Political Animals Review: Lesbian Legislators Change the World

Political animals documentary review

“One wonderful thing about being a lesbian and a women’s activist is that you learn very early that it doesn’t pay to be a good girl. You need to be a bad girl.” This piece of advice comes from Sheila Kuehl, the first lesbian or gay California legislator. Although she thinks of herself as a bad girl, Kuehl has come to be a role model for many. Along with Carole Migden, Christine Kehoe, and Jackie Goldberg – the first wave of openly lesbian legislators – Kuehl’s work is honoured in Political Animals.

Sheila Kuehl was elected to the Assembly, where she served from 1994 until 2000, then moving on to the Senate. Sheila blazed an extraordinary trail, expanded by the lesbian legislators who followed her. They established the Domestic Partner Registry, a precursor to same-sex marriage. From this legislation emerged the right for lesbian and gay couples to adopt, the ability to use sick leave to care for a same-sex partner, the right to inherit without a will, permission to make medical decisions on your spouse’s behalf, and improved access to social security.

These bills were life-changing. And the women who brought them into being did revolutionary work. But backlash they faced was immense.

For advocating gay rights, these lesbian legislators were sent death threats and even hung in effigy. The most painful moments in Political Animals come from footage of Republican men being not only cruel, but openly homophobic. During debates on gay rights, the lesbian legislators listened as their colleagues compared same-sex attraction to pedophilia, bestiality, necrophilia, and incest. And to begin with even fellow Democrats, other women, were reluctant to support any bills enshrining gay rights.

Political Animals shows footage of each lesbian legislator being dignified and articulate in response to hatred. Carole Migden saw them as ambassadors in addition to elected representatives. And in this role, speaking for the lesbian and gay community, they were held to a higher standard: “We didn’t have permission to act out or be fed up.”

On top of dealing with the homophobia of their co-workers and trying to challenge negative ideas about lesbians, they had to do the work of legislating. This became easier when Christine Kehoe founded what is now the California Legislative LGBT Caucus. As well as talking tactics, their meetings became a space for each woman to air her frustrations and find emotional support. Political Animals is never more inspiring than the scenes where these four women sit round a table laughing together and reminiscing about old times.

When Sheila and Carole considering the factors that led to all four of the first openly gay legislators being women, the second wave of feminism is given credit. Like many other lesbians, they developed political consciousness during the second wave of feminism. Most were active in the women’s liberation, volunteering in women’s shelters and marching for Take Back the Night.

The lone exception is Jackie Goldberg, whose path to politics was forged by the civil rights movement. Her first awareness of injustice came from segregated schools in Alabama. Throughout her career she fought for lesbian and gay families like her own – with her long-term partner, Jackie raised a Black son.

By giving an account of each woman’s career, her early background, and reflections from the present day, Political Animals does the vital work of documentation. And in telling these four incredible stories, it achieves something that is still altogether too rare: honouring the lives of older lesbians. Through recognizing the heroism of these women, the documentary mounts a subtle yet effective challenges to the ageism, sexism, and lesbophobia that see older lesbians’ contributions to the community erased.

Political Animals makes you realize the immense debt of gratitude we owe our lesbian foremothers, and just how far we have come in a short space of time, It also brings to mind just how precarious these new rights and forms of recognition are. President Trump backed state-funded adoption agencies turning away gay couples on religious grounds. He has opposed nation-wide marriage equality. Gay rights are vulnerable once more.

In these troubled times, Political Animals is a powerful antidote to despair. The documentary brings to life a more optimistic era; when Obama was President; when same-sex marriage was freshly legalized; when the White House lit up like a rainbow. But – more than that – it’s a reminder that the lesbians of today can and will be the agents of change we see tomorrow.

The lesbian legislators celebrated in this documentary didn’t know they were going to change the world. And yet, with incredible courage and hard work, that’s exactly what each woman did.

Political Animals is part of a lineup of social justice programming, now streaming on Here TV.