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First lesbian leader of California Assembly opens up on LGBT rights

Tuesday, June 17, 2014
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Toni AtkinsAP

Toni Atkins (right) kisses her spouse, Jennifer LeSar, after she was sworn in as the 69th Assembly Speaker at the Capitol in Sacramento, Calif. on May 12, 2014.

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — Assembly Speaker Toni Atkins, the first lesbian to lead a house of the California Legislature, said Tuesday that more work needs to be done to promote tolerance of gays and lesbians, especially in rural America.

The San Diego Democrat, a native of Appalachia, told attendees at the She Shares women’s leadership conference in the state capital that the “most profound” way of advancing equality is coming out and taking small actions that validate being gay.

As an example, she noted the kiss with her spouse, Jennifer LeSar, when she was sworn in as speaker of the 80-member chamber last month. A photo of the kiss ran online and in newspapers across the country, including in the newspaper of her childhood hometown, The Roanoke Times.

She said there was nothing courageous about the kiss, noting that it’s easier to be openly gay in California than in places such as rural Virginia, where she grew up in poverty.

“For that picture to be in the paper in Virginia is important because it gives permission for the speaker of the California state Assembly to be a lesbian and it’s OK,” Atkins said.

She praised as courageous a small town in Kentucky that voted to support equality. The city commission of Vicco, Kentucky, a town of about 300 people with a gay mayor, voted last year to ban discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.

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