By Niki D’Andrea, September 2020 issue.
Arizona has a history of LGBTQ politicians on both sides of the aisle dating back to at least 1985, when U.S. Congressman Jim Kolbe (R) was elected (he came out as gay in 1996). He was followed by U.S. Congressman (later Senator) Ken Cheuvront (D) and Tempe mayor Neil Giuliano (then a Republican) in 1994, State Rep. Steve May (R) in 1998, and former U.S. Congresswoman (now Senator) Kyrsten Sinema (D), who became the first openly bisexual member of congress when elected in 2012.
But it wasn’t until three years ago that Arizona got its first LGBTQ Legislative Caucus. It includes founding members State Rep. Daniel Hernandez (District 2), State Rep. Robert Meza (District 30), former State Rep. and current Arizona State Senator Tony Navarette (District 30), and State Rep. César Chávez (District 29) — all of whom identify as gay Latinos. Two more gay legislators joined after the caucus’ founding, State Representatives Arlando Teller (District 7) and Andrés Cano (District 3). All six caucus members are Democrats.
The caucus battles discriminatory bills and pushes legislation to protect the rights of the LGBTQ community — and it has had some major wins. Right now, it’s focused on mobilizing people to vote. and plans to be even more proactive after the November elections on issues like conversion therapy, discrimination in housing, and resources for LGBTQ youth.
“Our group is very inclusive of all Arizona and the diversity — and that’s so healthy and important, not only mentally, but spiritually, too,” Rep. Meza says. “People need to feel that they’re part of a tribe, part of a family, and we wanted to create that. And I think we did.”
The caucus was founded over drinks after a long day. Rep. Hernandez says they jokingly called themselves the “Gay Caucus,” but that night, they decided to make it official. They reached out to the California Legislative LGBT Caucus to learn about their structure. The Arizona LGBTQ Legislative Caucus kicked off on National Coming Out Day in 2017.
“It was important to bring everything together to try and be realistic about the fact that a bunch of gay Latinos do not fully reflect the LGBTQ community. We bring people who have different perspectives from organizations like one•n•ten, Equality Arizona, One Community,” Hernandez says. “These are the groups that are actually on the ground and doing the work and have a better pulse on some of the needs, everything from conversion therapy to looking at how we address issues around employment discrimination and housing discrimination. There have been a lot of moving pieces, but we were self-aware enough to realize that us as a group did not fully represent the entire community, and if we didn’t do more to formalize the process, a lot of voices would be left behind.”
The caucus has claimed a couple major victories in a short time — most notably, achieving the repeal in 2019 of Arizona’s “no promo homo” law, which prohibited HIV- and AIDS-related instruction in schools “that promotes a homosexual lifestyle.”
“After 28 years, we were able to lift the prohibition on talking about the LGBTQ community in Arizona public schools. For a group that’s only six people strong, we’ve been able to build some really strong partnerships with the coalition that we have of activists, organizations, businesses, and other community leaders to make sure that we’re not relying on the goodness of the governor’s hand to not sign terrible laws, but instead killing bills before they get to his or her desk,” Hernandez says.
Another bill killed before it went anywhere was SB 1082, introduced by Republican State Senator Sylvia Allen in January. That bill would have removed “homosexuality” from sex education. It didn’t even advance far enough to be assigned to a committee.
“Over the last few years, you’ve seen this legislature try to go after the LGBTQ community. And when I say, ‘this legislature,’ I really mean more Republican-elected leaders going after the LGBTQ community,” Senator Navarette says. “Just this year, there was a bill sponsored by Representative (Nancy) Barto to ban transgender youth in high schools from participating in sports. As a parent of three high school students, it’s important to me that they’re able to engage in extracurricular activities because that’s part of their development as young people. Thankfully, we were able to defeat it in the Senate and it died there.”
Rep. Chávez says the LGBTQ Legislative Caucus is working toward equity in multiple areas: “As we go into this new era of representation, we’re also seeing that every issue is an LGBTQ issue. Every issue is a Latino or Black issue, right? Education, accessibility to healthcare, infrastructure, economic and workforce development — all of that is in the realm of what our community faces every day.”
The wins, Chávez adds, just empower them to keep working harder. “I’ve been introducing the ban on conversion therapy since my first session, and it’s one that I will continue to introduce until we actually get that in our statute,” he says.
The ban on conversion therapy is a main line for the caucus. Other goals include working to combat housing discrimination, making it easier to change names on birth certificates and marriage licenses, and coordinating with school districts to provide resources for LGBTQ youth.
It’s also trying to diversify. “The caucus is still all men, which is disappointing, but it’s grown because now we have not just gay Latinos, but a gay Native American (Rep. Teller),” Hernandez says. “Hopefully in the next couple of elections, we’ll be able to bring a little bit more diversity into the caucus.”
But the most important thing the caucus is doing leading up to the elections is mobilizing people to vote. “A big priority for us in this election is making sure the LGBTQ community is: one, registered to vote for the general election; two, making sure they’re informed on the candidates, propositions, and the issues that are going to impact them directly; and three, making sure they go out and vote,” Navarette says.
“We’re going to need all citizens to get involved right now,” Meza concurs. “We’re going to need the LGBTQ community to sit on boards and stay attuned to everything — because they’re the future leaders of Arizona and the country.”
Meza says big changes are on the horizon. “I don’t like making predictions, but I do know that each of us are going to be running committees next year, because we’re going to be taking over the State House,” he says. “It’s going to be a paradigm shift for Arizona.”
He adds that lobbying firms are increasingly hiring LGBTQ lobbyists. “Probably the majority of the major lobbying firms are hiring LGBTQ people, and they’re also hiring people of color. For many years, I called it ‘The Blonde Ambition Tour,’” Meza says. “I kept telling them they needed to change way they function or they’re not going to be culturally competent to what’s happening in the environment … and it’s happening. It’s happening literally overnight. The shift is happening very quickly and you’re going to see a different face at the Arizona Capitol. You’re going to see the face of Arizona.”