Guest Opinion: Black queer women make history in California politics

  • by Jennifer Esteen
  • Wednesday November 1, 2023
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U.S. Senator Laphonza Butler, left, Alameda County supervisor candidate Jennifer Esteen, and Equality California political director Shay Franco-Clausen are three out Black women in state politics. Photos: Butler, Newsom's office; Esteen, courtesy the candidate; Franco-Clausen, courtesy the subject
U.S. Senator Laphonza Butler, left, Alameda County supervisor candidate Jennifer Esteen, and Equality California political director Shay Franco-Clausen are three out Black women in state politics. Photos: Butler, Newsom's office; Esteen, courtesy the candidate; Franco-Clausen, courtesy the subject

As the hottest labor fall in several generations churns on, Governor Gavin Newsom turned up the heat in the labor community by appointing Laphonza Butler to replace the late Dianne Feinstein as California's U.S. senator. This appointment marks a historic milestone that will be celebrated for years to come. As of October 3, California has its first lesbian Black woman senator. For all who cherish equal rights, civil rights, representation, and equity, this is a cause célèbre.

Butler, who recently announced that she would not seek election for a full six-year term, has a remarkable back story that makes her uniquely qualified for the role, and she said that she would work hard for the remaining 300-odd days she will serve in the Senate. She migrated to California following the path of so many who left the South during the Great Migration, which brought millions of Black people to northern and western parts of the United States as they escaped the harsh economic conditions and racism of the Jim Crow South. Born and raised in Magnolia, Mississippi, Butler spent the majority of her early professional years organizing and leading in multiple roles within California's largest labor union, Service Employees International Union. She moved between locals serving as a president multiple times, as a division director and an SEIU international executive vice president. Needless to say, her labor experience is vast and, through it, she developed deep relationships with other labor leaders and elected officials all across the Golden State.

While that work solidified her experience as a leader within unions, the next phase of her career highlighted her ability to move corporate policy with international impact. Butler was a partner and strategist at SCRB Strategies, a political consulting firm; worked as director of public policy and campaigns in North America for Airbnb; and in 2019 consulted with Uber during what was then the most expensive ballot measure campaign in California history. The initiative, Proposition 22, passed, which prevented rideshare drivers from being classified as employees.

Her advocacy for women's issues is also strong, having worked as president of Emily's List, one of the nation's preeminent fundraising organizations that supports female-identified Democratic politicians. She's served as an adviser to Vice President Kamala Harris, former secretary of state Hilary Clinton, and Los Angeles County Supervisor Holly Mitchell. Her career highlights an ability to carry major weight and lobbying power when it comes to federal political decision making and shows that she clearly has the necessary breadth of experience to be a successful U.S. senator.

Because of the historic gains made in California, we're fortunate that we don't have to fear persecution for saying gay, but we have experienced fear-mongering and homophobic attacks in response to drag story hour or even to raising our Pride flag. That makes it all the more remarkable that we also have two smart gay women born and raised in the Deep South doing work to grow and strengthen the labor movement. Senator Butler and I, your humble writer Jennifer Esteen, grew up during the same time period, in neighboring states. Her hometown is Magnolia, Mississippi, mine is New Orleans, Louisiana. We graduated high school and college in the same years, made our way to California and have organized workers of all stripes in the same union, SEIU.

I currently serve in an appointed role as the vice president of the board of trustees for the Alameda Health System. And I'm vying for the District 4 seat on the Alameda County Board of Supervisors in 2024. Upon winning, I'll become the first openly gay Black woman to serve as a county supervisor in California and the first Black Jewish woman as well. In 2023 there's still lots of history to make for members of marginalized communities. Having overlapping marginalized identities makes one appear to be a unicorn of sorts. Of the eight known LGBTQ county supervisors in the state, two are non-male, and neither identifies as a person of color.

A few weeks after Butler's historic appointment, Equality California, the nation's largest statewide LGBTQ+ civil rights organization, announced the hiring of Shay Franco-Clausen as its new political director. Franco-Clausen, an experienced political consultant and veteran of many candidate and ballot initiative campaigns, will lead electoral and civic engagement programs as the organization gears up for the critical 2024 presidential primary and general elections.

Franco-Clausen, who is Afro-Latina, is an award-winning public speaker, political strategist, and community leader based in Hayward where she serves on the city's planning commission. As the LGBTQ political group BAYMEC noted in 2018, she became the first queer woman of color to hold elective office in Santa Clara County when she was appointed in lieu of election to a seat on the Santa Clara County Open Space Authority since no one else filed to run for it.

She has served as PAC chair of the Courage California C4 Board, vice chair of the California Democratic Party LGBTQ Caucus, co-chair of the National Black Justice Coalition's "Good Trouble Network," PAC chair for the East Bay Stonewall Democratic Club, and is a member of the Victory Fund campaign board. She has played a pivotal role in extending the statute of limitations for felony domestic violence survivors, advocating for the rights of foster youth, preserving endangered open spaces, and championing a ballot measure to restore voting rights for individuals on parole.

Though our visibility is increasing in California and across the nation, our lives are in precarious and often perilous conditions. The risks are especially high for those of us raised or living in states that are actively passing laws to enshrine discriminatory practices that put our lives at risk. Leaders and elected officials use inflammatory language that incites violence and encourages people to violently attack members of our community. Laws that force parents and medical professionals to choose between expensive fines or even jail time for providing compassionate care and necessary medical treatment to LGBTQ youth. Trans youth, especially those who are people of color, are more likely to be alienated from their family, living in poverty, unhoused, and have untreated behavioral health needs, which leads to being at higher risk for suicide.

Having strong and well-qualified leaders like Butler, Franco-Clausen, and myself serving in appointed and elected roles gives us visibility and credibility. We serve as beacons of hope and strength for members of our LGBTQ community so young people and their families can take comfort in knowing the future has positive possibilities.

Jennifer Esteen, a gay woman, is running for the District 4 seat on the Alameda County Board of Supervisors.

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