Elizabeth Emken: The making of an anti-gay politician

The vision stays with me, even after all these years. I’m in junior high, and I’ve just looked into the eyes of an overweight girl, having just delivered a devastatingly cruel blow. Her bright blue eyes, haunted and broken, serve as lingering reminders of how destructive words can be, and I’ve often wished I could take that moment back.

Little did I know that girl, Elizabeth Emken, would years later run for public office, in an attempt to unseat California Senator Dianne Feinstein.

Today, she campaigns on an anti-gay platform, forcing me to wonder if my cutting remarks played any role in influencing the person she would become, and how she could come to take such a stance, given the many gay friends she once had.

Elizabeth Emken

Despite our rocky start, once we arrived at Los Alamitos High School, Elizabeth and I would go on to become friends, and she introduced me to what I called the “choir gang.” This rag-tag band would never be the popular folks, but instead was united by both talent and outsider status.

As Cheryl Bhence, now a married mother of two, notes, “We were all misfits, so we all kind of fit together like a puzzle.” While all members of the group were equals, Emken, in many ways, was the wheel’s center spoke.

“I remember that Elizabeth was kind and had the capacity to be vulnerable, a quality I still admire in people,” says Neil Fischer, who now lives in the Bay Area. “There was also something steely and resourceful about her. She laughed easily and seemed utterly accepting of who I was, at the time.”

While Fischer wasn’t yet out to himself, in the years following high school, almost all of the male members of this group would come out as gay, myself included. This long list included Emken’s best friend, David Alexander Diaz, making Emken’s current anti-marriage equality views more than a bit puzzling.

David and Elizabeth attended proms and winter formals together, and were so close that Elizabeth even named her son Alex, in his honor.

Diaz first met Elizabeth as a freshman, when he auditioned for the school play, on which she was the student director. “We very quickly connected and bonded, becoming best friends,” Diaz recalls. At that time, Diaz had not yet come out as gay. “While I was aware that I had feelings towards men, I couldn’t imagine that being gay was even an option for me.”

When Emken introduced Diaz to this group of choir folks, he felt immediately welcomed. He wasn’t yet aware that most of the men in the group were gay, but “I knew they were like me on some level. These were guys who loved theater and music, and didn’t much care for sports. We were aware of our commonalities, but our sexuality was never acknowledged.”

“I remember all their smiles,” notes Fisher. “All those guys had such easy, generous smiles.”

Top row (from left): Elizabeth Emken, Maria Simeone, David Diaz, Cheryl Bhence, Diana Gregory, Scott Maher. Bottom row: Felicia Weisbrot Berschauer, Bill Boyson, Craig Swartz (now Emken’s husband), Kathy Pierce.
Photo courtesy David Diaz.

There were times when the group’s outsider status led to name-calling. Cheryl Bhence recalls that the men in the group were often teased about being gay. “At the time, none of them had yet come out, so I remember spending effort to defend their sexuality, which I had assumed was hetero. Knowing they were gay wouldn’t have changed my perspective of any of them; I just wouldn’t have had to stand up for them to the hecklers.”

For most of the men, sexuality was not yet on their radar. “I was not entirely aware of what it meant to have a gay identity, nor that such an identity was developing in me,” says Fischer. “At the time, I had no idea how to explore whatever gay stirrings I allowed to come to the surface of my consciousness. In high school, I had crushes on other boys that did not involve sexual fantasies, because I wouldn’t let my mind go there.”

“I was still pretty innocent back then,” Diaz recalls. “Most of the guys were dating the girls, escorting them to prom and other functions, and I guess I pretty much took things at face value. They were dating girls, so must have been straight, right?”

Part of what allowed such assumptions to continue was that, by and large, the group was both close-knit and wholesome. “I have so many wonderful memories,” says Bhence. “I remember the volleyball-a-thon: we played for 24 hours straight to raise money to pay for our choir tour up the California coast. But probably the weekend nights were the best, when we would hang out at one of our houses, eat M&Ms and chips with onion dip, and play silly kid games like Hide & Seek and Red Rover.”

This was not a party or gossip crowd, where the absence of actual sexual activity might have been noticed, which made it a safe place for the gay men still finding their way. “While other kids might have been out on weekends, getting drunk, we were all at someone’s house, playing Risk all night,” Diaz remembers. “All of our activities were silly, fun-filled, and wholesome.”

“We shared the ability to have fun without substances, like alcohol or drugs,” Bhence notes, going on to elaborate that she “had a terrible crush on [one of the boys], but I never told him in high school, as he always seemed interested in other girls; he took various girls to each of the formal dances.”

This focus on friendship and innocent fun helped give cover to the men, struggling to understand their sexuality, while their attendance with the women at events allowed the women to believe that the men were indeed straight.

