A former member of Congress and former Lt. Gov. of California, Mervyn Dymally was an African America civil rights pioneer who paved the way for the election of today’s black leaders, including President Barack Obama. Dymally passed away peacefully early Sunday morning, Alice Gueno Dymally, his wife of 44 years, said in a statement. She add, “He lived a very extraordinary life and had no regrets.” Mervyn Dymally was 86.
Dymally, a native of Trinidad and Tobago, was a man of firsts: in 1974, one of the first black men in America to win a nonpartisan statewide office since the post-Civil War days of Reconstruction; the first foreign-born black to win a seat in the state Assembly in 1962, five years after he became a naturalized citizen; and in 1966, the first black elected to the state Senate.
Dymally served as California’s first African American Lt. Governor from 1975 to 1979 – and made LGBT history his first year in office when he flew in from Denver to cast the deciding vote to decriminalize homosexuality in the state.
It is important to understand the context of those times. 1975 – six years after the Stonewall Rebellion – marked a heady time for progress in the movement for LGBT civil rights. The year before, the Los Angeles Gay Community Services Center won an appeal to the IRS and became the nation’s first openly gay non-profit organization and at their first big fundraiser in November, in-coming Gov. Jerry Brown was the keynote speaker, President Carter’s mother Lillian was an honored guest and Lily Tomlin hosted the event organized by many on the MECLA board who scores of LA City Councilmembers in attendance wanted to impress. (The event raised $60,000.)
In 1975, New York Rep. Bella Abzug introduced the first gay rights bill in Congress (HR 5452) and in Sacramento, San Francisco Assemblymember Willie Brown advanced a bill to decriminalize sex between consenting adults of the same gender. Assembly Speaker Leo McCarthy allowed the bill to advance through the House. But the Senate was deadlocked 20-20.
Bill Ainsworth picks up the story, as it appeared in the January 2004 edition of California Journal:
Dymally was in Colorado visiting the nation’s only other black lieutenant governor when he learned that several California legislative leaders were trying to call him. Finally, a Colorado state trooper told Dymally it was urgent that he return the calls. Soon after talking to Senate President Pro Tempore George Moscone [who later would be assassinated as San Francisco Mayor along with gay Supervisor Harvey Milk], Dymally was flying to San Francisco and then taking a California Highway Patrol helicopter to Sacramento, where he was escorted to the Senate chambers.
Inside the chambers, the Senate was literally locked in a stalemate over getting rid of a law that made gay sex illegal, a law that had terrorized the gay community for years and turned some gay citizens into outlaws merely for engaging in consensual sex. Moscone locked the doors and refused to let members go home until Dymally, in his capacity as president of the Senate, could break the tie.
“I walked in there and you could feel the chemistry of the crowds,”
Dymally said. “When I said ‘aye’ the crowd went up in cheers. The upper chambers and the floor were packed. They were filled to capacity.”
Now an assembly member from Los Angeles, Dymally recalled the story last spring the day before another critical vote for the gay community, on Assembly Bill 205, which grants same-sex registered domestic partners nearly all the rights and responsibilities of married couples.
Ironically, AB 205 author Assemblymember Jackie Goldberg recalls that Dymally was in San Francisco when a vote on AB 205 was called. Goldberg said by phone Monday morning that her connection with Dymally actually started years earlier when he was in the state Assembly and she was fighting in the Berkley Free Speech movement and later, fighting together for African American civil rights in Compton. She said:
‘[Mervyn Dymally] was wonderful when I was doing the domestic partners bill….He was very instrumental in talking to people in both Houses about the need to support my domestic partner bill, AB 205. He not only voted for it, he was stuck in San Francisco one evening when the Speaker [Fabian Nunez] decided to take up the vote because he thought we had the votes – you know they leave them on the table until they have the votes – and we were still short one vote in the Assembly. And Dymally came roaring across the bridge to come back to do it. But unfortunately, they closed the session so we did it the next day. But I thought – how ironic – here he is coming in from somewhere else again.”
