For the past 19 years, the City of West Hollywood has honored people and organizations that have made “a significant contribution” to the LGBT community with a Rainbow Key Award. This year the City Council will honor Diane Abbitt, Jeannette Bronson, David Cooley, Ben Patrick Johnson, Roots of Equality, Karina Samala, Nadia Sutton, Brenda Weathers and Carolyn Weathers. The ceremony is on Saturday, June 16, starting promptly at 5 p.m. at The Robertson, 665 N. Robertson Boulevard in West Hollywood.
The list of honorees is impressive. But permit me a moment of personal reflection to acknowledge Diane Abbitt who deserves a Lifetime Rainbow Key Award. In 2010, Equality California honored Diane as a “legendary activist” – an understatement considering her long and ongoing service to LGBT people as a political strategist and thought-leader.
I interviewed Diane for the beginning of a series on Equality California. Here’s what I wrote for the section on the LA-based MECLA and the San Francisco-based Alice B. Toklas Democratic Club:
Looking through the kaleidoscope of LGBT history, it is easy to see that that Stonewall was a significant turning point, prompting more people to come out and stand up for gay liberation. But Stonewall – and the Black Cat in LA in 1967 - also sent people “scurrying into closet” fearing police raids and being exposed as gay or lesbian with arrests, says longtime LGBT politico, attorney and businesswoman Diane Abbitt. “There was also a lot of shame. People were terrified because they were not out and they were afraid of losing their jobs. A lot of them were teachers and professional people. And it impacted businesses. There was a lesbian bar in Redondo Beach where the police kept coming in on the pretext that they were looking for a runaway.”
Political consultant and famous anti-Vietnam War activist David Mixner was closeted, for instance, until he came out in the mid-1970s when he was the director of LA Mayor Tom Bradley’s re-election campaign. He joined the Municipal Elections Committee of Los Angeles (MECLA), a political action committee for which his business partner Peter Scott was president. He subsequently became MECLA board co-chair with Diane Abbitt after the group decided it needed to be co-gender.
MECLA had grown out of the secretive group Orion, where famous Gay Liberation/LA co-founder Morris Kight lead conscious-raising sessions. MECLA board members Rob Eichberg (founder of gay conscious-raising conference “The Experience” and co-founder with Jean O’Leary of National Coming Out Day) and attorney Sheldon Andelson wanted to “change the quality of life for gay people so they could be who they are – and they wanted to do that through political action,” Abbitt said. They would use the model of Jewish fundraising – but they worried about how to raise more than $100 from gay men who might be afraid to explain it to their tax accounts.
“MECLA was afraid people would not contribute to an organization that had the word ‘gay’ in it because we were so closeted as community,” says Abbitt, who later became president of the EQCA board and chair of the EQCA PAC. After MECLA raised enough money for a PAC, they met with and interviewed politicians who wanted their contributions.
“It was a new experience for both of us,” Abbitt says. “At first the politicians appeared to be receptive. But upon realizing that, as a result of the reporting process, it would become known they would be taking money from an organization dedicated to achieving full equality for gays and lesbians, a couple of them returned the money. But as MECLA continued to contribute, politicians became more comfortable with the group and more understanding of the issues and they started to take action to show their support.”
After the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals declared that Prop 8 is unconstitutional, Diane was among the grassroots activists and leaders who gathered at the new WeHo Library for a rally. Here’s a section of that report:
[Then-West Hollywood Mayor John] Duran then introduced Diane Abbitt, his former legal mentor, the first female co-chair of MECLA, the nation’s first LGBT political action committee, a co-founder of AIDS Project Los Angeles and a longtime lawyer and politico with the Human Rights Campaign Fund and Equality California.
Abbitt recalled how she came out in 1973 and there were no organizations, other than what is now the LA Gay & Lesbian Center, co-founded by Morris Kight, Don Kilhefner, and Jon Platania, among a “small group of brave people.” Abbitt said:
Sometimes we say we stand on the backs of our heroes. But for me, I walk today with those heroes. So when I read the [9th Circuit] opinion I realized for me for the first time, a court spoke about us and said, ‘You are important. You count. And it’s wrong that you are not recognized for your relationships, that you are not afforded the same dignity, the same respect that anyone else who can get married is afforded today.’ Domestic partnerships, when we passed it in 2003, went into effect in 2004 [actually Jan 2005], we thought we had the world. And then came marriage. And people in our won community said, ‘Don’t rock the boat!’ But look what happens when you rock the boat!
And the only reason that worked was because of you – because of everybody who comes out and marches and walks and talks and tells their family. There’s only one reason we’re all here today – there’s only one reason this court sees us as being important, as equal, as worthy – because they see us for who we are. Not the stereotypes. Not the way those awful, bigoted people see us. But for who we are – and that’s because of all of us. You make this happen every time you step up. So, yes, thank you to all of our leaders, everyone who has walked the walk, talked the talk, who has been there. Thank you for those who lead the fight. But most of all, thank you to every single person who decided it was time to come out, to be seen and to be heard. And together we will win for forever.
So – a congratulations to all the Rainbow Key Award honorees and a special “Thank You” to Diane Abbitt for “being there” throughout our history.
(Full disclosure: I have been honored with the Rainbow Key Award.)