State Sen. John Laird on California Gay Pride

In 1983, Laird became one of the first three openly gay mayors in the history of the United States. He has spent the past four decades serving California.

PUBLISHED JUN 26, 2023 5:31 A.M.
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The California Senate Democrats released a video of John Laird talking about the history of the LGBT Caucus in the state legislature.

The California Senate Democrats released a video of John Laird talking about the history of the LGBT Caucus in the state legislature.   Courtesy California Senate Democrats

At a Salinas Pride event last week at Fort Ord, a decommissioned Army base in his Monterey Bay area district, California state Sen. John Laird met a recently elected member of the Marina city council for the first time.

“He said ‘I’d like to introduce you to my husband,’” Laird recalls. “And I realized that of the six cities on the Monterey Peninsula—Marina, Seaside, Del Rey Oaks, Monterey, Carmel and Pacific Grove—five of them have an openly gay city council member. There are more out elected officials in the Monterey Bay area today than there were in the entire country when I was first elected to office.”

Back in 1981, when Laird was elected to his first term as a Santa Cruz city council member, there were maybe 10 openly gay elected officials in the United States. Two years later he was elected mayor and became one of the first three openly gay mayors in the history of the United States. 

Laird has spent most of the past four decades serving the people of California in one capacity or another, including an eight-year stint in Gov. Jerry Brown’s cabinet as secretary of the Natural Resources Agency—another first.

“When I was first doing this four decades ago, I knew I was right,” Laird says. “But I wasn’t sure I was on the right side of history. And time has answered that question.”

Laird says Harvey Milk, the first openly gay man elected to public office in the state of California, was a major influence, and his murder caused a personal crisis. The two men had met and Laird knew a lot of the people in Milk’s orbit. Milk was killed during a time when Laird was taking a year off, traveling around Central and South America, and he had to do some soul-searching.

“I always wanted a career in politics,“ he says, “but thought, ‘do I have to choose between being clear about who I am and doing what I think I’m best suited to do?’ I came to the realization that if I didn’t do what I thought I did best, I was letting people with bad intent make my decision. So it was not long after that trip that I ran for city council—and got elected overwhelmingly.”

At that time there wasn’t much precedent for a politician to come out publicly. “In those days, you didn’t do a press conference,” Laird says. At the same time, he says, he made no secret of his sexuality. “People ask ‘were you out when you first ran?’ And I say ‘well only about six or 7,000 people knew.

“But 40 years ago this November, I came roaring out—in the coverage of my election as mayor. And ironically, the first three openly gay mayors in the country [all of whom were elected in November of 1983] came from coastal towns: Key West, Laguna Beach, and Santa Cruz.”

Struggle Against Intolerance Continues

Laird says he is grateful to the men and women who spent decades paving the way for him and other elected leaders in California. “I so admire their courage,“ he says. “In some cases they were losing their jobs, they were physically threatened, and that kind of courage is unbelievable.”

He  points out that in many parts of the country today, the LGBT community faces a similar brand of hostility and intolerance.

“People who don’t accept LGBT people now feel empowered,” he says. “Just a couple of days ago there was a school board meeting in Templeton about trans kids using bathrooms. There’s a school in Southern California where they want to pass a policy that says teachers are required to out trans kids to their parents. We’re finding that older people who go into nursing rooms feel very vulnerable, and sometimes feel obligated to go back in the closet for their own personal safety.

“This is stuff that we have to organize against. This should motivate us.” He emphasizes this point in a video released last week by California Senate Democrats.

“There’s a lot of work still to be done for the LGBT community,” he says, “and so it’s really up to us to still move ahead on all of the issues we need to. And California is different, so it is still up to us to be a beacon for the rest of the country on what equality can really be.”

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