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Anti-Gay CA Pol Got Free Pass on Sexuality Question for Years

by Kilian Melloy
Friday Mar 5, 2010

Prior to California state senator Roy Ashburn's DUI arrest after allegedly leaving a gay bar, and with a male companion in his state-owned vehicle, other politicians and the media had been hearing rumors and questions about whether he might be closeted, or had even spotted him at gay clubs--but they said nothing, despite Ashburn's record on GLBT equality issues.

Ashburn was placed under arrest in the early morning hours of March 3 when a state highway patrolman saw his vehicle swerving. The senator's male companion was not arrested, and there are few details about him currently available. The senator's blood alcohol level tested at nearly twice the legal limit for driving, reported BakersfieldNow.com in a March 4 story that noted that Ashburn, a divorced father of four, had been married for 26 years.

Witnesses placed the senator at popular gay bar Faces shortly before he was taken into police custody, although the staff at Faces said they could not confirm it. The arrest has renewed a debate about closeted politicians who work against the interests of the GLBT community. "To live a secret life and at the same time be attacking the people who you're one of but are too ashamed to admit, that's hypocrisy," said West Sacramento's openly gay mayor, Christopher Cabaldon, in comments to station KOVR. Cabaldon said that he had seen Ashburn at gay spots around town on previous occasions.

A March 4 article at Bakersfield.com looked back at years of rumors and evasive answers from the senator, and questioned how relevant Ashburn's orientation might be in light of the votes he's made.

Ashburn, the article's author said, would not confirm his sexual orientation either way when the journalist contact him last year after receiving a tip that he was gay. "Why would that be anyone's business?" he responded upon being asked in plain terms. "I think there are certain subjects that are simply not relevant and this is one of them. It has no bearing on the job I do."

Some constituents, of course, might say the very same thing when it comes to their rights, including the right to marry--a right that the state granted to gay and lesbian families for half a year in 2008, before voters took it away once more at the ballot box. Ashburn himself put together a rally against marriage equality in 2005, though, the Bakersfield article said, he did no such campaigning in 2008, as the highly divisive campaign waged by supporters of anti-gay ballot initiative Proposition 8 raged across the state. Neither, however, did he lend his support to a state senate resolution condemning Proposition 8.

Ashburn has, however, voted against the establishment of Harvey Milk Day, as well as voting against legislation that would permit the recognition of same-sex marriages granted out of state and opposing anti-gay discrimination legislation. Ashburn told the paper that his voting record simply reflected the will of the conservative district that he represents; gay issues were only part of the whole picture--Ashburn had voted from a conservative perspective on an array of social issues. But still, there were the questions, and the rumors, dating back at least to 2004.

Sitting on the Story?

In the end, the publication did nothing with the tip--until now, when the question of whether Ashburn is himself might be a closeted gay man lent heat to the story about his DUI arrest and the visit he'd made to popular gay club Faces shortly before. The silence of the media and of Ashburn's fellow politicians was decried as "collusion" at GLBT blog JoeMyGod in a March 5 article, in which Cabaldon's comments were cited, and Cabaldon himself critiqued. "That hypocrisy apparently didn't bother Mayor Cabaldon enough to actually fucking say something," the article read. "And you know that if Cabaldon knew, many other queers in Sacramento knew. If I lived in West Sacramento, I'd want to have a long angry talk with my mayor.

"At this moment, I'm not so interested in the detestable Roy Ashburn and his pathetic defense of 'I was voting the way my constituents wanted,' " the blog continued. "As we all know, that is a story we have seen a hundred times... The real story here is the media's collusion and the conspiracy of silence on the part of our own people. Folks, when you know somebody is actively working day and night to thwart the rights of your family, of your people, you fucking say something."

"My concern is not whether he's gay," said Christopher Moore of the Stonewall Democrats Club, an organization that promotes GLBT equality, reported The Associated Press in a March 5 article. "My concern and the Stonewall Democrats' concern is that he continues to vote against bills in the Legislature that would help the LGBT population, and I am also concerned he was driving drunk through the neighborhood which I live in."

One Faces staff member, manager Laurie Bonifield, was cited by website Talking Points Memo as casting some doubt on witness reports that Ashburn had been at the club that night. "Tuesday nights are a very, very huge Latin crowd," said Bonifield. The theme for the night when Ashburn was allegedly at the club was "Miss Gay Latina Sacramento," according to news sources. "We don't see a lot of white guys here on a Tuesday night," added Bonifield. "A white guy would stick out like a sore thumb."

Ashburn was quick to issue an apologetic statement in which he took responsibility for driving dunk, saying, "I am deeply sorry for my actions and offer no excuse for my poor judgment. I accept complete responsibility for my conduct and am prepared to accept the consequences for what I did." However, he did not address the question of his sexuality or his whereabouts prior to his arrest.

Queerty.com injected humor into its reportage, noting that Ashburn stopped for police next to a hotel. "Ashburn was pulled over around 13th Street at L Street, right next to the Sacramento Hyatt Regency," Queerty noted. "We don't know Ashburn's final destination, but a junior suite with his male passenger certainly appears a possibility." In a less jocular vein, the article also made a point about the moral responsibility inherent in public office. "He's an elected public official," the Queerty story read, adding that officials "are held to a higher standard, because they are our representatives in this democracy. We voted to put them there, and they walk all over that respect by breaking the law? These folks don't need to be perfect; we don't expect that. But every single one of them campaigned to some degree on moral character - that they are good enough people to know right from wrong, justice from oppression."

Summarizing Ashburn's voting record, Queerty went on to wonder whether despite his anti-gay political stance, "he feels totally comfortable with The Gays when it comes to getting his rocks off? This is the worst type of lawmaker: The hypocrite who votes against an entire class of people to whom he belongs.

"And if we even hear from a bartender that he's a bad tipper, we'll lose it," Queerty quipped.

Ashburn was not present in the California senate on March 3 or 4. Media sources cited his office as saying that he was on leave.

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Assistant Arts Editor. He also reviews theater for WBUR. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.


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