Political Notebook: Lesbian marriage activist joins CA school board

  • by Matthew S. Bajko, Assistant Editor
  • Wednesday January 18, 2023
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New Willits school board member Jennifer Sookne wants the district to complete Equality California's next LGBTQ school survey when it's released in 2024. Photo: Courtesy Jennifer Sookne
New Willits school board member Jennifer Sookne wants the district to complete Equality California's next LGBTQ school survey when it's released in 2024. Photo: Courtesy Jennifer Sookne

Back in the early 2000s Jennifer Sookne was fighting to achieve marriage equality in California. She and her former partner married in San Francisco 19 years ago during the Winter of Love, when city officials wed thousands of same-sex couples in violation of the state's marriage statutes.

It led to a yearslong legal battle in state and federal courts to win the right to marry for same-sex couples. With Sookne's initial February 19, 2004 wedding to Theresa Mizell annulled by state courts, the Willits residents were the first same-sex couple to be married in Mendocino County in June 2008 when a court decision allowed such weddings to again take place that summer and fall.

(The weddings were halted by the passage of Proposition 8 on the November ballot that year. The anti-marriage equality measure would be overturned by the federal courts in 2013, allowing for same-sex couples to wed again that June in California, with the U.S. Supreme Court legalizing same-sex marriage nationwide two years later.)

Now separated from Mizell, Sookne is bringing her experience as a civil rights advocate, plus her time spent as an educator and decades of working as a social worker, to her new role as a public school leader. In November, Sookne won election to the board that oversees the Willits Unified School District in Northern California.

"I had a lot of people voting for me that I didn't even know," said Sookne, who came in third out of the eight candidates who ran for the three school board seats that were on the November 8 ballot.

It was her first time running for elected office. A member of her town's Rotary International club, Sookne had invited the teacher who advises the school district's Genders & Sexualities Alliance for LGBTQ and allied students to address the local Rotarians. The GSA is the only one now found in a Mendocino County school district, said Sookne.

"I asked her to come do a presentation on if they needed anything, as we fund things," explained Sookne. "She did her presentation, and it went over really well."

Afterward the local teacher approached Sookne and suggested she enter the school board race.

"She said to me after that if I really want to help the kids out to apply for the school board, so they have a representative of someone who has lived the life and is a member of the community on the school board. So if there is stuff that happens, they have a protector in a sense," recalled Sookne.

As of yet, Sookne doesn't have any LGBTQ proposals she intends to introduce as a school board item, she told the Bay Area Reporter in a recent phone interview. Informed that the Willits school district did not fill out the LGBTQ school survey released last year by the statewide LGBTQ advocacy organization Equality California, Sookne told the B.A.R. she would work to see that her district fill out the third one set for release in 2024.

Her more immediate goals are to boost arts and music education for her district's 1,502 students and to have classes teaching Northern Pomo, the language of the Pomo tribe that has called the area home for centuries.

"They teach it in the Ukiah public schools," noted Sookne, who lived in the nearby city when she first moved to the area in 1995.

As for arts and music instruction, Sookne explained, "I want to see it be expanded and be used as part of regular lessons. They have found that people who know music or are musical think differently than other people."

She has called Willits home since buying a house there in 1999 10 months after her 50th birthday. At 72 years of age, she is one of the oldest LGBTQ school leaders in the Golden State. (Lesbian former state legislator Jackie Goldberg, 78, now serves on the Los Angeles Unified school board and was elected its president for 2023.)

Sookne had helped launch a local chapter of Marriage Equality USA in Mendocino to organize the local community on the issue. She also served on the now-defunct group's national board and held the position of board secretary for three years.

Sookne also joined the local group that puts on Pride events in Mendocino County, though the COVID epidemic has hindered its ability to host the LGBTQ celebration the last few years. Nonetheless, her leadership in the various groups meant her sexual orientation wasn't an issue on the campaign trail last year.

"People in the community know me. I have been out there as a face of the queer community all the time I have lived up here," said Sookne. "I have led vigils when people have died because they're trans. If somebody doesn't know I am a lesbian, it is because they haven't had their eyes open."

Cross-country journey

Born in Queens, New York City, Sookne moved at the age of 14 to the upper West Side of Manhattan with her mother when her parents divorced. She attended a high school focused on music and the arts.

Graduate school at the University of Texas at Austin, where she studied government and did her thesis on ethnomusicology, first brought her west. She came to the Central Valley and spoke with farmworkers about the songs they sang.

After a brief return to New York post graduation, Sookne returned to Texas and ended up living in Corpus Christi. She dated a man off and on for five years and became pregnant with her son, James.

"I worked with the Texas Migrant Council and was a cashier in a convenience store for over five years. I got held up twice at gunpoint while I was pregnant and working in the convenience store," recalled Sookne, who told her boyfriend, who suffered from addiction, not to come around after she gave birth. "My mom came down to live with us after my son was born."

With her mom suffering from Alzheimer's, Sookne eventually had to move her into a nursing home.

"I couldn't manage to take care of all of it at home because she needed too much care. It was the hardest thing I have ever done in my life," she said. "She no longer knew who I was. I had zero support system at that point."

A friend from California whom she had kept in touch with encouraged Sookne to move to the state with her son. She did so in the 1980s and was hired as a teacher's aide at a school in Bakersfield.

Between 1986 and 1987 Sookne taught bilingual fourth graders and bilingual third graders in Delano, California. It required her to speak in both Spanish and English.

"I also had kids who spoke Tagalog and other Filipino languages. I am not 100% fluent in Spanish but can get by pretty well," she said.

In 1993, she started dating Mizell a year after Sookne officially came out as a lesbian at the age of 42. Suffering from chronic bronchitis, doctors advised Mizell to move out of the Central Valley and its polluted air.

It led the women to relocate to the coastal, foggy climate of Mendocino County. At the time employed as a social worker for child protective services with Kern County, Sookne was able to transfer to a similar position in Mendocino. (She retired from that job in 2016.)

As for her first wedding to Mizell nearly two decades ago, it took two drives down to San Francisco to make it happen. They had first gone to City Hall right after the marriages had begun on Valentine's Day in 2004 but were told to return another time due to the already lengthy line of couples waiting to say "I do."

The couple "licked our wounds," recalled Sookne, and returned on February 19 without an appointment. After picking up her son at 4 a.m. from Sonoma State University, where he was enrolled at the time, the family arrived at City Hall and were the sixth couple in line that morning.

While they would divorce in 2009, the women have remained friends, said Sookne, who is now a grandmother. It is another perspective she brings as an elected school board member.

As she told the Willits Weekly in terms of her candidacy for the position, Sookne said she wants "to see that all children get the opportunity for the best education regardless of race, culture, religion, politics, economic standing, and abilities, in as safe (an) environment as possible."

UPDATED 1/19/23 to clarify Jennifer Sookne bought her home 10 months after her 50th birthday.

Political Notes, the notebook's online companion, will return Monday, January 23.

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