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California Assembly leader opens up on gay rights

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) -- Assembly Speaker Toni Atkins, the first lesbian to lead a house of the California Legislature, said Tuesday that more work needs to be done to promote tolerance of gays and lesbians, especially in rural America.

The San Diego Democrat, a native of Appalachia, told attendees at the She Shares women's leadership conference in the state capital that the “most profound” way of advancing equality is coming out and taking small actions that validate being gay.

As an example, she noted the kiss with her spouse, Jennifer LeSar, when she was sworn in as speaker of the 80-member chamber last month. A photo of the kiss ran online and in newspapers across the country, including in the newspaper of her childhood hometown, The Roanoke Times.

She said there was nothing courageous about the kiss, noting that it's easier to be openly gay in California than in places such as rural Virginia, where she grew up in poverty.

“For that picture to be in the paper in Virginia is important because it gives permission for the speaker of the California state Assembly to be a lesbian and it's OK,” Atkins said.

She praised as courageous a small town in Kentucky that voted to support equality. The city commission of Vicco, Kentucky, a town of about 300 people with a gay mayor, voted last year to ban discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.

Atkins' political rise in California created little stir, in part because her predecessor, Los Angeles Democrat John Perez, was the first openly gay speaker of the Assembly. The 120-member Legislature has eight openly gay and lesbian lawmakers and often backs laws supported by LGBT groups.

Even in recent years, California hasn't always been receptive to gay and lesbian equality. Two years before Atkins was elected to the Legislature, in 2010, Californians narrowly voted in favor of Proposition 8 to ban same-sex marriage. It has since been overturned by the federal courts.

“We don't have full equality,” Atkins said. “Even in California, there are places and towns ... that I probably wouldn't feel very comfortable taking Jennifer's hand.”

Atkins has identified homelessness, affordable housing and health care as priorities, which she says is motivated by her roots growing up in a house without running water and a family that lacked health insurance.

She has carried some legislation favored by lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender groups, including a bill that would allow transgender Californians' death certificates to reflect the gender they lived as.

Early in her remarks, Atkins took a jab at Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who recently compared homosexuality to alcoholism during a Commonwealth Club event in San Francisco.

“I am not addicted to anything _ well, other than coffee,” Atkins quipped when her interviewer brought up Perry. “I thank Gov. Perry for being concerned about me, though.”

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Follow Fenit Nirappil on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/FenitN.

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