Connecting the Dots
Activist, comedian and California legislator Tom Ammiano talks about a half century of breaking down barriers
by Larry Buhl
Photographed Exclusively for A&U by Sean Black
Tom Ammiano first came to my attention about twenty years ago. I was visiting San Francisco and I was at Josie’s Cabaret and Juice Joint. Tom was doing a stand-up comedy act, but he was introduced as one of the city’s Board of Supervisors. As I laughed at one-liners about well-hung juries and the imagined sexual proclivities of Tattoo from Fantasy Island, a thought gnawed at me: How can you do raunchy gay stand-up comedy and be a serious politician? You just…can’t do both, can you?
Young, orthodox Larry didn’t understand then that things work differently in San Francisco and that Tom Ammiano has not given a flying fig about what’s proper since long before Larry was aware of anything.
Ammiano moved to San Francisco from New Jersey in the late 1960s and worked with disabled children at the Recreational Center for the Handicapped. In 1975, he cofounded the Gay Teachers Caucus and successfully pushed to include sexual orientation in the San Francisco School District’s nondiscrimination policy. In the process he became one the city’s first openly gay teachers. Two years later, he, along with Harvey Milk and Hank Wilson, co-founded the “No on 6” campaign and beat back the Briggs initiative that would push LGBT teachers out of California schools.
Ammiano’s activism propelled him to election to the Board of Education in 1990. In 1994, he won a seat on the Board of Supervisors. One of his first actions on the board was to convene AIDS activists and administrators from Kaiser Permanente to explore the HMO’s alleged homophobic treatment of AIDS patients. The issue was personal: his partner, Tim Curbo, had just died of AIDS-related causes just three days before Ammiano was elected to the Board. A few years later he helped to create an ordinance that made San Francisco the first city in the nation to provide universal healthcare access, and he vehemently protested the ousting of renters with HIV/AIDS.
Tom spent most of the past decade in the California Assembly, butting heads with two governors and recalcitrant Democrats and Republicans, to push forward a progressive legislative agenda. He introduced a landmark marijuana regulation bill, the Marijuana Control, Regulation, and Education Act to create a regulatory structure for pot similar to that for alcohol. He passed bills addressing the prevention of drug overdoses, allowing for electronic distribution of EIRs, improving wrap-around services for foster youth, decreasing costs in the criminal justice system, and a landmark law to protect sex workers from prosecution for carrying condoms. In 2013 his K–12 transgender rights bill, letting students choose the restroom that matched their gender identity, became law.
Not only has he fought for progressive policies on HIV/AIDS, LGBTQ rights, affordable housing, immigrants rights, labor, criminal justice reform, he’s insisted that colleagues and the public connect the dots between all of them.
We spoke in mid-November as Tom was preparing for an extended run of his one-man show, days after an election threatened, on the national level at least, many of the issues he’s been fighting for in California.
Larry Buhl: So. That election happened. What now?
Tom Ammiano: It’s hard to wake up and realize what the impact of this could be. In my life we’ve gone through some political setbacks. This one, no pun intended, trumps them all. People say we survived Reagan but some of us didn’t. I don’t think anything has been quite as embarrassing as this. At this stage in my life, and I’m going to be 75 in a couple of weeks, I was hoping for a little more pleasant exit music if you get my drift. Nothing is linear. But this Trump thing is like a roller coaster, dropping a thousand feet before you climb back up.
At least California is an island of progressivism, right?
Well, on the coasts, yes. What I’m recognizing as someone older and watching things become movements, like immigration and health care, there’s a lot of queer energy and they’re mostly young.
In Sacramento there were a lot of DINOS, Democrats in Name Only, and I was able to get bills out that would not ordinarily be generated from the vast majority of Democrats, around immigration, transgender, the disabled, social justice issues, legalization of marijuana. The Democratic party has been very shy about going full tilt boogie on these issues.
In the Assembly you had clashes with Governor Brown. What did it take to bring him around?
Jerry Brown respects persistence. So when he vetoed two bills of mine, one on domestic workers which is mostly a Latina issue, and the other on immigration reform, stopping racial profiling through ICE, the second time around he signed them. He’s also a crafty politician. Also I wouldn’t shut up, and I had tremendous support. I don’t want to take too much credit. All of this was a strong team effort. I learned this from my early days, from my activism. You’ve gotta do things in a coalition.
Harvey Milk recognized the suffering of other demographics. He always connected the dots. I thought that was the way to go. I am a subscriber to the gay liberation and one of the ideas coming out of that was connecting with others and not silo-ing yourself. If you look at many social justice issues, environment, healthcare, gay rights, and trans, politicians don’t recognize the issue of poverty in those issues.
Your lover Tim instituted the AIDS education program in the San Francisco school. And you kept it going?
