Equality California Executive Director Geoff Kors Took Risks and Improved LGBTs’ Lives

Originally Published on February 10, 2011 in the Bay Area Reporter

By Kate Kendell, Esq.
National Center for Lesbian Rights Executive Director

When I moved to San Francisco to begin working for the National Center for Lesbian Rights in 1994, most of the political advocacy in California was devoted to stopping bad bills in the legislature, getting more money and resources targeted to HIV/AIDS care and prevention, and making sure that our elected officials saw and heard from lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people.  All of these were very important achievements, but we lacked the structure to make real and long-lasting gains.

California’s same-sex couples did not have access to virtually any of about 400 state rights and benefits enjoyed by straight couples. Employment protections were limited for lesbian, gay, and bisexual people and unheard of for our transgender brothers and sisters, who could easily be fired from their jobs, evicted from their homes, and refused public accommodations. And with more than 60 percent of Californians opposing marriage equality, the prospects for justice for our community seemed bleak.

But in 2002, we gained a fierce and effective advocate. Geoff Kors, the executive director of Equality California, built political bridges where there had been gaping holes, worked relentlessly at the state capitol to try to reach across partisan aisles, won support for dozens of pieces of legislation that have touched the lives of every LGBT Californian, and transformed the state into the nation’s leading trailblazer for LGBT equality.

Geoff, who leaves Equality California next month after nine years, is one of the most accomplished political strategists and legislative advocates in our nation’s LGBT equality movement. He and his talented team diligently worked for our rights and protections, earning Equality California respect and the reputation as one of the most effective political advocacy organizations in the country.

Geoff and I first met in the mid-1990s, when he was a staff attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois. At that time he had a shock of curly brown hair. When I saw Geoff again a few short years later here in San Francisco with a head of grey hair, I worried that he had been working far too hard. That was surely true, even if not the reason for his prematurely grey hair. After he took the helm of Equality California, I watched on countless occasions his commitment to reach policy and law makers in Sacramento with the stories and struggles of real LGBT people, holding those elected and appointed officials accountable when they ignored or minimized our lives and our experience.

Many times, I have awakened to find e-mails or texts from Geoff at 2 a.m., 3 a.m., and 4 a.m., suggesting new strategies or tactics to win greater protections for some of the most vulnerable in our community, including LGBT elders, immigrants, youth, and those with HIV/AIDS. On a number of occasions, I remember telling Geoff, “That would never happen,” in response to some idea or initiative he suggested.

In 2004 he told me that now-Senator Mark Leno wanted to introduce a marriage bill. This was at precisely the time when then-Mayor Gavin Newsom and the City and County of San Francisco were issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples. Such a move seemed awfully risky and provocative. Mark and Geoff went ahead, with my reluctant concurrence. A few short months later in 2005, California made history as the first state to pass legislation in favor of the freedom to marry for same-sex couples, despite the governor’s eventual veto of the bill. The passage of this legislation helped NCLR win our lawsuit at the California Supreme Court challenging the exclusion of same-sex couples from marriage and paved the way for other states, like Vermont and New Hampshire, to follow suit.

Time and again, Geoff and Equality California helped fair minded individuals get elected, and his relationship with those elected officials elevated their voices and helped them become champions for our equality and visibility. We have been blessed in California with dozens of elected officials who care about LGBT issues and listen to the myriad needs of our community.  In case after case, Equality California is our voice, and our elected officials listen.

The greatest test of leadership is seen when the going gets rough. Proposition 8 was the California LGBT equality movement’s toughest battle, with leaders from almost every LGBT and ally organization in the state working to defeat it.  But no one did more to raise money for the campaign than Geoff.  After Election Day, Geoff and Equality California took the brunt of the blame for the loss, despite the fact that neither he nor his team had a significant role in the campaign’s field or media strategy. We all have regrets about how Prop 8 played out. One of my regrets is that Geoff was not in greater control of our messaging and field work. Any critique—and there were legitimate criticisms of the campaign operation—was unfortunately directed mainly at Geoff and Equality California. Despite this undeserved blame, Geoff demonstrated an admirable equanimity and simply went back to work.

It’s because of Geoff’s tenacity and commitment that there are more LGBT rights and protections in California than in any other state, with Equality California setting a national record with a total of 71 sponsored pieces of legislation successfully passing the state legislature since he took over. He’s responsible for getting state legislators to pass the most comprehensive domestic partnership legislation for the first time in the nation without a court order, helping secure the broadest protections for transgender people in the nation, and pushing leaders to pass marriage equality bills twice that would have allowed same-sex couples to marry.

All LGBT Californians and our allies will miss Geoff’s determination and strategic brilliance. I will miss the comfort of knowing that Geoff is at our side, providing a path to move forward no matter how difficult or complicated an issue may be. I will miss the comfort of knowing that one of the most skilled political minds in the country is tirelessly working to find the outer edge of how to best protect our community. And I will miss having a colleague who is there around the clock to help me always bring my “A” game to this work.

Because Geoff and I are friends, as well as colleagues, I will still enjoy his wicked and quick wit, his penchant for practical jokes, his boundless playfulness (sometimes it is difficult to tell him apart from my kids on this score), and his wise and practical advice. My baby brother, Bruce, died in 2005 and it would not overstate the matter to say that my family’s relationship with Geoff and his fabulous, fun, and generous partner, James, has made it ever so slightly easier to bear that loss.

Geoff’s accomplishments and impact speak for themselves. His legacy will be lasting. We’ve come so far in such a short amount of time through his visionary leadership, which offers a blueprint for anyone seeking to secure protections and justice for every person in our community.

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