LGBT Pride Month Local Hero Christine Kehoe Improves Quality of Life for San Diegans
LGBT Pride Month 2015 Honoree
Becoming a politician was the last thing on Christine Kehoe’s mind when she was growing up in Troy, New York. She didn’t even run for student government at her high school. Yet in 1993, Kehoe would open doors, becoming the first member of the LGBT community to hold an elected office in San Diego.
“The thing I’m proudest of is winning the San Diego City Council race in 1993,” says Kehoe, a 2015 LGBT Pride Month Local Hero. “I feel like it was really a people’s campaign, and I think it opened doors for the gay community to participate in the civic life of San Diego in an unprecedented way. Toni Atkins, an open lesbian, followed me [on to City Council]. Todd Gloria followed her. [San Diego County District Attorney] Bonnie Dumanis was first elected a year or two later."
Atkins is now Speaker of the California State Assembly and the representative for 78th district. Gloria recently announced he would be running for Atkins' Assembly seat after she is termed out next year.
"I’m not responsible for them but it paved the way," says Kehoe. "Now we have district attorneys and city council members for whom being an LGBT candidate or professional or appointee is just part of the conversation—and it didn’t used to be.”
Kehoe made her way to San Diego after graduating from State University of New York, Albany with a Bachelor of Arts in English, more than 30 years ago. Despite not having a job waiting for her, it was a gamble she was willing to take.
“I came to California in the late ’70s and I just loved it,” she recalls. “Right away, San Diego was my home. I can still remember the first time I saw the Star of India, the palm trees and the water. It was a very liberating experience in a lot of ways, very different from upstate New York. Not having a job, I started volunteering at the Center for Women’s Studies and Social Services, and my community activism grew out of that experience.”
The Women’s Center was located downtown, at Ninth and G Street, across from the old Central Library. For Kehoe, working there proved to be an empowering experience. After the Women’s Center, she spent time as a volunteer coordinator for the AIDS Assistance Fund (which eventually became the AIDS Foundation of San Diego).
“I loved organizing events and communicating with people, recognizing that they had the confidence that I was going to be a good and fair leader,” she recalls. “I knew I liked doing it, so I just started doing more. The work I was involved in, didn’t start out as political activity, in the sense of (seeking an) elected office. It was more about justice and equality. To go from looking at women’s issues to realizing LGBT civil rights, I knew I was fitted for it. I found it very rewarding, and wanted to do more of it.”
Kehoe also served as editor of the San Diego Gayzette, a newspaper for the LGBT community.
“The idea of running a newspaper was extremely challenging,” Kehoe admits. “I was scared of it, but I dove in. It was so much larger than I realized, but it taught me so much about Hillcrest, and immersed me in the gay community. I was actually coming out at the same time.”
In 1987, Kehoe made the decision to help openly-gay candidate Neil Good run for the City Council District 8 seat. Though he didn’t win, it gave Kehoe the knowledge and know-how she’d need when she ran for office five years later, at the suggestion of Joyce Beers, founder of the Hillcrest Business Association.
“Joyce Beers was one of the first persons to talk to me about a political career,” explains Kehoe. “I think she saw things in me that I hadn’t seen. She had encouraged me to take on the Hillcrest Business Association as executive director, because she wanted to retire, and I learned a lot about local policy issues. Neil Good’s campaign helped me understand how important walking precincts were, and that you have to make every vote count. You have to go out and meet the voters. We covered every precinct in the district twice. For whatever reason, the community really came behind me.”
Kehoe served seven years as the 3rd District City Council representative, and two terms as State Assembly member, representing the 76th District. Kehoe also was the founding chair of the Legislative LGBT Caucus in 2003. While in office, Kehoe introduced several bills on LGBT rights, including ensuring equal treatment of LGBT domestic partners in insurance benefits and property taxes.
“In the early 2000’s, California was leading the country in attempting to broadly eliminate discrimination based on sexual orientation," Kehoe notes. “These bills and others set the stage for great progress later on, in advancing equal civil rights by showing the discriminatory treatment endured by LGBT Californians in so many legal, financial, property, medical and child custody cases."
In 2012, Kehoe left office due to term limits. Today, she is in her third year as the executive director of the California Plug-in Electric Vehicle Collaborative.
“Our mission is to expand the use of electrical vehicles in California, transitioning away from fossil fuels to clean advanced technology vehicles,” Kehoe says. “That is going to greatly impact California, which is the leader in electric vehicle adaption. Currently, 3% in San Diego have adapted electric vehicles. It’s small but it’s growing. With electric cars we’re talking clean air and less pollution.”
The environment has always been important to Kehoe, who as state senator sponsored legislation establishing the San Diego River Conservancy in 2002. Kehoe says that, even though the river runs through Mission Valley, one of San Diego’s busiest and densest neighborhoods, most people hardly notice it.
“The river is surrounded by a lot of habitat that is good for birds and wildlife,” she explains. “[Through the conservancy], it is being preserved and enhanced, and allows for hiking, biking and wildlife.”
Kehoe lives in North Park with Julie Warren, her partner of 30 years. The couple, who once registered as domestic partners, celebrated their milestone anniversary last November by getting married. Legally.
“It was surprising to us that after 30 years together, our marriage added depth to our long-cherished relationship,” Kehoe says. “The rights and responsibilities of marriage instantly define the importance of our relationship to ourselves and the world. Looking back over the last three decades, the public embrace of marriage equality around the world – such as what happened recently in Ireland – is simply amazing. So many people worked so very hard to lay this groundwork and now the future is brighter for LGBT people almost everywhere – truly a seismic shift.”