Out in the World: SF, Zurich compare LGBTQ movements' past and present

  • by Heather Cassell, BAR Contributor
  • Wednesday November 8, 2023
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San Francisco Supervisor Rafael Mandelman, left, listens as Zurich Mayor Corine Mauch, center, speaks about her city being similar to San Francisco and influential in Switzerland's LGBTQ movement at a discussion moderated by Swiss event production manager Natalia Guecheva, right, at the GLBT Historical Society Museum on October 5. Photo: Heather Cassell
San Francisco Supervisor Rafael Mandelman, left, listens as Zurich Mayor Corine Mauch, center, speaks about her city being similar to San Francisco and influential in Switzerland's LGBTQ movement at a discussion moderated by Swiss event production manager Natalia Guecheva, right, at the GLBT Historical Society Museum on October 5. Photo: Heather Cassell

San Francisco and Zurich's LGBTQ communities were recently part of a weeklong celebration of the 20th anniversary of the two cities' sister city relationship.

Gay San Francisco District 8 Supervisor Rafael Mandelman and lesbian Zurich Mayor Corine Mauch discussed the two cities' influence in their respective countries' fights for LGBTQ equality and current challenges at an event in the Castro.

The discussion, "Dialogue of Inclusivity: Exploring LGBTQ+ Histories in Zurich & San Francisco," was produced by the Consulate General of Switzerland in San Francisco and hosted by the GLBT Historical Society Museum.

Mandelman, 50, a Democrat, was first elected to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors in 2018 and represents the Castro, Glen Park, Noe Valley, Diamond Heights, Mission Dolores, and Cole Valley. Mandelman was easily reelected last year to the seat once held by slain gay supervisor Harvey Milk.

Mauch, 63, a member of the Social Democratic Party of Switzerland, was elected as Zurich's first openly LGBTQ official in March 2009. She continues to manage the city as its top official, overseeing several key offices and initiatives, including the promotion of gender equality.

The October 5 discussion was moderated by event production manager Natalia Guecheva, a lesbian Swiss national, who has lived part-time in San Francisco and Zurich for more than a decade.

The event was part of the city's larger weeklong celebration of the 20-year sister city partnership between San Francisco and Zurich October 1-7.

San Francisco is a sister city with 18 cities around the world, according to Secret San Francisco. The sister city program was launched in 1956 to promote citizen diplomacy and peace and understanding through exchanges that focus on arts and culture, youth and education, business and trade, and community development, according to the Sister Cities International website.

San Francisco and Zurich became sister cities in 2003. The municipalities renewed their relationship during the celebrations last month.

Zurich is Switzerland's financial hub as the European country's largest city. Switzerland is not a member state of the European Union.

Queer politics

Mandelman started off the conversation by honoring the late U.S. senator Dianne Feinstein (D-California), whose early allyship with San Francisco's LGBTQ community was sometimes complicated but was ultimately steadfast, especially during the HIV/AIDS crisis, he said.

Feinstein, 90, died in her Washington, D.C. home September 29, reported the Bay Area Reporter. Her memorial in San Francisco was the same day as the discussion.

Mandelman gave a brief LGBTQ political history, noting the first openly queer elected official in the U.S. was Elaine Noble, who won her seat in the Massachusetts House of Representatives in 1975 and served two terms. Milk, the first openly gay person to win elected office in California, won his seat representing the Castro and surrounding neighborhoods on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors in 1977. Milk was assassinated along with then-San Francisco mayor George Moscone by disgruntled ex-supervisor Dan White on November 27, 1978. Feinstein, who was president of the Board of Supervisors, famously announced the news to reporters from City Hall and then became mayor.

"What the community did, building on his assassination," was "a big chunk of the story in our at least American LGBT civil rights movement and whatever that meant for the rest of the world," Mandelman told about 30 event attendees at the GLBT Historical Society Museum. "Dianne Feinstein was an important part of that story.

"There was a lot of insanity going on at the same time as the queer community was coming into its own in that decade, finding its political power, partying, celebrating, and also fighting," he said about the 1970s. "Dianne Feinstein was there for really the next chapter, which was the AIDS crisis," in the 1980s.

Mandelman said Feinstein was instrumental in getting ahead of the public health crisis when then-President Ronald Regan, a Republican who had been California governor, remained unwilling to acknowledge the epidemic.

"I think the record will show that she was very important to our community, to the city, to the country," he said.

Mandelman continued by stating the path to LGBTQ rights in the United States is "definitely not a straight line," rather it has been a "twisty and windy road."

He talked about how the U.S. LGBTQ movement continued to fight through HIV/AIDS for rights. The battles started paying off in the 2000s when the U.S. Supreme Court started to give "Pride presents," as he called the June rulings that decriminalized homosexuality by striking down sodomy laws in 2003, and same-sex marriage in California in 2013 and nationwide in 2015.

"San Francisco played an important part in the story of same-sex marriage," he said.