But in the summer of 2005, Dymally missed another critical gay vote that stunned and angered Goldberg and the LGBT community. After San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom OKed marriage licenses for same sex couples and court-ordered marriage equality became legal in Massachusetts, openly gay Assemblymember Mark Leno introduced AB 19, The Religious Freedom and Civil Marriage Protection Act, on Dec. 6, 2004, with Assembly Speaker Nunez as a principle co-author, for the 2005-2006 Legislative session.(Left to Right: Senator Christine Kehoe, Senator Carole Migden, Assemblymember John Laird (Chair), Senator Sheila Kuehl, Assemblymember Mark Leno, and Assemblymember-Emeritus Jackie Goldberg. Photo CA Assembly, 2008)
On June 2, with nail-biting Californians watching across the state on the California Channel, Nunez called for a vote of AB 19, even though many LGBT politicos were upset that the Speaker had not worked as hard on getting votes as some wanted. Additionally, Leno had most – but not all of the 41 votes needed to pass. But when the vote reached 37, it was discovered that Dymally was not on the floor. No one could believe that this civil rights pioneer would just ignore voting on history – the first marriage bill passed by a state Legislature. But calls to his cell phone went unanswered – and the bill was defeated.
Goldberg – who had stood up and emotionally laid bare her life with her partner Sharon Stricker and their adopted African American son, only to have to endure ridicule on the floor from Republican Neanderthals – was so outraged, she was moved to tears. Goldberg said:
“I was really hurt because we’ve been working together on civil rights stuff for a long time – since the 1960s, actually…
I thought, ‘After all this time and all this stuff we’ve done together, he’s ducking the damn vote?’ Usually I could get him on his cell phone whenever I needed him and he wasn’t answering his cell phone. He said it was because he was at an event where it was inappropriate to leave his cell phone on. So he called me back as soon as it was over….
He said he was on the bridge coming back and I said, ‘Too late. It’s already closed.’ He said, ‘Well I counted with’ – I can’t remember who he said – ‘and they didn’t need my vote so I went to this event I had to go to. He apologized 865 ways….
He was an extraordinary elected official and he was an extraordinary civil rights advocate. And there was really nothing he didn’t think he should do in order to take leadership on the issues impacting – particularly African Americans – but he was certainly willing to take up the charge of Latinos and Asian Pacific Islanders. I remember we had a vote about the concentration camps and some sort of remembrance of them for the Japanese Americans and he was one of the principle co-authors.
He was – to his very core – a man who believed in equal rights for everybody. Everybody! That’s why I was hurt and devastated! I thought he was standing me up. He said, ‘No, I counted. You had the votes. Somebody screwed you over.’ He had gotten somebody to agree that he could go so they would vote and then they didn’t….
I love the man. He was a good, good ally and great friend.
Geoff Kors, then-Executive Director of Equality California, which sponsored AB 19. Kors worked the votes with Leno and spoke with Dymally later:
Dymally did vote for the bill when it came back to the Assembly. I personally met with him between the votes and he assured me that he was with us and would vote for the bill.
We focused on his support of the bill and discussed the importance of EQCA continuing to work with [Alice Huffman, California President of the] NAACP and other organizations working in the African America community in order to build partnerships on a wide range of issues. He was 100% for LGBT equality.
Leno was more philosophical about that missed vote on AB 19. He said by phone Monday afternoon:
I don’t know any more about what happened that day now than I did then. What’s finally important is that, while we did not have sufficient votes for our first marriage equality bill that day in June of 2005, we did have when we took it up again on the Assembly floor when we took it up in September that same year. So we did succeed – we got the bill to the governor’s desk. It took a few more months work, but short of [Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s] veto – it all came out as we had hoped.
If I’ve learned anything in my years in the Legislature, it’s that – as forceful as my will may be – ideas have their own time. For whatever reason, it wasn’t to have been June ’05; it was to be September ’05….A lot happened over the summer.
Such as Canada and Spain granting country-wide marriage equality while both the United Church of Christ and the United Farm Workers came out in support of marriage rights.
