Sheila Kuehl. Courtesy of Karen Ocamb
Perhaps the highest profile LGBTQ+ Victory Fund candidate in 1994 was Sheila James Kuehl, who portrayed smart teen Zelda Gilroy on The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis in the early 1960s. After graduating from Harvard Law School, she co-founded the California Women’s Law Center and wrote California’s first domestic violence laws.
Kuehl bore a responsibility other candidates did not shoulder: as the first LGBTQ+ person in the California legislature, she would be tasked with “representing” an emerging political minority starving for a seat at the table. Kuehl quickly learned, however, that the significance of being an out candidate had its upside, as she saw one night at dinner in Santa Monica when a “big burly guy” approached her restaurant table.
“I was a little bit freaked out and wondering how this was going to turn out,” Kuehl recalls, having received anonymous death threats during her campaign. “He said: ‘You’re Sheila Kuehl, right?’ And I said, ‘Yes, I am.’ And he said, ‘I just want to tell you—I hate all politicians. I can’t stand them. They dissemble, they lie, they never tell you the truth. I hate ’em all, except for you.’ And I said, ‘Well, thank you very much, but why me?’ And he said, ‘Well, you’ve already told us the worst thing about yourself. Why would you lie about anything else?’”
That voter saw coming out as courageous. “The notion of truth-telling where such a truth is very difficult, is sort of extra points for a politician,” Kuehl says.
Nineteen ninety-four also saw the Republican takeover of the California Assembly after 25 years of a Democratic majority. “I am going [to Sacramento] being Little Miss Gay Person all by myself, and not only was I worried about that—we also had a new, different kind of Republican majority,” she says. “These guys brought their Bibles to the floor. One of them consistently wore his Boy Scout uniform. One of them wore lederhosen. It was like a circus.”
But the LGBTQ+ community “was very proud of my election, and I wanted them to see that it was a bright spot” in the dark elections. Kuehl was buoyed by her LGBTQ+ elected predecessors and felt the future would yield “more gay people, more gay people, more gay people” as representatives.
“I think the grand virtue of the Victory Fund is it immediately gives you national access to donors, supporters, and people who had actually run for office and won who will encourage you,” Kuehl says. “It’s very important because you honestly don’t know who’s on your side when you first run.”
Several months after her election, the Los Angeles Times wrote a front-page story, the headline of which Kuehl jokingly amended to “Republicans like lesbian member, are surprised.”