CITYWIDE — The state of California has a well-established record of pushing against national opinion on rights for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered individuals, and now Santa Monica has taken one more meaningful step toward banning discrimination within its own city limits.
The City Council joined seven other California cities last week when it unanimously passed an ordinance that requires most city contractors provide the same health care and other benefits to workers’ same sex spouses and domestic partners as they provide to heterosexual couples.
Mayor Richard Bloom characterized the move as a “small but significant step” to ensure Santa Monica’s policies protect the rights of all workers and stand as an example for other cities to take similar steps.
“It’s 100 percent worth it,” Bloom said Wednesday. “We all believe very strongly about not discriminating, and this law simply says if you provide a benefit for heterosexual couples, then you have to provide it for gay couples who are married or in domestic partnerships. That’s just a basic premise of fairness and equality.”
The move continues a trend of openness and anti-discrimination that City Hall has espoused for years, most significantly in 2003 when same-sex marriage was temporarily legalized in California.
At that time, the same council members opened themselves up for criticism by voting unanimously to endorse the actions of civil judges and religious leaders alike as thousands of couples who had previously been denied the opportunity to wed saw their relationships legitimized under law.
The Rev. Janet Gollery McKeithen, a Methodist pastor at the Church in Ocean Park, remembers those days well.
McKeithen, and other priests like her, risked official censure from the Methodist church by performing marriages at the church, in back yards and “lots of places.”
Although she personally believes that same-sex couples should be allowed to wed, McKeithen said that her congregation was an outlier in its staunch defense of those rights.
“It’s more the community of Santa Monica and this church’s identity,” she said, referring to the Church in Ocean Park’s unique interfaith composition. “It’s about being open not only to all faiths, but to different ways of being.”
Although McKeithen hasn’t taken a poll of Santa Monicans’ LGBT-friendliness, the church’s outspoken activism on everything from gay issues to the war in Iraq has put her in a position to see a lot of people at their defensive worst, particularly during protests or other gatherings.
“I’ve lived in a lot of places, and Santa Monica is fundamentally more accepting,” McKeithen said.
There’s no scorecard or measuring stick to determine a city’s “LGBT-friendly” level, but Santa Monica’s reputation is “pretty good,” said Sky Johnson, senior policy counsel for the Gay and Lesbian Center in Los Angeles.
“It’s a progressive city across the board,” Johnson said. “I’ve done no personal surveys, but I get the sense that it is perceived to be a congenial city in terms of the social political environment there.”
The council’s adaptation of its living wage law is a “vanguard of what needs to be happening at the local level,” Johnson said.
Santa Monica has made strides to ensure equal protections and take stances for gay rights, but there is more to be done.
“It’s a very tolerant community, but that doesn’t mean that everything is perfect,” Bloom said.
Even the acclaimed living wage law contains loopholes that exempt banking institutions, city grantees and nonprofits from the non-discriminatory measures.
More fundamental efforts come at the high school level, where administrations can fight only so hard to quell expressions of homophobia within the student population.
“High school is just inherently not the most gay-friendly place, because you have a bunch of insecure people trying to find themselves, and that breeds animosity,” said Evan Kahn, 17, a senior and co-president of the Santa Monica High School Gay Straight Alliance.
School administration allows signs declaring the campus a “homophobia free zone” in nearly 75 percent of classroom doors or bulletin boards, and even some teachers have felt the freedom to come out to their colleagues and students.
The slurs continue, however.
Some just pop out, Kahn said.
“Using ‘gay’ in a derogatory manner, you hear that a lot, especially in high school,” he said. “It’s unrealistic to say no one should ever use or say ‘That’s so gay’ again. Once tolerance builds, that will die away because people will feel that the LGBT community isn’t the minority to be picked at.”
Other digs are more purposeful.
At an annual seminar called “Project Safe Zone,” an anonymous student penciled in the word “fag” on a poster outside of the classroom where the discussion about sexism and homophobia was taking place.
“It was in crayon, of all things,” Kahn said, shrugging it off.
If he could see changes at the high school level, it would involve addressing LGBT issues directly in the curriculum, perhaps by incorporating a few lessons into the freshman seminars.
“It would be amazing, a step forward,” Kahn said. “There might be some protest at first, but I think it would be a bold move.”
Of course, Santa Monica’s LGBT needs depend on who you ask.
On a mission to find out how some homosexual friends felt about the state of their city, Bloom came to a very different conclusion.
He discovered complaints about bullying in the schools, national policy concerns and worries about discriminatory churches, but there was one other problem: Santa Monica has no gay bar.
“One person jokingly said you can’t really be a gay friendly city without a gay bar,” Bloom laughed. “I told them that’s not something I can probably do anything about. Just get the word out there that there’s a market waiting for a business.”