“I hoped and wanted to be straight, and just assumed that, at some point, it would happen,” Diaz relates. “I had an ideal woman in my mind, and just felt that I’d meet her and everything would fall into place.”

While that may have been his goal, Diaz found himself confused when Emken expressed her love for him, thinking that the two should be a couple. He elaborates that when he told Emken that he didn’t feel the same, they found their friendship challenged. “Elizabeth is an aggressive and assertive woman, and she was then as well. She couldn’t understand how we could have such a strong bond, and yet me not feel the same desires she did.”

Elizabeth and David Diaz, Senior Prom 1981
Photo courtesy David Diaz.

Even with this new challenge, Emken and Diaz didn’t sever ties. Caught between friendship and the question of something deeper, the two pushed through an intense season of figuring out who they were – talking constantly, writing letters, and sharing hopes and dreams.

“I cared deeply for her and would have liked to be what she saw me as,” Diaz said. “But there was a part of me that I compartmentalized, which was the experience of attraction to men.”

Prior to her friendship with Diaz, Emken had a similarly intense friendship with Tim Radi, a fellow member of the group, not realizing that he too would later come out as gay. “It was the same pattern as with me,” Diaz states. “She had intense feelings for him, but he didn’t want to date her. It was as if history were repeating itself.”

While some of their issues were about the degrees of friendship each desired, other obstacles for Emken and Diaz’ friendship included her mother. “Elizabeth’s parents were divorced,” he notes, “and her mother was very difficult. To be perfectly blunt, she was prejudiced, and the fact that I am of Cuban heritage was looked down on in her family. That was the first time in my life I was discriminated against for being Hispanic.”

At the time, Emken was furious with her mother’s treatment of Diaz, and he notes the irony that today Emken herself views him, politically, as a second-class citizen. “She’s become a lot more like her mother than even she’d admit.”

Not only were Emken’s two high school sweethearts unable to return her love, but one of them later died, with Radi’s death from AIDS being the first such death many in the group had experienced. “A bunch of us had a personal memorial for him at his graveside,” Bhence remembers. “At the time, his family didn’t seem ready to accept his diagnosis, so we didn’t pressure them to explain things to us.”

Still, Emken was always supportive of Diaz’s sexual journey. After high school, Diaz began to “act out” sexually through anonymous encounters, leaving Diaz frightened, ashamed and confused, and he sought Emken’s advice. She seemed to believe, as many do, that being gay was something Diaz could control. “She wasn’t judgmental,” Diaz said. “She just saw my actions as something I could simply stop, if I really tried.”

The next year, Diaz came out to Emken, acknowledging his orientation in full. “She was very loving and accepting, which makes her stance today hurt all the more,” Diaz said.

Years later, when he became HIV-positive at age 30, Diaz again confided in Emken. Her support never wavered, but their friendship began to wane.

“During that brief window in the Prop 8 battle when gay marriages in California were legal, my partner and I got married. Elizabeth was entirely supportive, treating us as equals.”

Prior to her political debut, Emken was mainly a stay-at-home mom, who both worked with an autism agency, because her son Alex is autistic, and sold Tupperware. “The drive you see in Elizabeth today has always been there. In typical Elizabeth-fashion, she became one of the state’s best Tupperware salespeople. And we ended up having a big gay Tupperware party at our house, including Elizabeth’s college roommate, who is lesbian, and her wife, with Elizabeth presiding over the entire event.”

Given their close relationship and the many life moments they experienced together, it came as a shock to Diaz when he learned of Emken’s candidacy platform. “I got a very timid email from Elizabeth, where she shared, almost apologetically, that she was running for public office. While I normally would have been thrilled, I was thoroughly confused when I went to her website and saw where she stood on the issues. Among her many policy points, she noted that marriage should only be between a man and a woman. I felt like I’d been kicked in the stomach.”

While Diaz had long known of her conservative roots, Emken’s public stance confused him. “I’d always known that she was a Republican,” he acknowledges. “I knew of her mother’s more staunch views, and that Elizabeth was fiscally conservative, but somehow I’d allowed myself to believe that Elizabeth would be a different kind of Republican.”

“I kept thinking, ‘but we’re friends, Elizabeth,’” Diaz recalls. “I couldn’t rationalize how she could have taken that position.”

Diaz reached out, via email, in an attempt to understand her actual belief, only to be met with silence. “I told her I was thrilled for her, seeking a political office, as I’d always known she was meant for great things. Still, I also told her how hurt I was, as part of her platform was designed to deny me my basic rights, and asked her to explain how she’d come to this anti-gay stance. Realizing that she may not want to put such thoughts in writing, I asked her to call me, so we could talk it over, but that phone call never came.”

