By Joel P. Engardio
Courage is not a word often associated with politicians in San Francisco when it comes to championing the rights and protections of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people. What political figure would dare not wave the rainbow flag here of all places?
Yet San Francisco – world famous for its socially liberal ways – has conservative enclaves tucked in the fog west of Twin Peaks that Assemblymember Phil Ting has to represent. Large Catholic and Asian populations on the westside are less inclined to embrace issues like marijuana dispensaries or LGBT rights accepted by the rest of San Francisco without question.
My husband is originally from Taiwan and he is surprised by the negative LGBT commentary he has seen in San Francisco’s Chinese-language newspapers. We live in an area of the westside where half the voters supported the Prop 8 ban on same-sex marriage in 2008.
So it’s a profile in courage that Ting doesn’t just give lip service or stay neutral on LGBT issues when he needs westside votes to keep his job.
“My political consultant knows I stand up for what I believe in and not what’s convenient,” said Ting, who serves with me on the Democratic County Central Committee.
With little fanfare, Ting has become an unsung LGBT hero by choosing to lead on LGBT issues locally and in Sacramento.
Ting authored legislation that gave same-sex couples relief from an unfair tax penalty while marriage was newly legal in California but not nationwide. He called a hearing to ensure the state’s Department of Education was held accountable for protecting LGBT students from discrimination. Ting also spoke to state financial aid administrators to help them understand that awarding aid based on parental income is irrelevant when unsupportive parents have disowned their LGBT children.
Perhaps most risky of all, Ting addressed the controversy over morality clauses for the staff at four Catholic high schools in the Bay Area. The Archdiocese of San Francisco wanted to classify all teachers as “ministers” and ask them to follow Church doctrine against things like same-sex unions and family planning in their personal lives.
“It’s a very delicate balancing act between religious freedom and employment rights,” said Ting, who recently moderated an informational hearing on the issue featuring both sides. “Our Catholic schools are precious and will be in trouble if teachers won’t work there and if parents won’t send their kids there. Many families go for the academics and not the theology because the schools have marketed themselves to non-Catholics. I couldn’t just stand by without saying something.”
Ting has been willing to speak out for LGBT rights when it wasn’t considered politically safe. He remembers a large rally against same-sex marriage attended by hundreds of westside Asian residents in 2008.
“Not everyone criticized that anti-gay rally or openly talked about why it was important to say no to Prop 8,” Ting said. “There were people who took a pass.”
Ting said he considers it his duty to talk about LGBT issues in the Chinese press.
“When I talk about the LGBT community it helps others talk about it until a majority of the Chinese community knows someone LGBT and it’s no longer hypothetical,” said Ting who leads a diverse contingent at the San Francisco Pride Parade every year.
While no one in Ting’s family is openly LGBT to his knowledge, he said it was friends who came out to him during college that made him realize LGBT rights and civil rights are synonymous.
“I could see how tough it was for my gay friends and how brave they were. I didn’t have much gaydar growing up but when I left college it was pretty good,” Ting said. “Now, I feel really proud when I get to marry two men and the Chinese mom says ‘Thank you for making my family whole.’”