Torie Osborn: The Super Activist

By: Christopher Donaldson

“Hope will never be silent.” Harvey Milk

After nearly 40 years as an LGBT activist and community organizer, California State Assembly candidate Torie Osborn knows that change, particularly when it comes to equal rights, is anything but impossible. And you can bet on that.

But why, you might ask?

Well, as it turns out, Osborn oversaw America’s largest HIV/AIDS clinic during the 1980s AIDS pandemic, won the first-ever federal grant to help prevent teen suicide among LGBT youth, and crafted the Ryan White Care Act soon after she became the first woman Executive Director of the Los Angeles Gay and Lesbian Center.

She also led successful campaigns against a barrage of antigay legislation. Like the Briggs initiative—which if passed would have banned gay and lesbian teachers from public schools—and Lyndon LaRouche’s Proposition 64—which sought to quarantine people living with AIDS.

Osborn recently opened up about what led her into state politics, her connection to Harvey Milk and why she sees a future California better and more equal than the one she currently inhabits.

Winning the election, it seems, would make you the first openly gay California State Assembly member to represent America’s first openly gay city, West Hollywood.

Yes, it would be a historic feat. Harvey Milk once said that electing our allies is great, but nobody can ever represent us as well as those who have already experienced the fires of discrimination.

Have any LGBT leaders come out in support of your campaign?

I have been endorsed, at this point, by nearly 200 LGBT leaders. For example: Barney Frank, Cleve Jones and Dustin Lance Black. You know, I’ve been an out and proud lesbian for 40 years, and it means a great deal to me to represent the city I’ve worked in, fought AIDS in, and have admired since its founding.

In 1988, at the height of the 1980s AIDS pandemic, you became the first woman Executive Director of the Los Angeles Gay and Lesbian Center. What did you take away from that role?

I learned much about leadership. Before I decided to take the position, though, I was an organizer, a worker-bee and a good number-two. 

I also learned that a crisis can often turn into an opportunity (with the right leadership). I went to at least one funeral a week. I buried a staffer every month. I visited hospitals and bedsides nightly for three years. That time in my life was intense and horrific, but it also made me and the LGBT community stronger. We all knew back then that we had to fight for life, for treatment, and for innovative health care.

Women and men lived on separate planets then, but we all managed to come together despite the magnificent odds against us. Lesbians were, and still are, America’s nurses, health educators and doctors. As such, many of us were at the front lines of the epidemic and gave our talents to help our newfound brothers.

Although a handful of states such as Tennessee, Missouri and North Carolina recently passed antigay legislation (Can’t Say Gay!), it seems that the gay rights movement has progressed by quantum leaps in the last few years.

We’ve seen extraordinary progress in just one generation, which is to say that the majority of young people now favor marriage equality. To them, LGBT is normal.

Still, even though the radical right will no doubt continue to fulminate against the gay community, the world has started to tilt in our favor. When I ran the Los Angeles Gay and Lesbian Center, the federal government turned its back without hesitation on so many people who were dying of AIDS. We have come a long way in the past 25 years. Take, for example, President Obama’s recent endorsement of same-sex marriage.

As a Super Volunteer for President Obama’s 2008 campaign, were you surprised at his very public evolution on same-sex marriage?

I was proud, to say the least. It took great courage to stand up for gay rights, especially in this tough re-election year. Today, same-sex marriage no longer belongs to the LGBT community alone. In fact, it has turned into the human rights issue of our time. Rapid public support, in the last four years, has started to work its way into the very fabric of ordinary American life—an extraordinary achievement when you consider that we currently live in America’s most conservative era. I think the Prop 8 trial helped push gay rights to a more open and bipartisan audience (thanks to a legacy of equality we saw emerge during the HIV/HIDS pandemic).

In the realm of politics, sexism and homophobia are still alive and well. Would you agree?

I often hear men describe me as “strident” because I ‘m passionate and aggressive. Have you ever heard anyone call a man “strident?”


That’s pure sexism. It astounds me how much air space people waste talking about a person’s sexuality. I’m invariably described as “gay” or “lesbian,” even though my opponents are never called “straight.” The assumption, then, is that I will only carry the so-called gay agenda. I have to counteract that all the time.

