As SF moves to end travel ban, gay legislator stands by state policy

  • by Matthew S. Bajko, Assistant Editor
  • Wednesday March 8, 2023
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Assemblymember Evan Low has no plans to change the state's travel ban law. Photo: Tia Gemmell
Assemblymember Evan Low has no plans to change the state's travel ban law. Photo: Tia Gemmell

With San Francisco officials moving to repeal their restriction on taxpayer-funded travel to conservative states, the author of California's travel ban policy has no plans to follow suit. Whereas the municipal "no fly" list covers states that have adopted anti-LGBTQ laws, abortion bans, or restricted voting access in recent years, the state's is only invoked when lawmakers in other states roll back LGBTQ rights.

Gay Assemblymember Evan Low (D-Cupertino) authored the legislation that established the state travel ban, which took effect in 2016. It restricts the use of Californians' tax dollars to pay for non-emergency travel to states that have adopted discriminatory laws against LGBTQ people since June 26, 2015.

While there are now 30 states on San Francisco's banned list, there are now 23 covered by the state law. In response to a question from the Bay Area Reporter this week, Low said he remains convinced the state travel ban is an effective policy.

"We don't have any intentions of backing down and changing our position on the state-funded travel ban. Unfortunately, right-wing politicians across the country are working to pass hundreds of laws that are harmful to LGBTQ people, and we're going to stand firm in our decision," stated Low. "If anything, now is the time to show California isn't going backwards. In 2016, when we passed this law, we didn't tolerate discrimination in our state and beyond our borders. Seven years later, we still don't, and won't."

As lawmakers in the nearly two-dozen states on the banned list have done over the past 13 years, elected leaders in statehouses across the country this year are advancing anti-LGBTQ bills. Many target the rights and health care of transgender youth, while others seek to outlaw drag performances.

"The harmful legislation some of these states have passed is, quite frankly, demeaning of basic human rights," noted Low. "We're not going to allow taxpayers to foot the bill and allow state-funded travel to these red states where some legislators can't respect people who are different."

Low told the B.A.R. that he has been following the debate in recent months about San Francisco's policy. But he pointed out how it differs from his legislation, since the city also bans doing business with companies headquartered in the states on its list.

"We understand the concerns some people have when it comes to conducting business with these states that discriminate against LGBTQ people, and the gridlock it has created in San Francisco — but the ongoing conversation and law there is distinctly different than the current state-funded travel ban that remains in place," stated Low.

SF's policy

Gay state Senator Scott Wiener (D-San Francisco) had first authored the city policy, known as 12X, when he served on the Board of Supervisors in response to the rollback of LGBTQ rights in other states. He recently came out in support of rescinding it in its entirety, as the B.A.R. first reported in a February 28 online story, declaring that "sadly, it's time to acknowledge that this policy hasn't worked and that we need to pull back."

As for his stance on the future status of the state's travel ban, Wiener did not respond to the B.A.R.'s request for comment by its press deadline Wednesday, March 8.

Advocates for LGBTQ, minority, and women small business owners in the city have come out against getting rid of the 12X policy. The executive committee of the San Francisco Labor Council adopted a resolution February 27 in support of keeping it in place.

Noting "many on the Covered State List have also enacted laws against workers, unions, and immigrants and in fact spend corporate political action committee money at the state and federal level to oppose laws championed first in California and San Francisco, specifically," the resolution stated that "the affiliates of the San Francisco Labor Council oppose the repeal of Chapter 12X and stand in solidarity with LGBTQIA siblings, workers, immigrant communities, and our local small businesses."

Paul Pendergast, president of BuildOUT California, an association that promotes LGBTQ-owned firms in the construction field, also opposes seeing San Francisco end the 12X policy. He told the B.A.R. that Low's continued support for the state travel ban sends "a huge message" to San Francisco leaders for why they should maintain the city's policy.

"Evan is standing up for what he believes in and what he believes to be in the best interest of the community and taxpayers of California. It should be absolutely a shot across the bow to San Francisco elected officials," said Pendergast, a gay man who owns a public affairs firm that works with construction businesses.

Marc Stein, a gay man who's a history professor at San Francisco State University, has long raised complaints about how the state travel ban has impacted the ability of students and faculty at California state-funded colleges to conduct research in states on the "no fly" list. Nonetheless, he told the B.A.R. it doesn't mean he believes either the local or state laws should be completely rescinded.

"I'm concerned that the city and state may swing from one extreme to the other. Many of us are supportive of the bans, but believe they should contain more exceptions so as to allow state-funded travel for social justice research, educational activities, and other projects that support LGBT equality," wrote Stein in an emailed reply. "At the risk of stretching an old cliché, are we once again throwing out the queer babies with the antiqueer, sexist, and racist bath water?"