Given her friendship with those in the group, Diaz was not the only one upset by her viewpoint. “It’s sad to me that she has decided to side with those who want to deny gays the right to legally marry,” says Fischer. “There is the usual cynical assumption: she has taken this position for political expediency; she believes she cannot represent the Republican base of her party without touting one of its most visible platforms; she cannot win the November election unless she shows herself to be as contrary to Feinstein as possible.”

“The list of people she betrayed with this stance is a long one. It includes me, her best friend, as well as every guy in our high school group, and her college roommate. It makes no sense,” Diaz notes. “Still, there was a part of me that held out hope; that I’d misunderstood her, and that there was a more subtle, nuanced approach to her belief that hadn’t been properly expressed.”

“I lost such sleep over this,” he confides. “I cried, late at night, feeling so betrayed.”

It would be over a year until Diaz received a response. “I got an email, with a link to an article titled something like ‘Republicans Finally Coming Around to Gay Marriage,’ with a very short note that said ‘Look–there is progress being made!’”

While Diaz appreciated her support, he wasn’t interested in how other Republicans viewed same-gender marriage; it was her view which mattered, and he again reached out for clarification.

It was only then that Diaz got a more lengthy response. Emken sent an email, saying that she couldn’t understand how her policy points had become an issue between them. “’No matter what your political beliefs,’ she said, ‘I will always be your friend,’” Diaz remembers.

“But as I replied to her, ‘Imagine, for a moment, if I were a black person, and you were running on a racist platform. Can you see how that might be an issue?’ No matter what our relationship had been, there are certain things in life that are deal-breakers. As I wrote to her, ‘If you are using a wedge issue like this simply to gain power, I can’t support that. I have more self-esteem than that.’ And that was the end of our communication.”

When asked to describe Emken, as she was when they first met, Diaz uses words such as driven and ambitious. “Her running for office today is not a surprise to me.” In fact, Diaz recounts the moment he first introduced Emken to his mother. “I distinctly recall my mom saying, ‘That girl could be President, if she wants to be.’”

Despite similar upbringings and experiences the “choir gang” has grown into adulthood with varying worldviews and splintered friendships. As one of the women noted, who wishes to remain anonymous, “I think it has a whole lot less to do with being middle class and one’s religious affiliation, as it has to do with early influences, models, experiences and inclinations. In my case, I was raised in a Catholic home by parents who were passionate and active in issues having to do with social justice, and had an embracing attitude towards learning about and welcoming all walks of life. It’s carried me throughout my life.”

Despite the contrary teachings of her faith, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Bhence says she supports marriage equality. “I’m a member of a church that does not support marriage equality, and yet I still love my church. I think about myself being divorced and remarried, and I’m allowed to do that, but my friend, Bill, who has been with his partner since we graduated high school, isn’t. His relationship is a better tribute to marriage than I am.”

Following the passage of California’s anti-marriage equality measure, Prop 8, Bhence shares, “I remember being in church the Sunday after it passed. I was so discouraged, but I was trying to understand. In my church, we sing a hymn prior to partaking of the Sacrament that represents Christ’s body and blood. On this particular Sunday, the hymn’s scripture was Hebrews 13:4. It says ‘Marriage is honorable in all, and the bed undefiled: but whoremongers and adulterers God will judge.’ The message I got from this is that now may not be the time, but take courage, continue the fight, it will happen.”

“A lesbian couple living together devotedly for the 40 years cannot legally marry, though two drunken straight people can meet in Vegas and hours later walk off with a legitimate marriage license,” Fischer notes. “This kind of absurdity appalls me still.”

In Diaz’ view, Emken should understand the importance marriage holds, given the battle Emken herself fought with her mother when it came time for her own nuptials. “When Elizabeth got married, she actually wanted me to be her ‘best man,’ rather than have a maid of honor, as I was her best friend. But her mother refused, saying it would be ridiculous for a man to be part of the bride’s wedding party,” he recalls. “She had to fight her family to get me into her wedding party, where, as a compromise, I ended up on the groom’s side. Instead of me as her ‘best man,’ Elizabeth had a cousin she wasn’t as close to stand in as maid of honor.”

The girl I first met in junior high is very different from the woman that now stands on California’s political stage. Then she was the victim to my thoughtless taunts because of her weight. She was victim to abandonment from her father and to romantic rejection from gay men. She was resilient and a loving friend, supportive of her gay friend’s journey through life and sexuality. But now, she stands publicly against his right to a legitimate marriage with the man he loves.

While Emken won’t comment on how she became the woman she is today, her friends, although angry and confused, still hold kind thoughts of her.

“I don’t demonize her. Mostly, I feel sad for her,” Fischer said. “I’d like to know what happened to that competent, compassionate thinker that I knew. She must still hold within her that high school self, the one that befriended so many gay men.”

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