Guest Opinion: Hope, inclusion needed now more than ever

  • by Toni G. Atkins
  • Wednesday July 12, 2023
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State Senate President pro Tempore Toni G. Atkins. Photo: Courtesy Sen. Atkins' office
State Senate President pro Tempore Toni G. Atkins. Photo: Courtesy Sen. Atkins' office

Growing up in southwestern Virginia, in a family so poor our home had no running water, it shouldn't come as a surprise that I never had an LGBTQ+ role model to turn to or to emulate as I tried to understand who I was. Even if stories of the Stonewall riots or the trailblazers of our movement made their way to me, there was little context for me to think I could succeed and be happy as a young lesbian in Appalachia. But I was fortunate. When I came out to my parents, who were church-going evangelical Christians, they surprised me with acceptance, love, and ever-increasing understanding. Then I moved to San Diego, and after knocking on doors and working as a staff member for Christine Kehoe, who would become the city's first openly-LGBTQ+ City Council member, I found a mentor. Eventually, I worked my way up to become the first lesbian to serve as speaker of the California Assembly, and the first LGBTQ+ person and woman to lead the California State Senate.

Today, LGBTQ+ children grow up with much more access to role models, thanks in no small part to the internet and widespread access to information. Even still, 40% of LGBTQ+ youth lack role models to look up to. But with dangerous rhetoric ramping up about drag, our transgender siblings, and powerful LGBTQ+ role models, the ability for young LGBTQ+ people to not only discover their identity, but also feel validated, is increasingly at risk.

We do not have to sit idly by while others try to write our epitaph. I'm authoring Senate Bill 447, the BRIDGE Project — Building and Reinforcing Inclusive, Diverse, Gender-supportive Equality — to create a targeted marketing campaign to increase inclusivity and compassion throughout America. The BRIDGE Project's donation-driven, nonpartisan, inclusive messaging campaign will be designed to uplift and show compassion for LGBTQ+ people, and champion inclusivity in communities like the one I grew up in, where it's needed most.

SB 447, which passed out of the Senate on a 31-8 vote and is currently moving through the legislative process in the Assembly, also removes California's travel ban, which prevents state-funded travel to states that passed anti-LGBTQ+ legislation. The idea when it was passed seven years ago was for California to draw a clear line in the sand, wielding our considerable economic influence against forces of alienation, discrimination, and hate. While the right thing to do at the time, the ban has since grown to 23 states, and has created unintended consequences, from preventing professors at California's public universities from conducting research to limiting California's ability to help people from out of state receiving abortion care to get back home.

Despite the great strides that LGBTQ+ people have made since I came out in the 1980s, we're clearly experiencing threats to divide and "other" us again. This year alone, nearly 500 anti-LGBTQ+ bills have been introduced in state legislatures across the country. These bills target our civil rights, our health care, and our right to speak freely about our identities.

With the BRIDGE Project, we can elevate LGBTQ+ heroes, and share stories of compassion, love, acceptance, and inclusivity. Fostering a positive LGBTQ+ identity, creating moments when LGBTQ+ people can feel accepted and loved can be imperative for future wellbeing. It could have been life-affirming for me as a closeted teenager deep in Appalachia, to know of the strength of the LGBTQ+ icons 500 miles away at the Stonewall Inn in New York City, 2,700 miles away in the Castro in San Francisco, and maybe even within communities like mine.

By enacting the BRIDGE Project, we can ensure that those role models are accessible to LGBTQ+ people throughout our state and nation, and infuse the hope we need right now.

Senator Toni G. Atkins is president pro tempore of the California State Senate. She is the first woman, and first openly LGBTQ+ person, to lead the Legislature's upper house — a position she has held for more than five years. She has championed legislation on behalf of the LGBTQ+ community, women, reproductive rights, climate, affordable housing, and more. She lives in San Diego with her spouse and their dogs.

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