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Feinstein Talks about Marriage, Milk

by Matthew S. Bajko
Thursday Nov 1, 2012

Facing the easiest political race of her career, Senator Dianne Feinstein is set to win a fourth full term in November.

It is a remarkable situation for the Democratic politician, who in 2011 appeared vulnerable to a Republican challenger as polling showed her popularity plunging among Californians. Yet none of the state's better-known GOP leaders opted to take on Feinstein, a former San Francisco mayor who won a special election for her Senate seat in 1992.

In the end the GOP nominated Danville resident Elizabeth Emken, an autism activist, to take on the formidable Feinstein, who has refused to debate her opponent. Polls have shown the little known Emken trailing in the race by 20 points or more.

Feinstein has been sitting down for editorial board meetings with newspapers throughout the state, and for the first time since she went to Washington, D.C., she agreed to meet with the staff of the Bay Area Reporter for a wide-ranging, 90-minute interview.

The bulk of the conversation focused on her bill seeking to repeal the federal ban against same-sex marriage and this year's presidential race. The two are intertwined, as whoever holds the White House will determine if her push to repeal the Defense of Marriage Act will gain traction next year.

President Barack Obama endorsed Feinstein's Respect for Marriage Act even before he publicly came out in support of marriage equality in May. His opponent, former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, opposes same-sex marriage.

Speaking to the B.A.R. Thursday, October 11, a few days after Obama's lethargic appearance in the first presidential debate, Feinstein disclosed that she is "very concerned" about the race.

"I think it is very close," she said. "The so-called battleground states are very close and within the margin of error in the polls. I am really not a fan of Mitt Romney ... well, I don't think there has been a lot of truth-telling."

Re-electing Obama "is vital," said Feinstein, not only for pushing forward on LGBT rights but for a whole host of issues, from women's rights and health care to America's standing in the world.

"President Obama has restored a positive face of this nation worldwide. Wherever he goes, he is virtually very well-accepted," said Feinstein, who sits on the Senate Intelligence Committee. "He has given the U.S. a new lease on life after the Bush presidency."

Able to attract 33 co-sponsors for her DOMA repeal bill, Feinstein intends to re-introduce it next session. She was one of 14 senators who initially voted against the anti-gay law in 1996.

"In my view it violated the equal protection clause of the Constitution, which says you can not discriminate against one category of a group. If you have marriage everybody is due that right," said Feinstein.

Her bill would clarify that same-sex couples allowed to legally wed by a state would be covered by the 1,100 federal rights granted to married people. It would have no impact on the state level laws banning same-sex marriages.

"It is pretty simple and I think makes sense," said Feinstein. "It is very important. It's a fight and it is very hard."

Her own views on the subject have evolved over time, said Feinstein. When she was growing up marriage was only seen as being a union between a man and a woman.

"Even when I went into political life, that was the way it was. It takes time," she said. "I think as you know more people, and know more people who are happily married, our views change."

There is a chance that the U.S. Supreme Court could strike down DOMA next year if it decides to hear several federal lawsuits where lower courts have found the law to be unconstitutional. Feinstein said she would still "love to have a vote in the Senate. But it is a long, long road."

She noted that it has taken her up to 11 years in certain cases to enact legislation, "so you can't expect to see this happen overnight."

Facing a "long, hard slog" to repeal DOMA is why she has yet to sign on to other federal legislation that would assist bi-national couples seeking American citizenship for the foreign-born partner. Feinstein said she worries doing so could complicate her efforts to get the 60 votes she needs to pass the DOMA repeal bill out of the Senate.

"I don't want to confuse it with anything," said Feinstein.

Back in 2004 Feinstein faced criticism from LGBT activists when she spoke out against then-Mayor Gavin Newsom's decision to marry same-sex couples. Her calling Newsom's move "too much, too fast, too soon," led to Feinstein's being given a Pink Brick award by the Pride committee.

Feinstein told the B.A.R. she was unaware of her getting the dubious honor. She said she remains convinced that Newsom was mistaken and that his actions "brought on Prop 8," the voter-approved ballot measure banning same-sex marriage in California.

"I don't believe in selective enforcement of the law," she said. "To just announce you are going to violate the law, I don't agree with, and Gavin knows this. But that is old history."

As for her participating in a future Pride parade, Feinstein ruled it out, noting she stopped riding in any parade once she stepped down as mayor.

"Been there, done that," she said.

Feinstein recalls Milk, AIDS epidemic

During her meeting with the B.A.R., Feinstein did weigh in on several local issues and opened up, a bit, about the 1978 assassinations of Harvey Milk, San Francisco's first gay supervisor, and then-Mayor George Moscone by disgruntled former supervisor Dan White.

At the time president of the Board of Supervisors, Feinstein was one of the first people to discover Milk's body in City Hall. It also fell to her to announce the shocking news to the media and public.

Even now, 34 years later, Feinstein does not like to dwell on that horrific time. Nor has she been able to bring herself to watch the Oscar-winning biopic Milk.

Asked to reflect on her impressions of the now iconic gay rights leader, Feinstein at first responded, "It is still a very painful chapter for me."

In the beginning White and Milk had a cordial relationship, recalled Feinstein, noting that the two would have coffee in the Castro once a week.

"They were very close," she said. "Dan depended on Harvey."

She described Milk as "a sort of Puckish character," referring to the sprite in Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream, who "mixed it up a lot." White, on the other hand, "was very serious. I think he was truly a manic depressive," she recalled.

She said when a jury later convicted White of manslaughter rather than murder for the deaths of Milk and Moscone, it was "a big surprise for all of us."

"It was planned. He cleaned his gun," said Feinstein.

The subsequent rioting sparked by the verdict "was terrible," recalled Feinstein, who in 1979 won election to a full-term as mayor.

During her tenure AIDS began to ravage the city's gay male population. Feinstein still remembers the day when Dr. Mervyn Silverman, then director of San Francisco's Department of Public Health, first came to her in 1981 to report about patients turning up with purple lesions.

"I said to him, go out and find out what it is. That was the beginning," she said.

Following her re-election in 1983, in a still controversial move, Feinstein led the campaign to close the city's bathhouses as one way to stop the spread of the killer disease. Over the years, with AIDS no longer a death sentence, some gay men have argued the city's prohibition against bathhouses is outdated and should be ended.

Asked if she would oppose the reopening of the bathhouses, Feinstein replied, "That is right."

The impact of the AIDS epidemic on the city is another painful chapter for Feinstein, who said she "lost a lot of friends" to the disease.

"I will never forget going to the U.S. Conference of Mayors and trying to set up a task force on AIDS and nobody wanted to do it. San Francisco really became an information clearinghouse for the nation," said Feinstein.

More than 30 years later, with hopes for finding a cure to AIDS increasing, "I just say, 'Thank God,'" said Feinstein.

She also predicted that San Francisco in the not-so-distant future would elect an LGBT person to be mayor. Several out candidates have tried to achieve that honor but have yet to cinch the deal with the voters.

"I have no doubt that is going to happen one day," said Feinstein.

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