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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 smiles as she looks up to friend seated in the Assembly Gallery as she is sworn in as 69th Assembly Speaker by former Assembly Speaker, Rep. Karen Bass, D-Calif., right, at the Capitol in Sacramento, Calif., on May 12, 2014.

Atkins’ political rise in California created little stir, in part because her predecessor, Los Angeles Democrat John Perez, was the first openly gay speaker of the Assembly. The 120-member Legislature has eight openly gay and lesbian lawmakers and often backs laws supported by LGBT groups.

Even in recent years, California hasn’t always been receptive to gay and lesbian equality. Two years before Atkins was elected to the Legislature, in 2010, Californians narrowly voted in favor of Proposition 8 to ban same-sex marriage. It has since been overturned by the federal courts.

“We don’t have full equality,” Atkins said. “Even in California, there are places and towns … that I probably wouldn’t feel very comfortable taking Jennifer’s hand.”

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Atkins has identified homelessness, affordable housing and health care as priorities, which she says is motivated by her roots growing up in a house without running water and a family that lacked health insurance.

She has carried some legislation favored by lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender groups, including a bill that would allow transgender Californians’ death certificates to reflect the gender they lived as.

Early in her remarks, Atkins took a jab at Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who recently compared homosexuality to alcoholism during a Commonwealth Club event in San Francisco.

“I am not addicted to anything — well, other than coffee,” Atkins quipped when her interviewer brought up Perry. “I thank Gov. Perry for being concerned about me, though.”

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