangers said that though it was a conservative area, his message stressing education and environmental protection resonated with voters in a year Democrats did well nationwide, coming in the aftermath of the resignation of President Richard Nixon due to the Watergate scandal.

At the time, Mangers hadn't begun his coming out process. It wasn't until he got to Sacramento that he began to come to terms with his sexual orientation.

"Of course, now it's widely known it's while I was in the Legislature that I came to realize I was gay," he said.

Mangers lost reelection in 1980. He and others who narrowly were defeated that year blamed then-President Jimmy Carter, also a Democrat, for tanking the ticket by conceding his race to Republican Ronald Reagan, a former California governor, before polls had closed in the Golden State.

"It was secretly a relief to me at first, because I was pretty convinced I was not going to be emotionally, psychologically capable of remaining in the closet," Mangers said. "I would have to tell my wife, kids, and everyone else I'm gay."

Then-Assemblymember Dennis Mangers, left, with then-governor Jerry Brown in 1977. Photo: Courtesy Dennis Mangers  

Coming out
Rather than going back into education, Mangers became a lobbyist for the California Cable & Telecommunications Association. It was in the early 1980s that he was "very cruelly outed" to his daughter Kirsten, he said.

Mangers had first been outed to his boss by a former colleague who felt he should be the lobbyist for the telecom association.

"He went to my boss and told him, 'Dennis Mangers has turned out to be gay and has become an activist, and this will embarrass the industry,'" Mangers recalled. "The president called me into his office and said, 'I know this can't be true because you're married with two kids.' It was pretty terrifying. ... So I told him, 'This is awkward. I know it's hard to understand, but I am gay ... but I promise you I won't embarrass the industry.' He said, 'Your orientation is not an issue for us.'"

Mangers worked for the association for 28 years and eventually became its president. The outing to his family stemmed from his going to the Los Angeles Pride parade shortly thereafter.

One of his daughter's friends recognized him and tapped him on the shoulder to say hello. Afterward, the young man called Kirsten Mangers and told her about running into her father.

"He told my daughter he'd seen me — shirtless and dancing — at a gay event," Mangers recalled. "Talk about terrifying."

Kirsten Mangers, a straight ally who still lives in Orange County, told the B.A.R. that she remembers to this day that phone call she received from her friend. Although stunned by their conversation, she didn't confront her father about it.

"I was very involved in ballet, so many of my male friends in the studio were gay," she said. "So it's not like I didn't have any experience. ... One young man took it upon himself to tell me he saw my father at the parade and called me directly on a pay phone. That was a relatively large shock, as I had not expected him to be there, but as I thought about it, there were signs of his unrest and, frankly, not living his true self. I didn't confront him — he came out to me."

While she was very protective of her mother, who learned at the same time as her daughter that her husband was gay, Kirsten Mangers said of her relationship with her father that "overall, we've just been kindred spirits."

"We had spats, but that's nothing due to him being a gay man," Kirsten Mangers said. "It's father-daughter spats — 'Back off, buddy. You're being too strict.'"

During that "very traumatic period there in the early 1980s," Mangers and his wife separated.

AIDS rears its ugly head
Mangers, by then, was living in Sacramento. Soon, the AIDS epidemic would overwhelm the LGBTQ community there and across the nation.

"There was a gay community in Sacramento, of course, like most cities, but it was a disunified group of LGBTQ people that at that point they lived in an area with no protective ordinances or laws," he said. "You could lose an apartment or be fired without cause. It was considered a dangerous environment. ... I first met people with AIDS, then and realized we can't be secretive anymore. There's a calamity coming down, and we had to develop a political and service support system."

The social stigma of homosexuality led to inadequate services for people with AIDS. The late Susan Strong had been named the executive director of CARES, which stood for the Center for AIDS Research, Education, and Service, and was a collaboration of four local medical service providers that ran a small clinic for people with AIDS on Capitol Avenue. She asked Mangers if he would serve as the first gay community representative on the group's board.

"We developed a program that ultimately became a comprehensive AIDS service organization — one of the best in the country and one of three that provided a complete array of services," he said. "We put medical services in the basement of the building and social services — housing, transportation, doctors — on the main floor. To find a dentist anywhere who would provide dentistry for our boys was hard, so we had an arrangement with UC Davis on putting something for research on the top floor [in exchange for dentistry services]."

Mangers brought Paul Curtis, another gay Sacramentan, onto the CARES board.

"Denny, during all of that time, served as a mentor when there were issues or problems, I could call and talk to him confidentially at any time, and he gave me great advice about how to look at it, whatever the case may be," Curtis said. "He was continuing during that time his effort to work with all the organizations to encourage everyone to work together — that this should be a collaborative effort to serve the best interest of Sacramento and the HIV/AIDS community."