My advantage, on the other hand, is that I’ve been out of the closet for many years and my work centers on economic development and poverty. Still, it’s scary how quickly the press will pigeonhole LGBT candidates.

You have called politics a “soul-less machine.” In what ways exactly?

The system has become too corrupt. Today, it’s all about amoral self-protection, self-perpetuation and automatic incumbency protection (which I have faced often in my own campaign). I see these things even among liberals and Democrats. Winning, however, will be my best revenge against the machine. We need fresh solutions and common sense. We need truth and authenticity. I have the heart of an activist and will always be a champion for social justice.

Why do you think the GOP continues to vote against gay and women’s rights so vehemently?

The radical right has taken over the Republican Party with its distorted views on individual freedom, which is to say that they only want to sustain a straight, white, wealthy male perpetuation of power.

Clever conservative evangelicals, in the 1980s, organized a faith-based moral message that resists change no matter the consequences. They don’t value the natural evolution of our country or the long road to freedom (suffrage as it relates to labor, civil, women’s and LGBT rights). This land is about liberty and justice for all. The radical right has resisted change every step of the way. Unfortunately, they have consolidated tremendous power over the past 30 years by overtaking the Republican Party and institutionalizing power in the courts and in state legislatures. But they are losing ground as we speak because their story is not America’s finest story.

But no matter what they might think, the majority of Americans have evolved on LGBT and other progressive issues. I’m a deep believer in “E Pluribus Unum”—out of many, one. This pluralistic democracy is why I believe in America and will fight like hell to make it better. Democracy, no doubt, needs to include all of us.

In the not-so-distant-future, do you see a California better and more equal than the one you currently inhabit?

If we want to see California lead again, we must renew the California Dream.

That dream is built on high-quality public education made available to everyone, not only to those who can afford to pay for it. Years and years of cuts have decimated the education system; a system that benefited two generations of my family.

In the last four years, California has laid off 40,000 teachers. Tuition, however, continues to increase while overcrowded community college are being forced to turn students away.

We also need a sustainable economic plan that can meet our potential as the 9th largest economy in the world. These are big, systematic problems that we must tackle sooner rather than later. I would very much like to make government more cost effective by raising revenue and restructuring spending.

We also must work toward a universal, single-payer healthcare system. This is the most fiscally prudent, large scale reform we could hope to achieve.

Facing billions of dollars in cuts, Gov. Jerry Brown recently proposed slashing state workers pay and spending on social programs and prisons.

The deficit has bloomed to $12 billion. This coming November we must pass the Governor’s tax initiative. I know there are some problems with it, but we have no other options. In the long term, we need to have a serious conversation about reforming the corporate loopholes in Proposition 13. Just that fix alone would bring in almost $6 billion annually (money that could go to public education and infrastructure).

And we need an oil severance tax. There are common sense tax reforms that will make a big difference as long as we change the conversation and take on what I call, in jest, “taxophobia.” In the meantime, we have to find a way to preserve what’s left of the State’s safety net (healthcare, social services and education) and look into how we can reform our criminal justice system.

The juvenile justice system, for example, spends over $100,000 per child per year with a 70% recidivism rate. There are national models that cost $44,000 per child per year with a 7% recidivism rate. It if makes sense fiscally and is more humane, let’s do it.

What does common sense government mean to you?

California really needs to take a serious look at its tax system. We are too dependent on volatile tax revenue, both income and sales tax, at the expense of infrastructure and public education. My work focuses on getting new voters (predominately young and minority voters) to become regular voters. My goal is to increase the constituency for tax reform so that we can once again begin to reinvest in California’s future.

Whom do you admire?

Harvey Milk, for he said two things that have always stuck with me over the years: True leaders are “independent and un-bought.” He also believed the LGBT community must continue to elect our own people to best represent us at the tables of power.

In similar ways, I admire Dolores Huerta, whom I have the honor of working with at California Calls (my day job). She is a stunning example of a true leader. She is humble, a collaborator, and a community builder in any setting. And she knows how to listen. She is also a instinctive coalition builder, which is a rare resource in the realm of people you can lead well. She always asks questions that reflect the group’s collective unconsciousness; the unspoken anxieties and fears we all have in the back of our heads. She’s my shero.

For more information on Torie Osborn and California's District 50, visit: