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California Senate Taps Lesbian Leader For First Time In History

For the first time in history, an openly LGBTQ politician will be the highest-ranking member of the California Senate.

Sen. Toni Atkins (D-San Diego) will take over as Senate president pro tem from fellow Kevin de Leon (D-Los Angeles), who is stepping down from his post to challenge longtime Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the U.S. Senate’s oldest member.

This is the second time that Atkins had made it into the record books in recent years. In 2014, she became the first lesbian politician to lead the California State Assembly, the lower house of the legislature. Before earning that title, Atkins served on the San Diego City Council until 2008 and briefly served as the city’s interim mayor amid the 2005 pension crisis. She was first elected to the Senate in 2016.

The daughter of a coal miner whose mother cooked their meals on a wood stove during her childhood, Atkins has come a long way from the days where running water and indoor plumbing were a luxury her family couldn’t afford.

Following a unanimous vote from her colleagues in January, the Senator will assume her new title on Wednesday.

As the California State Legislature grapples with sexual misconduct allegations involving Sen. Tony Mendoza (D-Artesia), who resigned in February, and the potential recall of Sen. Josh Newman (D-Fullerton), Atkins told the Associated Press her goal is to restore order to the lawmaking body.

“I think you’re going to see my focus will be internally so you’re not going to get any big pronouncements,” she claimed on Sunday.

But prior to the scandal, Atkins was more effusive about what the opportunity means in a December statement released to the media. She said her goal was to build a “brighter future for the Californians we represent.”

“Given our national divisions, California’s example is more important than everand I look forward to working with our president pro tem and all of our colleagues to ensure that the Senate continues to rise together to meet the challenges faced by the great people we represent,” Atkins claimed in a press release.

LGBTQ advocates heralded the milestone at a time when queer and trans people widely lack representation at any level of politics.

Just .1 percent of elected officials are LGBTQ, according to a December report released by the Victory Fund. At the time the survey was released, just 257 elected officials were openly gay, while just 168 were lesbian. Even though bisexuals make up the largest population in the LGBTQ community, just eight politicians in the entire U.S. are openly bisexual.

“It’s important that she has shattered yet another glass ceiling,” Equality California Executive Director Rick Zbur told Capitol Weekly.

“Electing role models like Senator Atkins is important to the LGBTQ community because it sends a clear message to our community across the country, particularly LGBTQ youth, that LGBTQ people can achieve anything,” Zbur continued.

The 55-year-old politician has been a fierce advocate for LGBTQ rights since being seated in the Senate two years ago. In 2017, Atkins authored two groundbreaking bills in the California Legislature. State Bill 179 creates a third-gender option on state IDs, while State Bill 310 would streamline the name change process for transgender people who are incarcerated. These processes are extremely difficult behind bars.

“Transgender people who are incarcerated should have the same right as anyone else to legally change their name or gender and to be recognized for who they are,” Atkins said last May. “In addition to providing transgender prisoners with a sense of dignity while incarcerated, SB 310 will give them a better chance to reenter society successfully.”

Gov. Jerry Brown signed SB 179 into law in October 2017. SB 310 has yet to reach the governor’s desk, despite passing the Senate.

Colleagues credited Atkinswho beat out Sens. Bob Hertzberg (D-Los Angeles) and Connie Leyva (D-Chino) of Los Angelesas someone who would continue making history. After her induction ceremony, she will be the first person of any sexual orientation to serve as both speaker of the Assembly and Senate president pro tem in almost 150 years.

“For someone who has achieved historic milestones over her career, I know this one is particularly special,” said Senate Minority Leader Patricia Bates (R-Laguna Niguel) in a statement, calling her a “formidable political force.”

“I’m thrilled that after over 100 years, when I walk down that corridor leading to the Senate floor that there will be a woman’s portrait there on the wall,” added Sen. Holly Mitchell (D-Los Angeles) in a comment to the Associated Press. “I’m really excited to be a sitting member of the Senate when we make history.”

Photo via Gary Friedman/Getty Images

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