Mangers said that CARES "is still operating" as ONE Community Health at 21st and O streets.

"A full range of services is still offered to clients living with HIV/AIDS but in the broader context of health services to the community at large," according to Mangers.

(Source: Michael Sestak, left, and his husband, Dennis Mangers, posed for a marriage equality group on June 30, 2013, shortly after same-sex marriage was again legal in California. Photo: Courtesy Dennis Mangers)

Sparking joy
Despite the darkness of the moment due to AIDS, Mangers and others started the Sacramento Gay Men's Chorus in 1984.

"Some people say, 'That wasn't political — why'd you do that,'" Mangers said. "And I say, 'When AIDS hit and we were discriminated against at all levels of government, we needed joy in our lives.'"

The chorus started out with 34 people. Now there's 110 members, according to its website.

"Most of us had sung in church or other choruses," he recalled. "In the early days no boas, no gay songs — just standard choral music standing in tuxedos and even rows. Rehearsals were raucous, but performances were sedate."

Today, Mangers is no longer in the chorus but continues to support it as an audience member and mentor.

"I no longer sing with the chorus but am writing an early history of the group, attend every concert, and speak to the new members annually about the importance of representing the LGBT community," he stated.

Steve Winlock, now executive director of the Sacramento County Office of Education and a gay man, was another of those early members of the chorus.

"He has a great singing voice," Winlock said of Mangers. "The chorus was, at the time, really a great haven for our gay men in Sacramento in the community, and so when we came together, it was because of music. But it was also an opportunity for us to build a community and be involved.

"One of the things about Dennis is he is a very valued community member in our community, in the gay community in Sacramento, and that was the beginning of how he was bringing together people, having us all have contact with everyone, having us share our lives," added Winlock. "It was just great, a great opportunity for us to build community."

Supporting pro-LGBTQ politicos
Mangers also helped establish CAP-PAC, a political action committee that endorsed and gave money to pro-LGBTQ candidates at a time when out candidates were a rarity. It later closed down, and many of its functions were taken over by the Sacramento Stonewall Democrats. David Felderstein, a gay man, told the B.A.R. that at first, there were enough local Republicans willing to vote for and support non-discrimination protections to justify a nonpartisan group, but that this number dwindled over time.

"We made a questionnaire. We interviewed all the candidates running for local office and, sometimes, we endorsed both of the candidates because they were both supportive of gay rights," Felderstein said. "The apex of what we did was in 1996. We bought the bottom half of page two in the [Sacramento] Bee and listed openly all our endorsements and mission statement. It cost several thousand dollars but it was page two so that everyone reading [popular then-columnist] Dan Walters would see it, and it had quite an impact in that election. We wanted everyone to see who our endorsements were."

CAP-PAC's fundraising dinner brought in thousands of dollars to promote equal rights.

The Sacramento Stonewall Democrats did not return a request for comment for this report.

Personal happiness
Mangers married his longtime partner Michael Sestak in June 2008, the first day after the California Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage with its decision in In re Marriage Cases, and before voters passed the anti-same-sex Proposition 8 that November. After much litigation, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld lower court rulings that Prop 8 was unconstitutional, and same-sex marriage became legal in the Golden State in June 2013, two years before the high court's Obergefell v. Hodges ruling that legalized same-sex marriage nationwide.

This November, California voters will decide on a ballot measure to remove the "zombie" Prop 8 language from the state constitution.

"I think it's pretty obvious I'm supportive of the idea," Mangers said, referring to the November ballot measure. "I think it's totally appropriate we expire that law and make it abundantly clear, in this state, you can love who you love."

Sestak, 62, said he's known Mangers for 38 years.

"He's been at the right place at the right time to be pretty influential on the issues of the day," Sestak said. "He's been a convener, collaborator, and innovator, bringing people together to work on the societal issues of the day. He'd say 'let's solve this,' rather than just push it down the road. His tenacity for truth and empowering people is pretty strong ... I'm pretty lucky to have been his life partner."

The "gay godfather" moniker given him by the Sacramento News and Review in 2008 has stuck, though Mangers said, "I certainly don't consider myself a godfather in any realm of my activity, but that's how media handles things."

Referring to the scene in the 1972 box office hit "The Godfather," he joked, "I quickly went around assuring my friends they were unlikely to find a horse's head in their bed, or any fatalities attributed to me."

He has advice for the next generation of LGBTQ people as public acceptance backslides, with anti-LGBTQ laws such as prohibiting gender-affirming care for trans youth and book bans go forward in other parts of the country.

"It's been 50-plus years since I've been a school board member, and we're starting the same battles again," he said. "It feels OK, it feels safe to be gay in the Sacramento area. I'm afraid it won't always be the case."

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