LGBT Caucus: Bigger and More Diverse Than Ever

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Sen. Ricardo Lara (left) is vice chair of the LGBT caucus and Assemblyman Evan Low is the chair.  (Scott Shafer/KQED)

South Bay Assemblymember Evan Low, D-Campbell, and Los Angeles Sen. Ricardo Lara, D-Bell Gardens, were in a mischievous mood when they stopped by KQED's Sacramento bureau recently to talk about their paths to the State Legislature as openly gay men.

Low is chair of the Legislature's LGBT caucus and Lara is vice chair. Both men arrived wearing appropriately lavender ties, and Low playfully sat on Lara's lap to pose for a photo.

It wasn't always so easy to be public about their sexual orientation. Low remembers his first campaign for local office more than a decade ago. At the time, many of his friends knew he was gay -- but his parents did not. That changed after a local reporter covering the race found out.

"And then on the front page of the paper it said 'Evan Low, 21 years old, Chinese American and openly gay runs for city council.' I had to tell them before they read that local paper," Low recalls.

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At the time, Low says, it was hard finding the words to tell his parents.

"Even in the Chinese culture, the word -- they always said openly gay -- but the translation they would use is 'admits.' Like an admission of guilt."

Sen. Ricardo Lara (left) and Assemblyman Evan Low were in a festive mood for LGBT Pride Month. (Scott Shafer/KQED)

Low is a fourth-generation Californian, but when he was growing up "no one talked about LGBT, there was no one on TV so I found myself stumbling through Barnes & Noble getting lost in the gay and lesbian books section."

Now 34 years old and serving his second term in the Assembly, Low says he’s been shaped by those early experiences in his work as a legislator.

For his part, Sen. Lara, 42, is unabashedly liberal. He's one of the lead supporters of SB 562, legislation that would help create a single payer (or "Medicare-for-all") health care system in California. Lara says as a gay man he feels an obligation to tackle big issues, even when they’re controversial.

"We stand on the shoulders of giants that have come before us in the LGBT caucus that have pushed these big issues," Lara said. "As legislators we need to have those discussions but we also have to figure out how to get this [single payer] right."

Like Low, Lara describes his coming out as overcoming isolation.

"Growing up in East L.A., I really didn't see any role models in West Hollywood," Lara says. "All I would see were white men." It was only when he went to college that he met other out Latinos, "with our own gay Latin icons with telenovela stars and singers."

Lara says his coming out was made easier because his youngest brother Vinny came out first.

"He came out with guns ablazing," Lara jokes. "He was like, 'I don't care; I want to go fashion school.'" It was a long process, but Lara says his relationship with his father is on firm footing today.

As legislators, Low and Lara see part of their job as being open to questions from colleagues about their personal stories and how they relate to their thinking on issues.

As Lara puts it, "I’ve had my Republican colleagues come to me sometimes after a heated debate on something that’s passionate for me and say ‘I get it, I understand.’ Because they understand my story, my upbringing and what I care about."

Being openly gay also gives their colleagues in the Legislature a safe place to share family stories -- a sounding board for how to support their LGBT children and other family members.

The LGBT caucus was created 15 years ago by former Sen. Sheila Kuehl and others. Today, the caucus has eight members, including Assemblymember Sabrina Cervantes from Riverside County and Assemblymembers Susan Eggman and Sen. Cathleen Galgiani -- both from Stockton.

In the earliest days of the gay and lesbian rights movement, the leadership was sometimes criticized for being mostly male and white. As Asian and Latino Americans, Low and Lara hope to broaden the movement.

"We're really showing mainstream gay culture that there's a place for us to integrate all our communities into our LGBT caucus movement," Lara said.