He was a revered classroom teacher in the Mission district. We got a grant to spread education about HIV/AIDS. I got condoms in the school when I was on the school board. This was having it in the curriculum, recognizing World AIDS Day, getting involved with the Quilt. And there was a shitstorm around it. Many of the parents were alarmist.
Flash forward to your time as supervisor, protesting loss of housing for people with HIV/AIDS in the city. Where is that issue now?
Today there are activists in housing working on that. It’s the AIDS Housing Alliance. Back then it was, ‘Where do you even report this?’ and the Board of Supervisors was a little clueless. Our housing crisis is phenomenal here. It dwarfs everything. People with HIV bear the brunt of this. It’s far from perfect but I think they’ve made good progress in getting specialized housing. Until we solve our overall housing crisis, people with HIV are vulnerable.
When you talk to people about gay rights, you can move them in terms of them recognizing you shouldn’t be fired, they don’t connect the dots that if you support the affordable housing initiative you also support gay people. If you support affordable health care you also support LGBT people.
What you said about silos and connecting the dots makes sense. HIV/AIDS in society now is long past being a silo issue.
Yes and it’s a shrinking world. What’s happening in other places reflects on us if we’re too laid back about it. Here we still have to pay attention to the economically challenged people. I don’t think they’re benefitting in the same way from enlightened HIV/AIDS policy. And then there’s young people who think they’re immortal. I get it. They didn’t see the worst of [the HIV/AIDS] crisis. They didn’t feel it. But I still want to slap them. But we gotta mentor them. When they seroconvert even then they’re a little cavalier. We can’t get smug. It’s definitely not over.
Recreational pot will now be legal in California. You’ve long been in favor of taxing pot. Happy?
I’m happy but the proposition is imperfect. I saw pot as a palliative at many deathbeds in terms of appetite and nausea and pain management. But in the legislature nobody wanted to touch it. I came up with regulations to protect patient rights. There were cartels taking over. There were abuses in the system, which made you vulnerable to law enforcement. There are factions, there’s the growers, a lot to contend with. But I was gratified with what we did accomplish. The proposition that just passed is not perfect. It barely passes the smell test. But one good thing is, it talks about sentencing reform, which alleviates some social injustice.
Marijuana is not the third rail anymore. It’s important this passed even with its imperfections. We’ll never get anything until we at least get the legalization part out of the way.
Speaking of third rails, you were never shy about controversy. Like the “condoms as evidence” bill. But what came out of it was a compromise, that law enforcement couldn’t use one condom but could use two condoms to prosecute.
I know it sounds ridiculous and I think it was absurd, but considering we started from zero, it’s something. And at least it gets people talking and engaged about the issue. We got what we got and we need to do more. It puts the sex worker in an impossible place. If you don’t have condoms then you’re much more likely to contract HIV and if you do have them they can be used as evidence of prostitution, to jail you and convict.
There’s a high HIV rate among sex workers and there’s the down-low phenomenon where the john contracts an STD and goes back and gives it to his wife. All of that is real and happening. We had some success in San Francisco but on the state level it’s very dicey.
What kills you the most is when you see the flicker of recognition from your colleagues about why something is necessary and the right thing to do but they can’t bring themselves to support you. That’s frustrating. There was one guy who would never vote for anything, and then he would whisper to me, “stay strong!” Well, where were you?
We’re trying to get safe injection sites now. We have had some success with some of the people in the mayor’s administration. We had the same setbacks with needle exchange, but we figured out the board of supervisors could declare an emergency around HIV/AIDS and then you could have two weeks of needle exchange, and then the board would have to pass the resolution again, until finally needle exchange is accepted. It is part of the state law now. Sometimes you have to go through theatrics.
Pulling the levers of politics.
[Laughs] Right. Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain.
It’s pseudo-piety, simplistic-morality shit; whenever you go to help someone involved in something highly disapproved by society, they’ll say you’re enabling these people. Even giving out condoms. When I was on the school board, I pushed for condoms in the school and of course teens are sexually active, and the head of the PTA said having condoms in the school is akin to sexual abuse.
Or sex education, that’s just giving them ideas.
Is some of this in your show?
The show is about my take with irony and satire and snark about my six years in Sacramento. There are some autobiographical things, but that’s more part of the architecture of the narrative. In the close there is some more personal history but very little personal history. There are many situations where you could laugh or cry but I think it’s better to laugh.
My humor tends to be political. It’s always been topical, social satire. And when I was in Sacramento I would sometimes just make a quip in the moment.
Did that make it hard for other lawmakers to take you seriously?
Sometimes. In the beginning it’s hard to be taken seriously because you’re gay or your voice is high or have ideas they’re threatened by. A lot of gay men face this. Some people have thought that if I’m queeny or I’m funny then I must not be serious. But I’m deadly serious.
Larry Buhl is a radio news reporter, screenwriter, and novelist living in Los Angeles. Follow him on Twitter @LarryBuhl.