Could Gerrie Schipske Be Long Beach's First LGBT Mayor?

The councilwoman stands on the cusp of making that title a reality. But getting there hasn't been easy

Could Gerrie Schipske Be Long Beach's First LGBT Mayor?

"My dad and mom met at the Pike," Gerrie Schipske began. For the broadly accomplished, 62-year-old, Long Beach City Councilwoman, that was the beginning—the chance interaction of a couple of teenagers on the bright, bustling midway of a classic old amusement park in 1948. Of course, even without such a personal connection, mentioning the Pike is always a good icebreaker in Long Beach. Judging from the sentiment that fluttered through the banquet room at McKenna's as Schipske opened her address to the Women Lawyers of Long Beach a few weeks ago, the image of finding love at the Pike may still be the city's favorite meet-cute, more than three decades after the park's 1979 demolition.

Schipske grew up in what was left of this Long Beach, a city that people variously strain to remember, struggle to imagine, find themselves yearning for, regard as a Golden Age, hold up as the standard the city should strive to meet again. She was born in the Naval Hospital, nowadays known as the Veterans Administration Hospital. She was baptized at St. Lucy's Catholic Church on the west side of town, the one in which her parents were married, not far from Silverado Park, where they had their reception. Her family shopped on Pine Avenue when it was the center of a retail district full of department stores and specialty shops. She read the Independent and Press-Telegram. Schipske is proud of her deep Long Beach roots and delights in dropping the names of the architectural masterpieces, historic people, landmark places, unique traditions—the icons, so many long gone, but some still around—that gave context to the milestones her life was passing, that opened up options and encouraged her to focus on the future she would inhabit.

"I've known I wanted to be in politics—to be an elected official—since I was voted student-body president of my high school," declares Schipske, whose desire has always been obvious, but whose Election Day results haven't been so gratifying . . . until recently. Schipske has been running for political offices—mostly among assorted state assembly and congressional districts—since 1988, and after being crushed by Orange County Republican Congressman Dana Rohrabacher in the 2002 edition of his biannual Waltz Back to Washington, her record as a finalist was 1 win and 5 losses. Since then, however, Schipske's neighbors in Long Beach's Fifth District have twice elected her to represent them on the City Council—by a nail-biting margin in 2006, then via landslide in 2010.

Gerrie Schipske
John Gilhooley
Gerrie Schipske
Schipske speaking at a rally for marriage equality
Courtesy of Gerrie Schipske
Schipske speaking at a rally for marriage equality
With her partner (at right) Flo Pickett and Melissa Etheridge
Courtesy Long Beach Historical Society
With her partner (at right) Flo Pickett and Melissa Etheridge
Photo from Long Beach’s LGBT past
John Gilhooley
Photo from Long Beach’s LGBT past
As a young’un
Courtesy of Gerrie Schipske
As a young’un
One of Schipske’s books
John Gilhooley
One of Schipske’s books

Was that a referendum on Schipske's solid Our Town background? Or was there something in her résumé, Schipske's chronicle of her various jobs and responsibilities—with the Central Intelligence Agency, as the City of Long Beach's first public-information officer, registered nurse, attorney, author of three books about Long Beach history, as a member of the California Medical Board, as head of the Orange County Democrat Party, as a foster parent, as the adoptive parent of three now-adult children, as a grandmother—that reads as though Jack Kerouac helped her with it? Schipske's about to find out.

On March 21, she launched her campaign for mayor. The primary election is next April, and if she gets more than 50 percent of the votes in that primary, Gerrie Schipske would be the mayor of Long Beach . . . meaning, therefore, that Gerrie Schipske would be the first openly gay mayor of Long Beach . . . because . . . inasmuch as . . . basically . . . as we have all known, probably since we have known of her, Gerrie Schipske is gay.

Why does all that feel so weird to say?

Maybe because we haven't had any practice?

My first conversation with Schipske was in October 2002, a month before her Election Day mismatch against Rohrabacher. We met in her campaign headquarters, a rented office on the fringe of an old Long Beach shopping center, directly above a beauty college. We went into a windowless room, sat on metal folding chairs and talked—starting with topics suggested by my questions, then traveling along some tangents until we arrived at some of her talking points. The central theme was how Schipske's campaign—despite less-than-1-percent losses to congressmen Steve Kuykendall in 1996 and Steve Horn in 2000—was being financially abandoned by the Democratic Party and its PACs, and thus not considered for endorsements by traditionally supportive organizations because of a bipartisan redistricting deal among California legislators to protect incumbents. The conversation touched on oil drilling, health and education, automotive-fuel efficiency, job creation, terrorism, sewage treatment, and the number of flights at Long Beach Airport. Lesbians, gays and bisexuals were mentioned, but in most cases, their issues were covered by larger umbrellas.

