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Willie Brown at 90: The straight ally who decriminalized gay sex in California

On the former San Francisco mayor’s 90th birthday, Hank Plante celebrates Brown for his overlooked contribution to gay rights in California

A Black man in a suit speaks into a microphone, gesturing emphatically. The image is black and white.
Jana Ašenbrennerová for The Standard

By Hank Plante

As San Francisco wishes a happy 90th birthday to the smartest politician I’ve ever known, former Mayor and “Ayatollah of the Assembly” Willie Brown, I want to point to one of his lesser-known attributes. No, not his snappy attire, his quick wit and his controversial politics—but his enormous contribution to gay rights. 

That’s worth remembering today. As a state assemblyman in 1975, Brown authored AB 479, California’s consenting adult sex law, which decriminalized homosexuality in California. Brown tried for six years to pass the legislation, and eventually found success by working with then-state Senate leader George Moscone and then-Gov. Jerry Brown.

The three worked furiously against strong opposition to the bill. Typical of the opponents was Los Angeles Republican Assemblyman Mike Antonovich, who was quoted by United Press International as telling his colleagues, “What we are doing is condoning a perversion and sickness and saying it is legal.” But Moscone, always a shrewd politician, used the opponents’ language against them, saying on the Senate floor that what was “depraved” was telling citizens how to live. 

On the day of the vote, Brown, Moscone and the governor knew it would be close. They made a last-minute decision to send a private plane to bring Lt. Gov. Mervyn Dymally from Colorado back to the state Capitol to cast the tie-breaking vote in the state Senate. It passed the Senate by one vote, then more easily in the Assembly, 45-26. The “consenting adult law” was then signed into law by Gov. Brown, taking effect in 1976. It was an astounding accomplishment for its time. 

The bill repealed laws that had been on the books for over 100 years against acts like sodomy, which could be punishable by life behind bars. Those old laws put a terrible psychological stigma on young gay people who grew up knowing that the state considered them to be criminals. That stigma was removed by AB 479. 

So why take this battle on? Willie Brown had always been unafraid to defend those who operated on the fringes of mainstream society. As a young San Francisco lawyer, his first clients were some of the city’s prostitutes. And he was especially attuned to the emerging power of the city’s gay community. Years later, he urged his protege, Gavin Newsom, to build a base of LGBTQ voters.

When Newsom first ran for mayor in 2003, the vote was much closer than it should have been. Some polls before the November election showed Newsom could actually lose to Green Party candidate Matt Gonzalez. Newsom eventually won, but only by about 14,000 votes. The election was a wake-up call for his future political direction.

Right after that election, Brown told me that’s when he went to Newsom and said, “A white guy in San Francisco doesn’t have a base. You have to have a base.” That base turned out to be the gay community.

I thought it was no coincidence that five weeks after he was sworn in as mayor, Newsom took the bold move of issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples, setting off the battle for gay and lesbian marriage equality nationwide. I don’t doubt Newsom’s sincerity in his support for gay people, but he clearly had also found his base, as Brown suggested.

Willie Brown, George Moscone and Jerry Brown, three straight men, are rarely mentioned in the history of gay rights. But considering their action came a full year before Harvey Milk was even elected to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, it’s important to remember who fought for the gay community so early in the battle. It’s a continuing gift to all of us from the man who is celebrating 90 years today. 

Hank Plante, one of the first openly gay TV reporters in the country, has spent 40 years covering California issues.

Correction: This story was updated with the proper spelling of Green Party candidate Matt Gonzalez's name.

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