The San Diego Democrats for Equality was founded by Bob Lynn in 1975 under the name of the San Diego Democratic Club. At that time, there was a general lack of support within San Diego politics, even among Democrats, for LGBT issues. Bob and other founding members had difficulty finding 30 people willing to put their name to paper to help secure a charter for the Club in fear of being outed. A few courageous non-LGBT friends came forward to help meet the 30 person threshold and a charter was procured. Meetings were held in private homes because politicians and others did not want to be seen in a public place attending a gay club meeting.
The only LGBT organizations in San Diego older than the Democrats for Equality are the San Diego LGBT Center and the San Diego Imperial Court. The Democrats for Equality was one of the few social and political outlets available to LGBT and their allies at the time to help affect change.
In the 1980s, the Club was slowly developing into an emerging force. Club members began using computers to create LGBT voter lists and introduced the first voter information guide to help get LGBT friendly candidates elected to office.
The Freedom Awards were also launched in the early 1980’s, with the first one being held at the Prado restaurant in Balboa Park. Protests were held outside the restaurant and attendees had to cross picket lines set up by the Religious Right to enter. This only spurred Club members to redouble their efforts.
The 1980’s also brought devastation to the LGBT community in the form of AIDS. Numerous members of the Democrats for Equality lost their lives to the disease, including two prior Club Presidents Brad Truax and Doug Scott. Members became actively involved in Life Lobby, a forerunner to Equality California, which was a federation of local organizations throughout the State that helped lobby for greater awareness of AIDS/HIV issues. The AIDS crisis forced many people to come out of the closet and become more engaged in the fight for LGBT rights and helped increase political mobilization by friends and family of those affected by the disease. The women of the Club also stepped up in support of Club members and others in our community stricken with HIV/AIDS with the formation of Blood Sisters. The Blood Sister’s mission was to promote blood donations with the San Diego Blood Bank, American Red Cross, etc. and interface with those organizations on behalf of their gay brothers who were banned from donation.
During the 1990s and 2000s, the Democrats for Equality became a more robust organization that began to have a quantifiable impact upon the San Diego political scene. The number of Executive Board positions began to expand as the Club became involved in more and more initiatives.
The Club had very clear goals and was very successful executing them, which included working diligently to pass a ballot initiative to establish district-based City Council elections in the City of San Diego.
The creation of the Third Council District ensured that the LGBT community could use their influence effectively to elect an LGBT friendly candidate and have a voice on the San Diego City Council. The District came about largely through the research of Club member Charles McKain who bucked advice from some other community leaders and developed a case for an LGBT “community of interest” in the Hillcrest/North Park areas based on voting patterns and other factors – even concentrations of subscribers to The Advocate.
Ushering in district elections and providing a driving force for the creation of an LGBT-friendly Council District were important first steps. Long term success required that a viable candidate for that Council position be found. Christine Kehoe fit the bill perfectly. In addition to Club membership, Kehoe was editor of San Diego Gayzette (1984–1986), coordinator of the San Diego AIDS Assistance Fund (1987–1988), executive director of the Hillcrest Business Association (1988–1989), and a city council aide (1989–1992). Club members were crucial to securing the grassroots support and financial support needed to get Christine Kehoe elected to the City Council in 1993, walking precincts and conducting voter outreach.
Following Kehoe’s two terms as Council Member, the District turned to another Dems for Equality member to lead. Toni Atkins, Club Vice-President, was elected to the City Council in November, 2000. During her term in office, San Diego’s mayor resigned and Atkins was elected Mayor Pro Tem by the rest of the Council, making Toni the City’s first openly lesbian mayor. After being termed out on the City Council,
Atkins followed Kehoe to the California State Assembly. In 2014, Toni was elected by her peers in the Assembly to serve as Speaker of the California State Assembly, arguably the second most powerful office in the State.
During this time, the Club continued to become more sophisticated with their implementation of technology to help develop reliable methods to identify likely LGBT households to turn them out to vote.
As the national LGBT movement progressed and matured during the 2000’s to the present, the Club became more involved in the regional and statewide Democratic Party politics, sending numerous delegates to represent San Diego’s interests on influential boards and commissions. In 2003, the club was honored as the San Diego County Democratic Party’s Club of the Year at their annual Roosevelt Dinner. The Club’s endorsement became highly sought after by local elected officials, helping elect more LGBT candidates and LGBT friendly candidates to office including Toni Atkins, Todd Gloria, Dave Roberts, and others.
Jess Durfee, a current Democrats for Equality member, became chair of the San Diego Democratic Party from 2004-2013. He also served as chair of the California Statewide LGBT Caucus from 2007-2011 and became the first San Diego member of the Democratic National Committee in 2008. He also served on the national Stonewall Democrats for eleven years. These accomplishments among others from Club members would have been unthinkable a mere 10-20 years prior.
To take the club to the next level, the leadership appointed a Transformation Task Force in 2013 that developed a blueprint for the club’s future growth and influence.