Schipske never mentioned she is a lesbian. I didn't ask her about it. I never mentioned I'm a straight male. She didn't ask me about it.

It's been the same for the past 11 years, with only two exceptions that come to mind. Two years ago, when public opinion seemed to take the side of Robert Garcia—Long Beach's other openly gay council member—in a difference of opinion with Schipske over the naming of a downtown square that's now called Harvey Milk Park, Schipske quipped, "I hope they don't revoke my gay card." And early this year, when the opening of the Historical Society of Long Beach's exhibition, "Coming Out In Long Beach," drew a large number of elected officials, Schipske observed, "At one time, politicians couldn't be seen with us; now, they can't be seen without us."

I'm not saying Schipske is somehow hiding who she is. She has lived openly with her partner, Flo Pickett, for 33 years, raising three children and now doting on a 3-year-old granddaughter.

I'm not saying Schipske is not a passionate, vigilant, creative and proud force for LGBT equality, protection and opportunity.

What I'm saying is I—or anyone else—don't have any right, qualifications or desire to say anything for Schipske.

But the label of Long Beach's First Gay Mayor is around the corner, and the combination of Schipske's run for mayor and this weekend's Long Beach Lesbian and Gay Pride festival seems as though it's the time for it to start. On Sunday morning, Schipske's campaign trail is actually going to merge with the Pride Parade route, as Schipske rides a fire engine in the 1-mile parade down Ocean Boulevard. And it's a fitting crowning of sorts for Schipske. She was gay when gay wasn't cool, having homophobic smears hurled at her in campaign mailers and fliers during her initial efforts to win elected office, as well as listening to local "experts" opine that she couldn't be elected in the city's Fifth Council district.

Instead, she was elected—and re-elected. During her two terms in office, she didn't pander to gay voters and instead handled her council job by addressing issues on the merits and calling things as she saw them. She didn't shrink in silence if she believed the incumbent mayor and his council allies were wrong (including on an attempted parcel property tax that she helped derail).

Now that she's announced a mayoral run, incumbent Mayor Bob Foster (who hasn't announced his future plans) apparently wasn't big enough to include Schipske in a photo-op timed for the U.S. Supreme Court's arguments on Proposition 8. Foster's office issued a media release pretending LB's first openly lesbian and second openly gay elected official didn't exist. (Dan Baker was first.)

So when Schipske learned about the raising of a Pride flag at City Hall, she simply showed up, paying tribute to actions in Washington. The release from the mayor's office explicitly included Garcia as part of the event, but neither one of them acknowledged Schipske's presence.

*     *     *

THE BEST LITTLE GIRL IN THE WORLD
Perhaps the most unfathomable aspect of Schipske is how the hell she has done and continues to do so much after getting the ball rolling by working for the CIA reading intelligence reports on the wars in Southeast Asia.

*

OC WEEKLY: Who taught you how to do this? Or did it come naturally? And is it satisfying?

GERRIE SCHIPSKE: My parents were always doing something but didn't have the benefit of going to college. They had political views, but they expressed them around the kitchen table. My mom registered voters to make a little extra money for the house. On Election Days, our house was a polling place. They made sure we were involved in sports and scouting—I was a Girl Scout for 12 years. . . .

Maybe the biggest influence was the Sisters of St. Joseph, who taught me from first to eighth grades when we were in Orange County. They have a wonderful social-justice program. They got it out there that we are supposed to do. . . .

I guess it's a combination of things, although I do think being first born makes you more responsible. But someone's doing some research into the contention that gays and lesbians probably are the most effective elected officials. Part of that I kind of agree with, in a way. . . . You know about Ed Tobias, right? Wrote all these financial books, worked with the Democratic Party. But he also wrote this memoir, The Best Little Boy in the World, about how, especially those of us who are older, we started out with a mark against us about being gay. We work very hard in every other part of our lives so people can't point to us and say, "Oh, yeah, the reason so-and-so is like that is because they're gay." It resonated a little bit. When I heard about the study, I said, "You know, I think there may be some truth to that."

