SACRAMENTO (AP) — A recent run of bills intended to add more protections for gays and lesbians in California has sparked acrimonious debate in the state Assembly and exposed some of the social fissures that divide the two major parties.
Last week, lawmakers approved three bills that apply existing state programs to gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender business owners, government workers and foster children. This week, they will weigh in on what may be the year's signature piece of gay rights legislation, a bill that would prohibit "gay-to-straight" therapy for minors.
Republican lawmakers in the 80-member Assembly are not letting the reforms through quietly, prompting harsh reactions from some of their Democratic counterparts. Assemblyman Tom Ammiano, D-San Francisco, called the Republicans' objections "idiotic drivel."
"It's just infuriating to see, particularly for young people, these very harmful attitudes," he said in a telephone interview. "I'm sick of it."
Tensions were on display Monday when Assemblyman Roger Dickinson, D-Sacramento, introduced a bill that would require the state to track the number of gay and lesbian business owners with which it contracts. California currently collects data on contractors' race, ethnicity and gender.
Assemblyman Chris Norby, R-Fullerton, immediately raised his microphone to object to the collection of personal information, "whether it's immutable characteristics, or those that may be mutable."
Such a bill would "inevitably lead to quotas," he said.
Assemblywoman Linda Halderman, R-Fresno, took up the thread, saying some people would "cheat the system" by lying about their sexual orientation, while others would feel exposed.
"There are people who choose to keep their sexuality private, and this looks like it would disadvantage them," she said.
Dickinson responded that the bill would not allow the state to favor gay-owned businesses. He said the check-off box is necessary to show the importance to the state's economy of businesses owned by gays and lesbians.
After Halderman reaffirmed her concerns, Dickinson appeared to grow annoyed, shaking his head and gesturing with his hands.
"There's no quotas, no path to quotas, no hint or suggestion or scintilla of anything to do with quotas in this legislation," he said.
Ammiano also was visibly upset, arching his eyebrows and speaking quickly.
"This is a group that has been invisible for a long time and contributes to the economy of California, and it's time they took their rightful place. Stop this silly parsing," he said.
The bill passed on a party line vote, with Assemblyman Nathan Fletcher, who recently left the Republican party and became independent as he runs for mayor of San Diego, joining the Democrats.
A few days later, a bill to mandate sexual orientation sensitivity training for foster care parents also passed on party lines.
Norby criticized the legislation as a piece of social engineering that would encourage foster parents to impose a sexual orientation on small children.
"If you've got a 10-year-old foster kid at home, are you really supposed to get the training?" he said in a telephone interview. "I think what this is leading down to is the foster kids themselves are going to be identified as gay or straight."
The tone is noticeably different in the 40-member Senate, where on the same day, lawmakers passed a bill with no opposition clarifying that domestic partners are entitled to the same rights in the public pension system as married spouses.
The lack of debate on the matter prompted Sen. Sam Blakeslee, R-San Luis Obispo, to rise later in the session and note what he called an "uplifting" development regarding domestic partnerships. He called it potentially an "historic" day that should not go unrecognized.
Another historic day may be approaching in the Senate.
A bill by Sen. Ted Lieu, D-Torrance, that would make California the first state in the nation to outlaw gay-to-straight counseling for minors is scheduled for its final committee hearing on Tuesday. It will go to the full Senate if approved.
The practice of "reparative therapy" received national attention when former Republican presidential candidate Michele Bachmann was questioned over whether the Christian counseling business of her husband provided therapies that attempted to change gays and lesbians.
The three bills approved last week and the therapy bill have some conservative groups raising alarms.
"It's the LGBT agenda tramping the rights of everybody else," said Randy Thomasson, president of SaveCalifornia.com, a Sacramento-based nonprofit that advocates for conservative moral values.
The four gay rights bills:
— AB1960 by Dickinson, would allow the owners of businesses contracting with the state to identify themselves as gay, lesbian, transgender or bisexual. The Department of General Services already collects data on contractors by race, ethnicity and gender. The bill would not require business owners to identify their sexual orientation. Passed 46-23 and moves to the Senate.
— AB1856 by Ammiano, would require the state Department of Social Services to expand its foster parent education program to include sensitivity training on the topic of sexual orientation. Passed 49-21 and moves to the Senate.
— SB987 by Sen. Gloria Negrete McLeod, D-Chino, would make several technical changes to the codes governing the public retirement system. Among other things, the bill requires the state to give domestic partners the same benefits as married spouses. Passed 31-0 and moves to the Assembly.
— SB1172 by Lieu, would prohibit therapists from practicing gay-to-straight counseling on patients younger than 18. Adult patients would have to give written consent. The Senate Judiciary Committee is expected to take up the bill Tuesday.