All the protocol and formality of speaking with California’s lieutenant governor falls quickly away the minute Gavin Newsom says hello. The former mayor of San Francisco is well ahead in his race to replace Gov. Jerry Brown, but seems eager to talk with a reporter for the LGBT community—for whom he put his career on the line in support of marriage equality.
Newsom’s decision to provide marriage licenses to same-sex couples in 2004 launched him into the national political stratosphere and disrupted relationships with the Democratic Party establishment who wanted to take a slower pace on gay marriage, lest President George W. Bush and his brain trust Karl Rove score points during Bush’s reelection.
And that’s what happened. But Newsom knew he was on the right side of history and his decision resulted in a lawsuit, joined with another simultaneous lawsuit out of Los Angeles, that eventually yielded a California Supreme Court ruling granting the freedom to marry for same-sex couples in May 2008.
That history is the subject of Newsom’s first campaign ad for governor, featuring photos of him officiating at the wedding of lesbian icons Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon and showing the celebration of the marriage of LA-based couple Robin Tyler and Diane Olson. There are other ads featuring Lyon, including one of Newsom visiting with her in the San Francisco hilltop apartment she and Martin shared for over 50 years.
But unlike his expected toughest gubernatorial opponent, former LA Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, Newsom seemed to just arrive in 2004 and explode LGBT history. Since the governor’s race will likely turn on character, who Newsom was before his launch informs his positions on issues.
“I care deeply about the community and I care deeply about the ongoing struggles,” Newsom said during a recent 45-minute phone interview with the Los Angeles Blade. “I care deeply about people that are still discriminated against—about what’s happening in the trans community. I care deeply about the homophobia that’s still prevalent in our society and I want to right that wrong and show the sense of obligation and responsibility, not just in my life, but to do that much more broadly as a member of the larger community.”
But why? “When I was a kid I struggled with a learning disability,” he says. “I don’t like seeing people hurt. I don’t like seeing people struggle.”
And Newsom has not forgotten that struggle. “People who are bullied don’t necessarily always think of themselves as victims. They just don’t know what to do,” he says. “I don’t want to over-dramatize but it was a struggle for decades to be in the back of the classroom. Speech therapy for years after school three days a week, getting supplemental support.”
Though his father, a judge, came from a politically well-connected family in San Francisco and was close with rich San Franciscan Gordon Getty, his mother wound up working as waitress, bookkeeper and secretary after his parents divorced.
Newsom was 14 when what was later identified as HIV/AIDS started devastating San Francisco. “I grew up with a number of people with HIV and AIDS,” he says. “I saw that firsthand.”
San Francisco, Newsom says, “is hardly perfect. My gosh, when I was growing up there was tremendous backlash against the LGBT community,” especially on Polk Street. “I remember listening to older folks talk about how the city had gone to hell [because] people were holding hands….before Castro became the Castro we know it.”
The indelible memories helped shape him. “The old Italian neighborhoods getting upset by the gay community,” he says, and then came out Supervisor Harvey Milk and his father’s friend, Mayor George Moscone, both assassinated in 1978. One of his closest friends is Eileen Getty, Elizabeth Taylor’s daughter-in-law, whose struggles with HIV/AIDS he’s watched.
“I was removed and yet observed it,” Newsom says. “And it just grounded me in a way that I felt an obligation to do something. I will never forget.”
Now seemingly the walking personification of white straight male privilege, Newsom’s character may actually be rooted in his difficulties growing up. He went to Santa Clara University on a partial baseball scholarship, graduating with a political science degree in 1989. After a starter job in a real estate office, Newsom and friend Billy Getty started a wine business, PlumpJack Wine Shop, funded through family connections. That led to a successful empire, through which he met mayoral candidate Willie Brown in 1995. When Brown won, he appointed Newsom to the traffic commission. Two years later, Brown appointed him to fill a vacancy on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, which Newsom won outright in 1998.
Newsom found himself in the middle of the domestic partnership debate with the Salvation Army on the other side and United Airlines threatening to leave the city. One day, Brown called Newsom to come to City Hall to marry people, that is, performing domestic partnership ceremonies.
At another point, Supervisor Mark Leno asked him to be the swing vote on a measure promoting gender reassignment surgery to be paid for by the city.
“It was a very tough vote,” he says. “My entire Catholic base was outraged that I voted with Mark supporting that effort. We were the first big city to do that. People said ‘people will fly in from all over the world to get operations’ and the city will go bankrupt.’ I know that’s a ludicrous argument. But it was made at the time. Those are some of the events that shaped my early years that led me to that fateful week in February of 2004 with marriage licenses.”
One of Newsom’s fiercest public critics at the time was Sen. Dianne Feinstein who said the marriage movement was moving too fast. Feinstein is running for reelection, with a primary challenge from former State Senate pro tem, Kevin de Leon, another stalwart LGBT ally.
Newsom chuckled when asked if he and Feinstein had made up. “The irony of those comments is that I went to lunch with her that Election Day,” he says, “and so I never took them personally.” He adds that when he was mayor, the two worked closely on environmental justice issues, on housing issues and structural issues.
“[Feinstein] was extraordinary during those years and I value the leadership in this state,” Newsom says about the primary challenge to the longtime senator. “But I think it’s profoundly important at this critical moment—his is not like any other moment—that seniority is not something you can take for granted. And I think she’s too important, too influential at this moment in our nation’s history.”
Newsom says he’s endorsed Feinstein but she has not endorsed him.
Newsom’s voice hints of weariness when asked about the decades-old affair with his best friend’s wife—a point delightfully highlighted by one of his Republican opponents at the May 8 gubernatorial debate. Newsom has repeatedly apologized and the woman with whom he had the affair has publicly said that what happened in this instance does not fit in with the #MeToo movement, which focuses on sexual harassment.
“I acknowledged it, I apologize for it. I learned an enormous amount from it. We were very open,” he says.
He also expresses concerns about “systemically and culturally” addressing the real issues underlying domestic violence, violent crime, school dropouts, suicides, opioid overdoses, which he identifies as “toxic masculinity.” Society devalues the feminized.
“Too often we see young boys being told to ‘man up,’ ‘be a man,’ ‘don’t be a sissy,’ ‘don’t be like your sister’—and young boys put a mask on their face,” Newsom says, “because our society expects them to behave in a ‘masculine’ way. And what happens is that they are less communicative, less engaged.” So “how we do raise our voice to be empathetic?”
Newsom is aware that such stories are particularly endemic for young gay and bisexual men. And he is moved by their stories.
“I can’t tell you how impactful those stories have been to me—of friends of mine that talk about being in the closet, talk about their struggles of coming out—and I don’t want to live in that society,” Newsom says. “I want them to live in a very different world and that’s why I continue to be a champion.”