“We Were Just Ahead of a National Change” Judy Abdo Reflects on the Evolution of Queer Politics in Santa Monica

June 10, 2019
by Christopher J. Smith

“We Were Just Ahead of a National Change” Judy Abdo Reflects on the Evolution of Queer Politics in Santa Monica

As part of SaMo Pride Month, we’re proud to feature our very own former mayor Judy Abdo. We Are Santa Monica highlights outstanding individuals committed to creating a stronger community. To find out more, visit weare.santamonica.gov.

In 1978, a ballot initiative was up for vote in California that would make it legal to fire public school employees based on their sexual orientation. The controversial proposition was known as the ‘Briggs Initiative’ and it gained nationwide attention, earning the scorn of politicians like Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, and Jerry Brown. The initiative had the potential to eradicate the livelihoods of gay and lesbian school workers all over the state, but perhaps more broadly — it would signify a hostile cultural stance toward the gay and lesbian community.

Then-future Santa Monica Mayor Judy Abdo remembers that time clearly. After all, the initiative hit close to home; she was a committed member of a community of neighborhood activists — many of whom were lesbian women — and she had just come out herself.

Women at the Forefront of Activism in Ocean Park

Women — many of them lesbian — were on the front lines of community organizing in Ocean Park during the 1970s. This was in large part due to the presence of the Church in Ocean Park, an interfaith community focused on social justice and effecting change, as opposed to centering around a set of specific religious beliefs. The church was diverse, a haven for those who didn’t identify with traditional gender expectations, so when the church community began making efforts to organize the Ocean Park neighborhood, it was often lesbian women who led the way.

And leadership in the community was sorely needed. In the 1950s and early ‘60s, Ocean Park had been known as a neighborhood made up of families with small children, but by the 1970s, it had begun to see a dramatic influx of more vulnerable populations, like women who had experienced abuse and people experiencing homelessness.

Accompanying this change was an increase in the need for community support, and one of the first organizations to respond to this need was the Church in Ocean Park.

Judy was drawn to the work the church was doing for the community during this fragile neighborhood transition, and found herself spending more time in Ocean Park, eventually leaving her job as an elementary school teacher in Burbank in order to invest more fully in neighborhood activism.

Judy’s pull toward activism led her to work alongside the church, as well as the Ocean Park Community Center (now known as The People Concern), and The Children’s Place Preschool to provide resources for vulnerable members of the neighborhood. These efforts grew, and Judy and her fellow activists eventually established the Sojourn Shelter for survivors of domestic violence and the Ocean Park Community Organization, as well as securing a quarter-million dollar grant from the federal government to continue the work of neighborhood betterment.

As mentioned, many of Judy’s co-activists were members of the gay and lesbian community, and Judy had begun to identify as a lesbian herself. These people were integral to the improvement of the Ocean Park neighborhood, continually investing in the lives of its residents. The fact that something like the Briggs Initiative could strip away the rights of the very people who were so invested in communities like Ocean Park was indeed a bitter pill to swallow.

Speaking Up in the Face of Discrimination

The Briggs Initiative ultimately failed, but Judy says the drama of the months leading up to it led to a turning point in the gay and lesbian community, of which she was now a part. In order to be accepted and respected, the community needed to make its voice heard. The first step to being accepted and respected? Simply coming out. So that’s what Judy did.

“There was this idea,” Judy said, “that by coming out to the people who already knew you as a whole person, as opposed to a ‘gay’ person or a ‘lesbian’ person, acceptance could be achieved.” More often than not, Judy says, the approach worked.

She credits the relative ease of coming out in part to the progressive and accepting attitude of Santa Monica and the Los Angeles region as a whole, an attitude she even found to be pervasive in city politics during her 1991 mayoral campaign and win.

As Judy recalls, there were fewer than a dozen ‘out’ mayors in 1991 in the whole United States, a fact she calls “shocking”. Yet she reports that in Santa Monica, she experienced virtually no pushback while campaigning as a lesbian woman.

Curious to know just why she’d experienced so little pushback, Judy approached an activist who had campaigned against her. She wanted to know: why hadn’t her opposition attacked her based on her sexual orientation? He simply replied that it would have been “wrong” to do so. Civility, it turned out, was alive and well in local politics.

Today, Judy points to new signifiers of progress at the national level, like the recent election of Chicago mayor Lori Lightfoot, as well as the presidential candidacy of Pete Buttigieg, a candidacy that would have been unthinkable in the not-so-distant past.

“We were just ahead of a national change in Santa Monica,” she says. “We were always well accepted here.”

Community Activism Today

Judy Abdo and her co-activists have been working to strengthen Santa Monica for decades, and the city is continuing to walk in her footsteps.

To see what the city is doing to address important issues like affordable housing, homelessness, and early education, visit weare.santamonica.gov. There are also plenty of volunteer opportunities available; sign up and you — like Judy — can make a big difference in our community.

Please join us on Tuesday, June 11 at 6 pm for a City Hall Pride Reception.

We will have refreshments and a display featuring profiles of members of our local LGBTQ community. After the reception, Council will recognize Pride Month with a Proclamation performed by D’LocoKid. Students from Santa Monica High’s Gender and Sexuality Alliance will receive the Proclamation. We will take a group photo afterward.

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