On her Twitter page, California Assemblymember Cristina Garcia calls herself “Reformer, community activist, math lover and teacher.” In her AD 58 office in Sacramento and on the radio, she called Los Angeles-based gay Assembly Speaker Emeritus John Perez a “homo.” While “very disturbed” by the divisive slur, Perez is more concerned about its harmful impact on closeted LGBT staffers and what it says about the legislator’s real attitudes.
Garcia, who represents Bell Gardens, told KQED on Monday, March 26, that she sees nothing wrong with using the word “homo,” suggesting that lawmakers should have a “safe space” to talk “candidly” about colleagues, which apparently includes using slurs. But after being outed by Politico, Garcia apologized for calling Perez a ‘”homo” five years ago.
“I did make that remark in a moment of anger. I have no reason to lie about something that is true,” Garcia said in a statement. “However, in no way was my use of that term meant to belittle Mr. Perez for his sexuality….I have a long and chronicled history of being a straight ally of the LGBTQ community.”
“I realize that words can be harmful and I humbly and sincerely apologize to Mr. Perez and any member of the LGBTQ community who feels offended by the comment,” Garcia added.
But it’s the casualness with which the slur was used that may prove unforgivable if the LGBT community and allies think the unthinking use of such pejorative terms actually reflect Garcia’s true beliefs, uncensored by political expediency. To LGBT people, such slurs are not just a matter of an “authentic” politician being politically incorrect. Pejorative terms like “homo” and “faggot” are not meant just to harm and offend: they are intended to dehumanize. Like a hate crime, they target not just the person being called “homo” or “faggot,” but the whole LGBT community. And they are not easily forgotten.
Take what happened to New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, for instance. In 2007, Richardson was receiving a lot of positive attention as he ran for the Democratic presidential nomination, garnering an endorsement from powerful LA County Supervisor Gloria Molina and receiving warm consideration from then-labor leader John Perez. While not expected to win the nomination, he was high on the short list as a vice-presidential pick.
But Richardson’s popularity among LGBT politicos came to a screeching halt after this reporter and former Washington Blade editor Chris Crain wrote about Richardson’s casual use of the gay pejorative “maricon” during a March 2006 appearance on the Don Imus radio show. Richardson immediately called Equality New Mexico, which was pressing him to sign two domestic partners bill, apparently claiming that he understood “maricón” to mean “effeminate,” not “faggot,’ which was the general US understanding of that word. By the time he ran for president, Richardson’s non-apology apology turn “maricon” into meaning simply “gay.”
“It has been brought to my attention that the word also has a hurtful or derogatory connotation, which was never my intent,” Richardson at the time. “If I offended anybody, I’m sorry.”
Richardson’s pro forma apology evaporated during the HRC/LOGO Democratic presidential forum where he responded to a question from Melissa Etheridge saying he thought being gay was a choice. There was an audible gasp in the LGBT audience. Though he immediately tried to clarify, it was clear that the LGBT community would not back Richardson and would scorch any Democrat who gave him a pass.
That may not happen with Garcia. But the assemblymember has more to explain than why the self-described LGBT ally used the slur “homo” at all. And, according to a formerly closeted male staff member caught up in the Assembly investigation into claims of sexual harassment against her, Garcia has called Perez a “faggot,” too.
The investigation has thrown Garcia supporters into confusion. After all, she was a leader of California’s #MeToo movement, which landed her on the cover of Time magazine. But it has also brought into sharp relief the fact that inappropriate behavior toward male staffers constitutes sexual harassment, just as much as it does towards women.
Daniel Fierro, a then-25-year-old staffer to Assemblymember Ian Calderon, claims that in 2014, an apparently inebriated Garcia cornered him in the dugout after an Assembly softball game and “began stroking his back, then squeezed his buttocks and attempted to touch his crotch before he extricated himself and quickly left,” Politico reported last February.
Fierro kept quiet until the #MeToo movement and new whistleblower protections for legislative staffers prompted him to tell Calderon, who referred the matter to the Assembly Rules Committee for investigation.
“If the person leading the charge on [sexual harassment] isn’t credible it just ends up hurting the credibility of these very real stories,” Fierro told the AP.
The day after the Politico report, Garcia went on an unpaid leave of absence.
“Upon reflection of the details alleged, I am certain I did not engage in the behavior I am accused of. However, as I’ve said before, any claims about sexual harassment must be taken seriously, and I believe elected officials should be held to a higher standard of accountability. Therefore, I am voluntarily taking an immediate unpaid leave from my position in the State Assembly, including any accompanying committee assignments, so as not to serve as a distraction or in any way influence the process of this investigation,” Garcia said in a statement Feb. 9. “I implore the Assembly Rules Committee to conduct a thorough and expeditious investigation, and I look forward to getting back to work on behalf of my constituents and for the betterment of California.”