*     *     *

THE LIBERAL LESBIAN LAWYER FROM LONG BEACH
OC WEEKLY
: When you brought up the Best Little Boy book, it was the first time I ever heard you bring up your sexual . . . what's the word? Anyway, trying to be the best under such circumstances—it sounds like horrible pressure. And then at the end, it doesn't mean that people are going to treat you better. And maybe it creates another misconception about you, makes things more complicated, emphasizes the sense that you are different, that you are stigmatized.

GERRIE SCHIPSKE: It certainly was a stigma, and it's still a stigma outside a certain circle. [In the CIA,] I was working in top-secret situations and politically sensitive areas, and I didn't—I couldn't—let anybody know who I was, and that kind of circumscribes your life a little bit. It narrows your circle, forces you to change your pronouns when you're talking about what you've done over the weekend. That does have an impact. I'd make a wonderful spy. That is part of living in the intelligence community, where everything isn't what it appears to be. Those of us who are older, this newfound openness and tolerance has come later in our lives. This wasn't always there. That has an impact. You're very careful about what you do.

Perhaps you've been very careful, but it doesn't seem to have stopped you from doing very much. You mentioned being older, but it seems that, politically, you are accomplishing more than ever—in terms of constituent service to your district, in terms of this run for mayor.

I think I'm doing four times what somebody else would do, making sure I know every fact on an issue instead of winging it. People start appreciating that. They say, "She knows what she's talking about, she seems to do her homework, she's fair, and"—this part is very funny—"she's very liberal." I just laugh. I go, "Where did you get that?" It's not a bad thing, but I think the assumption is that if you're—well, a newspaper once called me the "liberal lesbian lawyer from Long Beach." [Laughs.] Like, if you're gay, you must be this way or that.

Fact remains, like everybody else, we're all different. Every community has a spectrum of people who are different—they're not all the same. That, for me, has been the hardest to get across to people. But I think I've successfully done that. . . .

I think that's why I've been re-elected in that district. People say, "Okay, you've told us about that. Now what about the issues? How can you get my sidewalk fixed? Are you going to make sure the budget is balanced?" That's where people's real lives are, for the most part. . . .

I've never made a point of taking my personal life and putting it in people's faces. Not that I've denied it. That may be a difference, too. The other thing I get—they haven't said it, but I feel it—is "If she's this open about who she is, we can trust her." I think that's important.

You said you knew you wanted to be in politics when you were a high-school senior. Did you have any idea that being lesbian might preclude that?

I didn't realize I was gay until I was about 21. I just had a bigger focus. Started out wanting to go to medical school and be a doctor, so that was my focus. Actually, when I was much younger, I was going to be a nun.

*     *     *

COMING OUT WITH DR. LAURA
OC WEEKLY
: Once you did realize who you are, you must have also been struck by the realization that whether or not and how much others knew could have consequences for [you] with family, friends—and you were working for the CIA! When you did come out, were there any issues with your parents?

GERRIE SCHIPSKE: Oh . . . yeah.

[She says this, but not convincingly—instead, with what seems to be concern about where answering this question fully might lead. But after this brief uncertainty, it's apparently resolved. She chuckles lightly as she begins.]

This is the weirdest story! I came back to California—from Washington, D.C., to Long Beach—alone. The first person I'd been with—we'd been together, oh, about six years—she'd gone off and gotten married; that happens a lot in the community. So I didn't know anybody. I was working for a city manager [of the city of Long Beach}, who I, to this day, adore; he's one of the most ethical men I've ever met. A lesbian came to visit the office one day—Jean Harris. She was very out and dramatic, she became a [gay and lesbian rights] leader and just died a couple of years ago. She came into the office, and she was trying to convert me—she did not know I was gay; I couldn't tell anybody. And after she left, I remember the city manager coming to me and saying, "You know, this is why we don't hire homosexuals—because once they get in, they want to bring all their friends."

[Schipske gives a pained chuckle.] And I'm just cringing, thinking, "My God, if he finds out, I'm going to lose my job!"

That scared me. [After work,] I would go home. I was deathly afraid. I never went to the bars. I'd never been in a gay bar because I was so deeply closeted in Washington, D.C.

So I turned on the radio one night—it was about midnight—and there was this person on KFWB, and it was this woman by the name of Laura Schlessinger. [She laughs a little again.] Good story for you! So, Laura Schlessinger seemed to me, on her show, went out of the way to appeal to gays and lesbians—about how you need to accept yourself, this is wonderful, yadda-yadda. She had a radio show then, but it wasn't the radio show she wound up having; this was really about talking to people—none of this right-wing stuff she got into later.

