Organization Honors ‘Trailblazer'

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Tom Brougham has come a long way since he drove around Berkeley in his Volkswagen bus, carrying the banner for the Gay Liberation Front from protest to protest.

And the world has come a long way since he first coined the term "domestic partners" and fought to make Berkeley the first city to give gay and lesbian couples equal benefits as married employees. Hundreds of cities and businesses now recognize domestic partnerships, including Ford Motor Company and General Motors Corporation.

East Bay Pride, a gay organization based in Oakland, chose this year, the 20th anniversary of Berkeley's groundbreaking partner legislation, to honor Brougham with their annual Pride Award.

"Tom's been a long-time unsung hero in the East Bay," says Pete King, president of the board that chose Brougham. "It was about time someone recognized his contributions."

King says the award, which will be presented in November, is also timely because Brougham will retire this year from the Peralta Community College District, where he has represented South Berkeley, Albany and Emeryville for 13 years. When he was first elected, Brougham, who has been described as a "trailblazer" for the gay rights movement, was the first openly gay elected official in the East Bay.

Brougham says it all started in the early 1970s when he went to one of the first meetings of the Gay Liberation Front, shortly after the birth of the gay rights movement. The organization, which formed shortly after a gay riot in New York City, served as the only gay rights organization in Northern California at the time. Everything Brougham and his friends did broke barriers.

"We started meeting together, which, at the time, was pretty radical," Brougham says. "We were thrilled when we met anybody doing anything like what we were doing."

The group took their banner and "crashed" the many political protests in the area, but they were even marginalized by their fellow activists.

"They would glare at us and we would not care," Brougham says with a laugh. "The left was not very tolerant of gay people, either."

But the Gay Liberation Front soon had its first victory, after it organized a boycott of White Horse Inn, a Berkeley gay bar. The bar would not allow activists to sell The Gay Sunshine, a newspaper produced by a local gay commune, inside the premises, causing a political battle within the gay community.

Some of Brougham's friends had an apartment across the street, so as activists picketed at the bar, others set up a party.

"We'd send all the patrons across the street to this wonderful, wild gay party," he says gleefully. "There were way more people at the party. The bar finally gave up in despair."

And so went the first public gay rights demonstration in California. Brougham, then living in a political gay commune himself, says he worked with others to bring education about gay issues into the local schools.

"Kids would get pretty rowdy and excited," he says. "They had never seen gay people before."

But the movement did not exactly go smoothly, so each individual act was significant, Brougham says. People organized discussion groups at friends' houses, called "gay men's raps," which they advertised by slapping stickers on Berkeley lamp posts.

"In those days, literally, the gay movement was basically confined to private spaces," he says. "We were building it room by room, house by house."

Brougham says he worked with the budding Gay Student Union at UC Berkeley to encourage more young gay people to come out of the closet.

Soon, he and other activists formed the Gay Men's Health Collective, part of the Berkeley Free Clinic, to provide counseling and testing for people with sexually transmitted diseases. After fighting to repeal the state's anti-sodomy laws in the mid 1970s, Brougham and civil rights groups helped push for the city to pass a gay rights ordinance.

But when he went to work for the city, Brougham realized that he could not sign up his partner for health benefits, something he saw as extremely hypocritical after the recent passage of the non-discrimination ordinance. This provided the impetus, he says, that led him and his partner to develop the idea of domestic partners, something that even "hardcore" gays thought was too big of a step.

"We wanted something that was descriptive but non-sexual," he says of the term. "We wanted to emphasize the humdrum living-together routine. Those were exciting times. We sort of invented the vocabulary step by step and expanded the consciousness step by step."

The definition he came up with, which is now universally used, was designed to include everything about marriage except sexual orientation. The couple must be more than 18 years old and mentally competent to make a contract. Domestic partners must publically declare the partnership and pledge to be responsible for each other. It was this definition that was passed first by the San Francisco Board of Supervisors.

But U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, mayor of San Francisco at the time, came under intense pressure from the Catholic Church and subsequently vetoed the bill, says Gus Newport, then Berkeley's mayor. So Newport and Brougham learned from San Francisco's mistakes and called up a local progressive Catholic pastor, who endorsed Berkeley's legislation.

"We agreed that we should not get stuck in people's homophobia - that it's our job to serve all human beings," Newport says.

Newport says he is glad Brougham is being honored and that it is important to realize the history of the struggle and the city's hard-earned progress.

"Tom is one of the most complete elected officials, as well as activists, in the Bay Area that I have known in my life," Newport says.

He says Brougham was never very flamboyant, but instead "pragmatic" - someone who "always does his homework." And Brougham admits that he was not born with his outspokenness, describing himself as "your typical quiet, repressed person."

Brougham was also instrumental in organizing the domestic partner registration process, by which the city clerk's office signs up partners, says Darryl Moore, vice president of the East Bay Lesbian Gay Democratic Club. This program was one of the first of its kind in the country.

Moore, who works in Berkeley's Public Works Department, says Brougham not only founded the club but also serves as a constant source of encouragement and advice. Moore will run for Brougham's seat on the Peralta board this year with Brougham's endorsement.

Though he will retire from the board, Brougham, never easily satisfied with the status quo, will keep working. He is employed by the city's Rent Stabilization Board and will continue his gay rights activism.

Brougham says domestic partner benefits are still not available enough and need to be extended to families of gay employees. Homosexuals are still not treated equally in legal battles over child custody and adoption, he says.

But, in its fight for civil unions, the gay rights movement is now taking gay couples one step closer to marriage.

"When I have more time and energy, I think I want to get back to work on domestic partners," he says. "It'll be a long time before we really get complete marriage rights."


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