But new allegations surfaced claiming that Garcia “urged staffers to play ‘spin the bottle’ after a political fundraiser,” according to Politico on Feb. 18. https://www.politico.com/story/2018/02/18/california-metoo-allegations-legislator-416916
“It was definitely uncomfortable,’’ David John Kernick, 38, who worked for Garcia for five months in 2014, told Politico. He’s filed a formal complaint with the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing asserting that Garcia charged him with insubordination after questioning the propriety of trying to engage staffers in that kissing game in a hotel room after a night of heavy drinking. He says he lost his district office job two days later.
Kernick and three other ex-staffers sent an open letter to Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon complaining about the “toxic” workplace environment “where activities included regular heavy drinking with staffers, sexually charged meetings and raunchy conversations highlighting intimate details of her sex life,” Politico reported.
The day after the Politico story, on Feb. 19, a letter critical of Kernick, signed by Garcia’s 2014 Chief of Staff Tim Reardon, was taken from Kernick’s personnel file and circulated around the State Capitol. “Obviously, it’s improper. It’s a violation of privacy, and it does nothing to counter the narrative for a boss that was accused of being very vindictive. In fact, it seems to confirm it,” Christine Pelosi, the legal counsel for #WeSaidEnough movement, told Politico. “Whoever thought they were helping Cristina Garcia did her no favors.”
On Monday, Kernick challenged Garcia’s denial in the KQED radio interview (transcript below) about using the word “faggot.”
“I don’t use the ‘faggot.’ It’s not in my vocabulary,” she told KQED. “I think that terms like ‘faggot’ are purely derogatory. There’s no good way to use that word.”
Kernick told Politico that Garcia’s denial about never using that word was “a bald-faced lie.”
“The ex-Marine said he is a member of the LGBT community, but he was not out when he worked for Garcia – and so had to remain silent when he ‘routinely’ heard Garcia use both those words [‘homo’ and ‘faggot’] ‘distinctly about the speaker [John Perez], but it was also part of her regular vocabulary. It wasn’t unusual. … And so I just had to internalize it. I had no choice.’”
Perez told the Los Angeles Blade that while he is “incredibly disturbed” by the slurs Garcia made about him, he is even more upset at the thought of the harm done to closeted staffers like Kernick who fear calling out the homophobia lest they lose their jobs.
“I’m incredibly disturbed by the interview I heard on KQED and a pattern of rationalization and minimization of the impact of the use of homophobic language,” Perez said by phone Tuesday while on vacation in Japan. “The lack of appreciation for the impact on staff—and quite frankly, for every kid in society.”
Perez recalled growing up thinking gay people would never be elected until Sheila Kuehl became the first out LGBT person elected to the Assembly in 1994.
“I never thought I’d have the opportunity to succeed her some day and advance to be Speaker,” he said. “But one of the reasons I felt that way was because of the pervasive and pernicious nature of homophobia in society.
“And so it’s so disturbing—despite all the progress we’ve made—to see this additional example of homophobia in the workplace,” Perez continued. “Not because it was a negative statement about me. I assumed as Speaker of the Assembly that at some point every member would be upset with me about something and be angry at me and say something angry. But it is different to say something in anger, something in frustration based on facts and based on circumstances than it is to immediately go to base-level homophobic attacks. Because when you go to base-level homophobic attacks—not only is it an attack on that individual—but it’s attacking the whole community. And it’s borne out of a notion of dehumanizing us based on that which makes us unique.”
The impact of the slurs are an injustice toward “those hearing them directly and indirectly and what it means for a young gay or lesbian or bisexual or transgender staff or even more so, a closeted member of our community hearing these kinds of comments in the workplace and what that means to have a thriving career is particularly bothersome,” Perez said.
“I’m hopeful that the fact-finders [in the sexual harassment allegations] will look into this as they look into the totality of the allegations,” Perez said, “because of the impact on staff. And quite frankly, what it means for how we view people and whether we see our obligation to represent everybody. It’s hard to reconcile divisive language with the notion of representing all people and our constituencies.”
“I do not comment on ongoing investigations,” Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon told the LA Blade. “That said, using homophobic language is inappropriate and indefensible. Words have consequences and can cause harm. Officials who are elected to represent everyone in their districts should know better and do better.”