[Dymally] was always in support. He was always a co-author. And his life has really been about being a champion for civil rights. So I never doubted him on that. And I always appreciated his support. His life was amazing in all that he was able to do. And a strong theme throughout was his championing civil rights for everybody…
Merv Dyymally had a very accomplished and historic life. He had a significant impact on many people. It was my great honor to be able to have served in the Assembly with him.
To a person, LGBT elected officials and politicos praised Dymally as a true civil rights hero.(Openly gay Assembly Speaker John A. Perez, Rep. Maxine Waters, LA County Democratic Party Chair Eric Bauman at a recent LACDP event. Photo by Karen Ocamb)
Openly gay Assembly Speaker John A. Perez said:
“I was deeply saddened to learn former Lieutenant Governor Merv Dymally passed away. He was an iconic figure in California politics, whose public service spanned nearly six decades in the Legislature, House of Representatives and as Lieutenant Governor of California. Throughout his time in office, he commanded respect on both sides of the aisle, and was a thoughtful and passionate advocate for the men and women he represented and for the poorest and most vulnerable Californians. He will be greatly missed by all those who had the pleasure of knowing him.”
Eric C. Bauman, openly gay Vice Chair of the California Democratic Party and Chair of the LA County Democratic Party:
Mervyn Dymally broke many barriers and glass ceilings for African-Americans, but for gays and lesbians, he played a critical role – many years ago when he was Lt. Governor – the bill to decriminalize sodomy was up and the vote was tied. The Pro Tem locked the doors to keep members in as Dymally flew cross-country to cast the tie-breaking vote.
Openly gay former State Senator and Assemblymember Sheila James Kuehl:
Merv Dymally was the epitome of an ally to the LGBT community. I was the first open gay person to serve in the Califfornia Legislature and I always felt Merv had my back. He was a man of deep convictions and a great public servant. If only there were more like him.
Legendary politico and attorney Diane Abbitt, former board co-chair for MECLA in the mid-1970s and the No on Briggs Initiative (1977), among other organizations, remembered why Merv Dymally is a hero in the LGBT community:
The 1975 Consenting Adults Act did away with laws that criminalized sodomy in California. Dymally was Lieutenant Governor at the time. Hard to believe there was a tie vote on the bill – but there was and he flew back from Denver to cast the deciding vote. I can hear someone today saying, “You must be kidding! A tie vote on whether the government should continue to criminalize our private lives!” Well, yes. And Dymally, in casting that vote, was our first elected hero!!! His vote began the swing of the pendulum to where we are today and for that we should take a moment to honor his memory.
Others have shared their thoughts, as well:
Governor Edmund G. Brown Jr. today issued the following statement regarding the death of former lieutenant governor Mervyn Dymally:
“Mervyn Dymally was an extraordinary man who spent his life breaking new ground and advancing the cause of civil rights and equality. He was both a thinker and a doer, bearing deep knowledge but never hesitating to take action where action was warranted. California has lost an important leader.”
Congresswoman Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) released the following statement today on the passing of Mervyn Dymally:
“The people of California and this entire country have lost a good and faithful servant with the passing of Mervyn Dymally. The former lieutenant governor, state legislator and congressman dedicated his life to public service and advocating for social justice in the state of California, the nation and internationally.
In the House of Representatives, he was a true leader and was always willing to share a word of wisdom. Dymally was devoted to helping others, particularly his consistent work on human rights in Africa and the Caribbean.
I extend my heartfelt condolences to his wife, Alice and the entire Dymally family at this time. He was a dear colleague and friend, and will be sorely missed.”
Assemblymember Holly Mitchell:
The passing of Merv Dymally leaves a chasm in the ranks of the leadership in the California and African American community.
As America’s first black Lieutentant Governor since Reconstruction, he broke the barrier, took his rightful seat among elected powerbroekrs, and invited others to follow.
His courtly presence and shrewd counsel never waned. He was our ‘Senior Statesman.’ I am proud to have known him.