Editorial: Lumps of coal bestowed on Newsom, Atkins

  • by BAR Editorial Board
  • Wednesday December 20, 2023
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Governor Gavin Newsom, left, and state Senate President pro Tempore Toni Atkins. Photos: Newsom, Bill Wilson; Atkins, courtesy X
Governor Gavin Newsom, left, and state Senate President pro Tempore Toni Atkins. Photos: Newsom, Bill Wilson; Atkins, courtesy X

While there were a lot of good LGBTQ-related bills that came out of Sacramento this year, Governor Gavin Newsom and lesbian outgoing state Senate President pro Tempore Toni Atkins (D-San Diego) whiffed on a couple of things. Hence, they're getting our symbolic lumps of coal as the year comes to a close.


For someone who proclaims to be a steadfast ally to the transgender and broader LGBTQ community, Newsom sure has a funny way of showing it when given an opportunity. He went toe-to-toe with homophobic Florida Republican Governor and presidential candidate Ron DeSantis in a nationally televised debate last month and talked about how he supports trans kids. He called DeSantis a bully for, among other things, signing into law extreme anti-trans legislation, including a law banning gender-affirming care for people of all ages. And in the Golden State, Newsom signed a bill into law last year designating California as a refuge for trans kids and their parents. He's a former San Francisco mayor who ushered in the "Winter of Love" in 2004 that jump-started the effort to legalize same-sex marriage.

And yet ... when Newsom could have put the state at the forefront of really protecting trans kids, he fell short. We're talking about his veto of Assemblymember Lori D. Wilson's (D-Suisun City) Assembly Bill 975 that would have required state judges to take into account parental support for their transgender children during custody disputes. You know, something that would have actually helped trans kids in the state. Yes, judges have some discretion and need to follow the law. But this bill could have been a game-changer. Wilson's TGI (Transgender, Gender-Diverse, and Intersex) Youth Empowerment Act would have required courts "to strongly consider" if a parent is affirming of their child's gender identity or gender expression, and if they consent to legally changing the child's name and gender marker to mirror their preferred gender, when considering the legal guardianship and visitation rights of the minor's divorcing parents. Under this bill, the interests — and support for — trans and nonbinary kids would have been taken into account in family court, which is something that is sorely needed. Wilson, as the parent of an adult trans child, knows what will help these youth, and she crafted a sensible bill to accomplish a goal — that judges consider the best interests of youth.

Research has shown that trans and gender-nonconforming youth have much healthier outcomes when they have parental support. Child custody cases are often difficult, but such parental support should be a no-brainer for judges, and the guidance provided by Wilson's bill would have been helpful.

This is not a bill that would have cost a lot of money — Newsom's used that excuse to veto other legislation over the years, or had his office ask that bills come to him with no funding attached, as was the case in 2020 with Assemblymember Miguel Santiago's (D-Los Angeles) Transgender Wellness and Equity Fund. That bill, which Newsom signed, got $13 million in state funding in 2021.

State officials recently announced a $68 billion budget deficit, and Newsom is barreling ahead with his Delta Conveyance project to send our water to Southern California (at a price tag of some $16 billion). But when it comes to a cost-neutral bill that would simply ask family court judges to do what they should be doing already, it's a bridge too far for Newsom to cross.

We noted previously that we urge Wilson to attempt a similar bill next year. We hope she does, and this time, Newsom should sign it.


As her leadership of the state Senate was winding down, Atkins suddenly decided that California's law banning publicly funded travel to states with anti-LGBTQ laws was ripe for repeal. (She got some help in that effort from the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, which jettisoned its own version of the travel ban in April.) In March, Atkins held a press call to announce she was introducing a bill to end the state travel ban that was authored several years ago by gay Assemblymember Evan Low (D-Cupertino). This was despite a number of states passing even more anti-LGBTQ laws over the years, bringing the number to 26 on California's no-fly list.

To make this change, Atkins came up with Senate Bill 447, the BRIDGE Act, which stands for Building and Reinforcing Inclusive, Diverse, Gender-Supportive Equality. It scrapped the travel ban policy for a marketing program in those states attacking LGBTQ rights that Atkins said would "encourage acceptance of the LGBTQ+ community."

Atkins, who grew up in poverty in rural Virginia, added that the goal of her legislation "is to speak to people's hearts and open minds. That's a pursuit that would have made teen Toni — that southwestern Virginia girl afraid to be herself back then — so proud." Atkins denied that the travel ban was a failure, though no state that had been added to it was then removed because it rescinded the homophobic or transphobic law that had landed it on the list.

Of course, Atkins' BRIDGE bill sailed through the Legislature and Newsom signed it almost as soon as the ink was dry, joined by Atkins and several other out lawmakers. Clearly, the fix was in, so to speak, in that political leaders thought the ban was hindering their definition of progress. We think that one reason was because, as California became a refuge for people seeking reproductive health care after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the right to abortion last year, it became apparent that the state couldn't use taxpayer money to provide travel funds for people who lived in those states on the no-fly list. In June 2022, after the court decision, the Associated Press reported that California could spend $20 million to bring women from out of state to its abortion clinics. Atkins led the fight last year to pass Proposition 1, which enshrined the right to abortion in California's constitution. She has long been a staunch supporter of reproductive rights.

SB 447 contained an urgency clause, meaning that it went into effect as soon as Newsom signed it on September 13. But what happened to the marketing campaigns in those states with anti-LGBTQ laws? A Google search reveals no news about the bill since it was signed. Atkins had said that funding for the program would likely come from the state's Go-BIZ program, which is run out of the Governor's Office of Business and Economic Development, along with private donations. Go-BIZ's website lists no news releases related to the BRIDGE Act.

We continue to believe that the travel bans served a purpose, that California and San Francisco had principles — what Congressmember Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) calls "San Francisco values." We don't see companies in those red states beating a path to California to do business here any more than they were already present. And we don't see a marketing campaign convincing the country's polarized electorate of anything.

Here's what Atkins could do, particularly when her term as president pro tem of the Senate ends in February. She should take the lead on convincing people not to sign petitions to qualify a massive anti-trans initiative for the state ballot next year. (We're looking at you, Equality California, to assist or bring Atkins on board for a decline to sign campaign.) She should become a public face of the campaign to repeal Proposition 8's "zombie" language that remains in the state constitution and will be on next November's ballot. If Atkins wants to run for governor in 2026 — and the signs are there — these two efforts certainly could use her help and carve out a niche for her as the candidate that the LGBTQ community could get behind.

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