Assemblymember Evan Low, Chair of the California LGBT Legislative Caucus, said: “It’s disappointing to hear a respected former Speaker be subjected to hurtful homophobic comments. It’s upsetting but not surprising—it reflects the everyday struggles that our LGBT community faces on a daily basis. We must continue to work to educate others about the importance of eradicating all forms of homophobia—and the ignorance and bigotry behind them.”
The California Democratic Party endorsed incumbent Garcia via their consent calendar. But neither out CDP Chair Eric Bauman nor out LA County Democratic Party Chair Mark Gonzalez are happy with Garcia.
“The use of pejorative terms of any kind is ALWAYS unacceptable, even more so from those who claim to speak to others about morality from on high. This is positively unacceptable and attempts to rationalize, minimize or mitigate the pain caused by the use of slurs only makes it even more offensive,” said Bauman.
“Assemblymember Garcia’s comments regarding the homophobic language she used to refer to openly gay members of the Assembly were offensive, to say the least. The fact that Ms. Garcia justified using homophobic language is a poor defense for actions taken as an adult and leader in the community. She has stood behind the LGBT community in her record as a legislator, but as a leader of California, Assemblymember Garcia and all elected officials need to show that they walk the talk. Language contrary to what one has a history of standing up for has a chilling effect on staff and on the community,” said Gonzalez. “Any language that is derogatory or inflammatory is unacceptable,” said Gonzalez.
Will all the outrage matter? Garcia has given no indication that she is thinking of resigning, though the outcome of the Assembly’s investigation may change that. And as of now, the only Democrat who has announced an intention to challenge Garcia in the June primary is a gay man, John Paul Drayer of Bellflower, a former member of the Cerritos College board of trustees who filed papers on Feb. 12.
“Having effectively no representation in the state assembly 58th District we need new ideas & candidate to turn around the drunken misguided culture of being too close to Sacramento lobbyists,” Drayer wrote in an email to the Downey Patriot. “Therefore I am seriously thinking about running for this effectively vacant seat. Plus I encourage many others to run in a strong debate about fixing Sacramento to work for working families & small businesses with tax cuts from our large surplus. I will protect the 5th amendment due process rights of men & women equally. No gender should be above another.”
There is a bit of confusion over this, however, since Drayer boasted on Twitter about newspaper cover of his Assembly challenge on March 24—but on March 13 he posted @drayerpaul:
“I filed for the Special Election to fill the unexpired term in the CA State Senate 32nd District on June 5th.”
Here is the link to a clip of Christina Garcia’s interview on KQED:
Here’s the transcript:
KQED: “The other thing I heard that might be concerning for some people in the Capitol and perhaps some people in your district is this idea that you use slurs or something other than respectful word to describe the former Speaker of the House (sic) who is gay, and other folks. Did you ever use slurs like ‘faggot’ or ‘homo?’ Did you ever say anything like that to your staff?
Cristina Garcia: Oh, I will be clear. There’s no one in politics who doesn’t talk about some of the peers we work with and we use candid language. And so along the way, I’ve used candid language – I curse. I mean, I’ve been vocal about some of my (?) words – I don’t know if I can say them on the radio. And you know, if I see staff who didn’t want to engage in that kind of conversation, I would stop. But they never seemed to have any problem with it. But even then, it’s pretty limited. But these are in places where you think you’re in a safe space and you can speak your mind and be vocal.
I don’t use the ‘faggot.’ It’s not in my vocabulary. But at some point, have I used the word homo. Yeah. I’ve used that word homo. I don’t know that I’ve used it in derogatory context. I think you need to think about the context in which it was used. But anything can be taken out of context, clearly, hearing the situation (?)
KQED: Well, I bring that up – I grew up in a neighborhood where the word homo, for example, people still say ‘no homo’ as a way to express their identity, the masculinity. The reason I’m asking you, though, is there – what has been presented to me as this question of whether these words were used in a professional setting and whether they made people uncomfortable. So did you ever use that to describe the Speaker of the House – the word homo?
CG: I can’t remember but I wouldn’t be surprised if I used that word. Right. So I think that that’s fair. I think that terms like ‘faggot’ are purely derogatory. There’s no good way to use that word. I think the word ‘homo’ can also be derogatory. But I’m not going to sit here and pretend I’m an angel. Was how I was using them in derogatory terms? No. It’s almost like I was saying I’m a brown person sometimes. Am I perfect? I think all of us at sometime have biases but I try to be open and accepting of all communities, including the LGBT community. You can look at my voting record, you can look at the advocacy I’ve been doing well before I was elected in conjunction with not just the LGBT community but with communities that have been marginalized.”