John A. Pérez, the first openly gay Speaker of the California State Assembly, spoke at a panel discussion about LGBT issues and the upcoming election cycle Tuesday evening at the University Club. The event was organized by the USC Lambda LGBT Alumni Association.
Pérez joined a panel of four that included two USC faculty members — Rebecca Brown, the Rader Family Trustee Chair in Law at the Gould School of Law, and Larry Gross, professor of the Annenberg School of Communication and Journalism — as well as USC alumnus, Brian Calle, ’05, opinion editor for the Orange County Register and Press-Enterprise and Melissa Gibbs, ’10, a strategy and communications consultant.
The panel was moderated by Director of the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics Dan Schnur. He began by addressing his personal connection to LGBT issues.
“I worked in partisan politics for many years, but some years ago switched my party registration to independent,” Schnur said. “I made that decision for a number of reasons, foremost among them the topic that has brought us here for our conversation tonight.”
Pérez also touched upon his experience with partisanship in the California State Assembly. He was elected in November of 2008, around the same time Proposition 8, a referendum banning same-sex marriage in California, passed.
“Five or so years before I got to office, it was decided that we could not celebrate LGBT pride on the floor of the state capital,” Pérez said.
In March of 2010, he brought the Gay Men’s Choir of Los Angeles to Sacramento to fill the floor and sing classic American tunes. Pérez and Schnur agreed that it was efforts to humanize the issue of LGBT rights, which made public opinion on marriage equality change so drastically in a few short years.
“We found that people involved themselves because of relationships with family members and close friends who were gay,” Pérez said. “That coupled with technology brought attention to the issue in a more expedited way.”
Pérez also explained that he believes marriage equality is only the starting point for LGBT rights. Employment and housing discrimination, he says, contribute to the larger problem of LGBT inequality.
“Yes, I can get married,” Pérez said. “But if my marriage is public, I can lose my job.”
The panel touched upon the idea of changing the conversation around LGBT issues.
“The issue is that we get so consumed with our own messaging,” Gibbs said. “We should be looking at the opponent’s side. That’s not easy to do. But it’s not easy for those people to come out in support for LGBT issues.”
Alumni in attendance appreciated the diversity of opinions and the variety of backgrounds represented on the panel.
“I particularly liked the fact they had panelists from all different areas. They had individuals who were working in the community,” Gould School of Law alumnus David Bohner said. “That to me brought all the different perspectives together.”
Panelists also discussed the likelihood that LGBT issues, such as marriage equality and employment discrimination, will show up on the political agenda for the 2016 election.
“I think it’s going to rear it’s ugly head in the primaries,” Calle said. “If we publicize people like Kim Davis, it’s going to become an issue.”
Many agreed that LGBT issues are now political issues that society is unwilling to ignore.
“They really touched upon the fact that LGBT is everywhere,” Thornton School of Music alumnus Ryan Mantione said. “It’s not just .01 percent of the population.”
Last year, the USC Lambda LGBT endowment awarded more than $60,000 in scholarship money for LGBT and ally students.
“Tonight’s program represents new ground for USC Lambda,” Director Todd Kimmelman said. “We have never hosted a panel discussion like this in our 23-year history.”