The lesbian factor

Mandelman acknowledged that lesbian Democrats often led the way in politics, noting former California state senators Carole Migden, 75, from San Francisco, and Sheila Kuehl, 82, from Los Angeles. Kuehl was the first openly LGBTQ person to be elected to the California Legislature when she won her Assembly seat in 1994. She served six years and was the first woman in California history to be named speaker pro tempore of the Assembly. She later served eight years in the California Senate, starting in 2000.

Kuehl was also a founding member of the California Legislative LGBTQ Caucus. She retired in 2022 after returning to local politics by becoming the first openly LGBTQ person to serve on the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors, winning the District 3 seat in 2017.

"It does strike me that lesbians often do it first and do it better," Mandelman said. "Often it's women who pave the way and that doesn't get acknowledged as much as it should."

Mauch, who is the first openly LGBTQ mayor of Zurich, said that when she ran for office in 2009, her friends expressed concern about her not concealing her sexual orientation. However, she was "positive and optimistic" at the time because of the referendum on civil partnerships passed by Swiss voters several years before.

"It was for me, some kind of a test, either people [are] ready for electing a lesbian as mayor of the city of Zurich," or not, she said. "It was no question if I would be open or not."

It was the right decision. She explained that she received a lot of positive feedback and inspired people to be their whole selves at work.

"This was, for me, extremely important to be able to be a model for that, for people being open and [having] self-confidence, 'Yes, this is my way of living,'" Mauch said.

She also gave a brief history of Zurich and Switzerland's LGBTQ history. She talked about Switzerland's first LGBTQ organization, Der Kreis (The Circle), which was founded in 1931. The organization published a magazine of the same name. The magazine was originally a lesbian journal until 1943 when it became a gay men's magazine, reported Out. The location of The Circle's secret meetings is now a gay bar, named Kweer, reported the Washington Blade.

Homosexuality was decriminalized in 1942. She also mentioned Switzerland had a registry of LGBTQ people at one time, and its own queer uprising led by The Circle in the 1960s after two gay men were killed and the defendants got off claiming a "gay panic" defense, reported the Blade.

Zurich, which had become a gay hub during World War II, was one of the first cities in Europe to host a Pride celebration in 1978. It continues to be one of Europe's most popular Pride events, Mauch said. Switzerland legalized civil partnerships in 2004, and the first gay couple were committed January 1, 2007, when the law came into effect, reported Pink News.

Mauch said Switzerland expanded the anti-racism panel norm in the Swiss Criminal Code to include LGBT issues in 2020. In 2021, Switzerland legalized same-sex marriage, as the B.A.R. reported.

"Very clearly, we have made a lot of progress," Mauch said. "Maybe as San Francisco in the states, Zurich has a similar role in Switzerland: It is pioneering in these issues.

"Switzerland is proud of its vibrant LGBTQ community," she added. "[The LGBTQ community] is part of our city and it shapes our city."

Anti-LGBTQ forces

As much as Switzerland, and Zurich in particular, has been a bastion for the LGBTQ community since World War II, and laws that voters passed can't be overturned, Mauch said, Swiss conservatives are mobilizing around transgender issues, much as they are in the U.S.

Mauch acknowledged that Switzerland has more work to do when it comes to rights for transgender and gender-nonconforming people. She explained that the Swiss Parliament rejected introducing a third gender option for transgender and gender-nonconforming people, arguing "the binary gender is still strongly anchored" in Swiss society.

Zurich, on the other hand, has introduced third gender options and is currently discussing language in the city administration, she said.

"When you're talking about [the] right-wing people party in the states, we have exactly the same discussion in Switzerland with the far right-wing party," Mauch said, referring to Republicans in the U.S.

"We have to be aware that it's a battle. It's a cultural battle in society, in changing the way of looking at the world and looking at people," she said. "It is never, never easy. That's why we have to lead this discussion, because it's the way to change."

Republicans "are terrified that somebody is going to come and steal your child's genitalia," added Mandelman. "It's bizarre. It's scary.

"I am proud of some of the things we're doing in San Francisco," he continued.

Mandelman spoke about the city putting a "significant amount" of its $14 million budget toward the LGBTQ community, especially the transgender community by helping homeless transgender people get resources and the city's guaranteed income program for transgender people.

"Responses that are particularly targeting this population that is experiencing violence and at outrageous levels, economic inequality, and lack of opportunity," he said.

Roberto Ordeñana, a gay man who's executive director of the GLBT Historical Society, which includes its museum in the Castro and archives downtown, was proud to host the discussion between Mandelman and Mauch.

"This is an incredible event," Ordeñana said, expressing the importance of knowing about queer history in Zurich and how it compares to San Francisco in an exchange of ideas and learning.

"Learning from the past in order to build a future we so deserve and desire has never been more critical," he said, noting the legislative attacks on the LGBTQ community in recent years.

He added that he particularly appreciated hearing Mauch speak about "her personal commitment to ensuring that no one is left behind, on a path to equality, on a path to liberation.

"I think that serves as an inspiration [that] comes to us here in San Francisco," he said, "and it closely mirrors [what] many people who are in local government here in San Francisco [are doing.] We're trying to do right by the community."

Got international LGBTQ news tips? Call or send them to Heather Cassell at WhatsApp/Signal: 415-517-7239, or [email protected]

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