Bay Area Reporter: Sacto LGBT staffers form association

LGBT legislative staffers and their allies have formed their own association in Sacramento, believed to be the first in the country based at a statehouse. They are publicly launching the group Monday (May 22) at an event being held to mark Harvey Milk Day.

Dubbed the Capitol LGBT Association, the employee affinity group is open to anyone working in the Statehouse, whether for legislators or state officeholders, at state agencies and departments, or at advocacy groups with offices in Sacramento. Membership is also open to those staffing the district offices of state lawmakers.

While there is a similar group for LGBT congressional staffers in Washington, D.C., the California group appears to be the first one formed at the state level. The Golden State also saw the creation of the first affinity group for LGBT state lawmakers, which formed in 2002.

"There is a need for the staff to organize and have that group identity as well. For members around the Capitol, we all need support," said Carrie Martin Holmes, 37, a policy consultant working for Senator Jim Beall (D-San Jose) and vice president of the Capitol LGBT Association.

Holmes, who identifies as queer and last July married her wife, an Oakland firefighter, has worked in the Capitol for seven years. She started off in a fellowship program, and then went to work in the secretary of state's office until being hired by gay former state Senator Mark Leno (D-San Francisco), who presided over her wedding. With Leno termed out of office last year, she joined Beall's staff in November.

"In every profession, and a lot of leadership groups, people with more privilege end up there. We see the same thing in the Capitol and in the queer community as well," said Holmes. "So I think our focus is on making sure we are bringing people in who are underrepresented."

The association aims to promote professional mentorship, career development, and networking opportunities as well as serve as a resource for its members. Already, 80 people have either joined or expressed interest in doing so, according to board members.

"I think it is wonderful. There has been an informal network of LGBT staff who know each other socially or professionally," said Dharia McGrew, 39, a lesbian and a senior policy analyst for the California Dental Association. "It is really heartening to see this group formalize in the way it is coming together."

For five years McGrew had worked for the state Legislature in various positions. She is serving as the dental association's lobbyist liaison on its board.

"It is really useful to have ways of connecting with members of your community with different job titles and who are at different stages of their life to have as a resource," she said.

All 15 of the group's founding board members happen to be LGBT and represent the community's diversity in gender and ethnicity. But being LGBT is not required to join the group, and members of all political parties are welcome. The only membership requirement is paying a $20 annual fee.

Ryan VanZuylen, 28, who is gay and works as a legislative aide for Assemblywoman Jacqui Irwin (D-Thousand Oaks), is the association's events coordinator on the board. He is looking forward to having more frank and open conversations with other members of the group about working in the political arena, especially with those who have spent years in the trenches of the Capitol.

"I hope to learn about some of the difficulties they have faced working in the building and learn how to grow more as a legislative employee and legislative aide," said VanZuylen, who had been living in San Francisco until he was named a Capitol Fellow in 2015. "A lot of these issues I might be facing now, people faced before and probably many times over. Hearing how they faced it would probably be really helpful."

For years there had been talk of forming such an affinity group for employees in the state Capitol. With the backing of gay Assemblyman Evan Low (D-Campbell), who in January became chair of the California Legislative LGBT Caucus, a core group of staffers began to seriously look at launching the association earlier this year.

"He really wanted us to be able to do this," said Biswajit "Bish" Paul, Ph.D., 32, a 2017 California Council on Science and Technology Science and Technology Policy Fellow. Initially placed in Low's office, Paul, who is gay, has now been assigned to the staff of the Assembly Elections and Redistricting Committee, chaired by Assemblyman Marc Berman (D-Palo Alto). "We've been able to move much faster because we had Low's support behind us."

Participation in the association is outside of the staffer's day jobs, and it will not be endorsing candidates or backing specific legislation, noted Paul, president of the association's board. But it will serve as a unified voice to ensure certain issues are being addressed, he explained.

"A lot of us, like other people in the country, are worried about what rights might be taken away and what could come down the federal pike. We wanted to be able to build a resistance and be able to do things if things do go bad to protect our loved ones," said Paul, a molecular biologist who 18 years ago moved from India to Seattle, where his husband still lives.

He is in the process of applying for permanent residency, and sees his role with the staff association as a way to speak up for other immigrants and queer residents of the state.

"There are a lot of issues we wanted to work on, " said Paul, "but we felt we needed to organize to be able to work on so many different issues."

By offering mentorship and trainings on different skills and topics, Paul believes the association can play a role in recruiting more LGBT people to work in the Capitol and assist them with their career development and advancement.

"We wanted to make sure in the future we always have, as soon as a staffer comes in, a way to introduce them to a community and make sure they meet the right people," he said. "We want to have job opportunities for them so there is more queer representation inside the building."

Piggybacking off the event celebrating Milk, the late San Francisco supervisor who was the first out LGBT elected official in the state, allows the association to appropriate his famous line "I am here to recruit you," noted Paul, as it works to sign up more members.

Holmes credited Paul with building excitement about the association and recruiting people already to the join both it and the board. It is starting out with a strong foundation, she said, due to his leadership.

"People are showing up and that is a response to both the enthusiasm of the group, the diversity of the leadership we are putting in place, and the real organizational talent that Bish has," she said. "It just seems like this group is going to get a lot done, and it is a really fun group."

The association's public coming out party will coincide with the Harvey Milk Birthday Bash the LGBT legislative caucus is hosting. The event takes place from 4:30 to 6 p.m. Monday, May 22 in Room 317 at the State Capitol, 1315 10th Street in downtown Sacramento.