So I picked up the phone and called her office, made an appointment and went to see her as a therapist. And at the second meeting, she gave me a book about lesbian sex. [Schipske lets go a cackling laugh to indicate the ridiculousness of it.]

I said to her, "That's not why I'm here, really. I'm broken-hearted. I don't know anybody. I don't want to lose my job. I don't want to reach out to anybody." And I also was having some really bad stomach pains.

Laura Schlessinger said, "Well, that's emotional constipation" and all this other stuff, you know. [Becoming sarcastic.] But she was very accepting of gays and lesbians. She got this bright idea that I needed to haul my parents up to North Hollywood, where she had her practice off Highland, that I needed to haul them in there and, uhh, come out to them. So, I did.

It was the dumbest thing I ever did. That's not the way you come out to your parents. But I did. And it was very painful for them, it was very painful for me, and then, as we all know, Laura Schlessinger wound up turning on the gay community—and that was just the height of hypocrisy. It was a bad thing she did.

[Schipske takes a momentary, assessing pause, then resumes.] So I told my parents. And my parents weren't happy about it, and looking back, I wish I had done it another way. But my parents said they already knew. Most parents do. They said they knew, and my mother said, "I'm praying for you to find a husband." My dad didn't say much. My dad was very quiet about it.

And then I met Flo. I was open with them about Flo. I brought Flo to the house. They liked Flo. Then when I adopted my children, they were wonderful, loving grandparents to my children. Every once in a while, my mother would say, "We're still praying for you. We're praying for Flo, too." But after that point, it was never anger.

*     *     *

NURSING, MOTHERHOOD AND RIDING A BIKE
GERRIE SCHIPSKE:
In 1980, I quit the City of Long Beach and decided to go to nursing school. I was fed up with politics, government, all kinds of stuff. I wanted to do something that could really help people. I went to Golden West College. My first nursing job was at UCLA—the neonatal intensive-care unit—and I got the opportunity to go to Harbor/UCLA, the nurse practitioner program, working OB/GYN, family planning, that kind of thing. After doing family planning for a bit, I decided I wanted to adopt kids, so I became a licensed foster parent.

I had a big battle with the county over that because they didn't want to license a lesbian. But I never told them I was a lesbian, and they never asked.

But one day, a social worker asked me, "Do you bicycle a lot?"

"What?"

"Do you bicycle a lot?"

I said, "Yeah."

He said, "Oh, that explains what the neighbors said."

I kind of took that as code.

At first, the county wouldn't give me a full license—I'm working in neonatal nursing, and a story came out that a heterosexual foster-care couple murdered a child. I called the county and said, "Excuse me, you've been advertising for single people, and you won't license me because you think I'm gay?"

So they gave me a license, then told me I had to go find my own baby. Some social workers told me, "There are so many babies—nobody tells you to get your own baby." They brought me what turned out to be my son. After 22 months, they brought my oldest daughter. Then her birth mother became pregnant, and I had adopted my second daughter.

And then I had my telephone lines tied so they could never call me again.

*     *     *

ROUGH SEX AND POLITICS
OC WEEKLY
: What about the issue of being gay or lesbian in political campaigns?

GERRIE SCHIPSKE: Sadly, it's always been an issue. My only campaign that it wasn't an issue in was when I ran for the Long Beach City College Board of Trustees. I think because I was underestimated in terms of being able to win.

*

Just days before the March 1996 Democratic Party primary election for the California Assembly, candidate Laura Richardson—a member of the Long Beach City Council—mass-mailed a pamphlet attacking her fellow Democratic candidate for being a lesbian. The mailer accused Schipske of being "committed to the radical gay agenda" and strongly backed by ultra-liberal Santa Monica Assemblymember Sheila Kuehl, the Assembly's only openly gay member at the time. Eleven years later, when Long Beach-area Congresswoman Juanita Millender-McDonald's death from cancer necessitated a 2007 special election to fill her seat, Richardson—recently elected to the California Assembly—declared her candidacy. So did Schipske, whose narrow election to the Long Beach City Council less than a year before had snapped a streak of close losses. She soon reconsidered, however, and withdrew from the race.

I asked Schipske about that brief candidacy in August 2011 during an interview on Greater Long Beach Radio With Dave Wielenga (on the Cal State Long Beach online station, KBEACH.org). When it was suggested that throwing her hat into the ring might have been a reflexive response after running for offices so many times, Schipske was dismissive.

"That wasn't reflexive," she said. "If you've ever run for public office, you know it's a really exhausting experience, not only for yourself, but also for your family and friends. It's something you always weigh very carefully."