Gay District 8 Supervisor Rafael Mandelman last week had introduced the ordinance to completely jettison the city's 12X policy. In doing so, he had announced that Supervisors Catherine Stefani of District 2, Hillary Ronen of District 9, and Board President Aaron Peskin, who represents District 3, were co-sponsoring it.

"We have an obligation to run an effective city government — actualizing this means that we have to evaluate the utility of well-intentioned policies of the past," stated Stefani, who launched her campaign Wednesday to succeed termed out Assemblymember Phil Ting (D-San Francisco) in 2024.

The ordinance won't come before the board for a vote until sometime in the spring, but it is already clear that a majority of the 11 supervisors support scrapping 12X. In interviews with the B.A.R. over the last week, gay District 6 Supervisor Matt Dorsey and District 11 Supervisor Ahsha Safaí both said they were also signing on as co-sponsors of the ordinance to do away with the policy.

"This is a very cumbersome ordinance I think was enacted with an initial intention that was extremely forward thinking," said Safaí. "We thought if we are acting as a large purchasing power and a large entity that spends capital, we can influence people on the other end. It sent a message if you are not providing equal benefits to LGBT people, not allowing people to vote freely, and not allowing reproductive rights, we don't want to do business with you, with the hope that would change people's policies. In fact, we have only changed one since the introduction of 12X as a policy and as a concept."

The only state to be removed from the city's banned list has been Massachusetts. The Bay State was delisted in 2021 after it rescinded an anti-abortion law.

Having worked as a city employee for two decades, Dorsey told the B.A.R. he knows full well how "infuriating" the city's contracting process can be. He called the 12X policy "the poster child for what is wrong with city contracting."

He declined to comment when asked if he thought the state travel ban should also be rescinded, telling the B.A.R. he was focused on his duties as a supervisor. Instead, he echoed Wiener's comment that the city's 12X policy has not achieved its desired results.

"This law was enacted to put pressure on states to not adopt these policies. At some point we have to acknowledge it is not working," said Dorsey. "Instead, it is making the city's competitive bidding process less competitive and more expensive."

Mandelman laid out his reasoning for wanting to end 12X in a guest opinion piece in the B.A.R.'s March 9 issue. In a phone interview, he said rolling back the policy to only covering LGBTQ rights would be "a non-starter" for the supervisors. He also said that as he looked into the policy's impacts, he concluded it made more sense to get rid of it altogether.

"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," said Mandelman.

As for the state's travel ban, Mandelman told the B.A.R. he believes it has been effective and should be kept.

"I think the state travel ban has more impact, certainly," he said. "What the state's efforts have going for them is they are more narrowly tailored and carry more impact because it is done at the state level."

San Francisco Supervisor Ahsha Safaí. Photo: Courtesy Ahsha Safaí  

Contracting changes
Safaí in November had introduced his own ordinance focused solely on lifting the 12X policy's ban on city departments entering into construction contracts with companies headquartered in the banned states. After delaying a vote on it by the full board last month in order for him to confer with local business advocates, Safaí told the B.A.R. he expects it will be passed by a majority of the supervisors at their March 14 meeting.

Although gay District 4 Supervisor Joel Engardio told the B.A.R. he was still determining how he would vote on the 12X repeal ordinances, he seemed inclined toward supporting them.

"If we are being hurt by a policy, we need to examine that policy," he said. "It is well intentioned of course, but if the policy is not affecting the goal and is only hurting ourselves, we need to examine whether it is worth continuing. I want to work with Supervisors Safaí and Mandelman and find the right balance to ensure the city can get its work done."

After meeting with local business advocates on March 6, Safaí said he is committed to introducing another ordinance in the coming weeks that would aim to address some of the concerns the business advocates have raised. The goal would be to increase their ability to enter into contracts with city departments as well as enter into subcontract agreements with larger firms bidding on major projects in the city, he said.

"We will put together a working group and continue to work with them for sure," said Safaí.

According to Pendergast, one idea the business leaders have floated is to keep the 12X policy in place for contracts under $100 million.

"The gist of it would be, for a lack of a better term, there is no need to throw the baby out with the bath water," said Pendergast in terms of amending rather than ending 12X. "There are things that could be done within that."

Before city leaders, or state lawmakers for that matter, move forward proposals on the fate of the ban policies, Stein called for them to consult with the communities that will be impacted. That includes not only those in San Francisco and California, but also those living in the states covered by the bans.

"Many of us who critiqued the state and city policies studied the history and politics of boycotts and learned in the process the importance of consulting affected communities," wrote Stein. "I wonder if Supervisor Mandelman consulted with LGBT people in the affected states to find out what would be most helpful there, instead of making assumptions about that at a distance. If this is based on such consultations, I might be supportive."

He added that, "Along similar lines, state legislators ought to be consulting with LGBT people in the affected states as well as LGBT people who work for the state government, including UC and CSU faculty and students. We were ignored when the ban was adopted; are we going to be ignored again when the ban is rescinded?"

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