Schipske was silent for a second or so. "But speaking of reflexive," she resumed, "my reflexive nature in that situation was more motivated by the opportunity to run against Laura Richardson than that the position opened. My contention and that of my supporters was that I had come so close to beating [the late Republican Congressman Steve] Horn in 1996 that I could easily, easily defeat Laura Richardson, so that's what I was weighing. Ultimately, I was asked by the Democratic Party to step aside so that [the late state Senator] Jenny Oropeza could run, so I did."

On June 11, 1996, the Long Beach City Council was well into a discussion of domestic partnerships (limited legal recognition for couples, regardless of sex) when Councilmember Jerry Shultz of North Long Beach's Ninth District signaled that he had something to say. For the next 17 minutes, Shultz stunned everybody with an address that still stands as the most sexually explicit, relentlessly cruel, socially deviant and personally indulgent in the history of that council chamber. Shultz, who was also a Los Angeles County sheriff's deputy, shared his philosophy on the human sex drive, describing it as a powerful instinct that "may become inappropriately affixed to underwear, corpses, animals, children, footstools and members of the same sex."

Pleasing only himself and insulting others for maximum effect, Shultz linked the gay residents of Long Beach to bizarre sex acts and "immoral behavior." His diatribe shopped around the fringes of sexual practices, periodically picking out something for an exploration that dwelt lasciviously on the moistest details. At one point, Shultz paused to pose a question for class(less) discussion: "What do we say to the man who leads his favorite ewe down the aisle, demanding recognition and acceptance of his attraction to a female sheep?" Neither the City Council nor the Human Relations Commission mustered the votes to censure Shultz, who adamantly refused to apologize.

*

GERRIE SCHIPSKE: Jerry Shultz is now my constituent in the Fifth District. Another former councilmember, Doug Drummond, wanted to quarantine gays in camps for having AIDS. He's in my district, too. You know, when you are elected, you are an elected official for everyone. Makes the case for tenacity. If you stick with who you are, things come around and people finally get it, and I think that's what's happened in Long Beach.

That even happened for gays and lesbians. There's a split. Still some of it—whether or not we should push for marriage equality—part of it is "Whoa! Whoa!" This is really pushing something to its ultimate conclusion that no one—I think, in my age group—ever thought would happen. We just went through the whole battle of domestic partners. From that into marriage. I'm glad they're doing it. The people who pushed it were right.

OC WEEKLY: Did you have reservations?

No! You know, I came from a traditional Catholic family, and I didn't think this would ever happen or ever be a possibility. There's a spectrum of beliefs and ideas in the community. I'm grateful they pushed it forward because I think it not only pushed that issue, but it also pushed the rest of the stuff that would have taken years and years. This is the argument hopefully that the Supreme Court deals with it now. Because if they don't and let it go state by state, we will be fighting this battle state by state—and not just about marriage, but the whole issue of equality, discrimination. It needs to get out of the way.

*     *     *

'A FEDERALLY CERTIFIED, DULY SWORN LESBIAN'
My cell phone rings from across the room, probably too far across the room to reach before . . . damn, what is it about this ringtone that always starts the dog howling? Naturally, the call's important—Gerrie Schipske's on the line—but now the other two dogs have joined the high, lonesome holler. "Hmmm. I . . . wonder . . . what . . . I . . . should—Too late! The call's gone to voicemail. And later, while the dog's asleep, I retrieve that message.

*

GERRIE SCHIPSKE: I'm going to quickly tell you a story that I forgot to tell you: That I'm a duly sworn lesbian! Federally certified!

In 1996, I was a national finalist for a White House Fellowship—this was during the Clinton administration—and they were doing my top-secret clearance. I had a little law office at the time, and they came to my office—two investigators—and asked me who Flo Pickett was, and I said she and I owned a home together.

And they said, "Well, we have found out that you are lesbians."

And I said, "Uh-huh, we are. . . . Is that a problem?"

She said, "Well, you didn't say you are a lesbian."

I said, "You didn't ask about it in any of the 22 pages I had to fill out."

Finally, they made me stand up—they actually made me stand—at my desk and swear under penalty of perjury that I was gay, and that although I had not told them I was a lesbian, I had not been trying to keep it from them.

It was horrible. It was just a horrible thing for them to do.

Then they sent me to Annapolis for three days of interviews along with all the national finalists. There were 19 of us out of—oh, God—several thousand people.

But they gave me a private room—I think, because I was gay—while everyone else was paired up . . . which was wonderful!

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