California Governor Wilson Vetoes Antidiscrimination Bill

California governor Pete Wilson reneged on a campaign promise to protect gays and lesbians from employment discrimination when he vetoed AB-101, a bill that would have prohibited employers from discriminating in hiring and promotion on the basis of a person’s sexual orientation. His veto drew weeks of street protests and rallies in California and around the country.

Summary of Event

Pete Wilson, who had been a U.S. senator representing California, was known as a moderate Republican and had less than full support from the more conservative right wing of the Republican Party. When he ran for governor in 1990 against the popular former San Francisco mayor, Democrat Dianne Feinstein (now a U.S. senator), he ran on the tailcoat of Proposition 115, the Crime Victims Justice Reform Act, which helped him solidify his credentials as “tough on crime” and gain favor with more conservative Republicans. Wilson seemed to be walking a very tight line, trying to woo the votes of both conservative Republicans and moderate Republicans and Democrats. [kw]California Governor Wilson Vetoes Antidiscrimination Bill (Sept. 29, 1991)
[kw]Governor Wilson Vetoes Antidiscrimination Bill, California (Sept. 29, 1991)
[kw]Wilson Vetoes Antidiscrimination Bill, California Governor (Sept. 29, 1991)
[kw]Antidiscrimination Bill, California Governor Wilson Vetoes (Sept. 29, 1991)
California;GLBT discrimination
Protests and marches;AB-101[AB101]
Civil rights;California
Employment rights;California
AB-101, California[AB101]
[c]Laws, acts, and legal history;Sept. 29, 1991: California Governor Wilson Vetoes Antidiscrimination Bill[2110]
[c]Civil rights;Sept. 29, 1991: California Governor Wilson Vetoes Antidiscrimination Bill[2110]
[c]Marches, protests, and riots;Sept. 29, 1991: California Governor Wilson Vetoes Antidiscrimination Bill[2110]
Wilson, Pete
Friedman, Terry B.
Duran, John J.

During the heated gubernatorial campaign, Wilson made promises to gays and lesbians, stating that he would sign any legislation before him that outlawed employment discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. Many gay and lesbian Californians supported his run based on his campaign promises. In late September, 1991, the state senate passed AB-101, a bill authored by Assemblyman Terry B. Friedman. The bill would have added sexual orientation as a protected class under California’s nondiscrimination law; it passed by one vote and went to the governor for his signature. Gay and lesbian Californians had looked forward to the signing of the bill based on Wilson’s campaign promises.

On September 29, 1991, Governor Wilson, feeling the pressures of conservative Republicans who found him to be pro-tax and antifamily, vetoed AB-101. He stated that existing laws afforded lesbians and gays ample protection against discrimination, although he added that he was “tempted to sign the legislation to protect gays from a tiny minority of mean-spirited, gay-bashing bigots.” His political savvy failed to garner many rewards from conservative groups such as the Traditional Values Coalition, Traditional Values Coalition led by the Reverend Lou Sheldon, Sheldon, Lou who said he was pleased but withheld his full support of the governor. Other conservatives criticized the governor for implying that gays and lesbians needed protection from a tiny minority of bigots. It seemed that few on either side were happy with Wilson’s veto, least of all gay and lesbian Californians, who had believed his promises and supported his campaign.

California gay and lesbian communities erupted in the wake of Wilson’s veto. Their sense of betrayal flowed into the streets as thousands protested and rebelled in San Francisco, Sacramento, and Los Angeles. Protesters decried Wilson as a spineless politician thinking only of his presidential aspirations. In San Francisco, crowds marched to the Old State House, where police were not prepared with riot gear. The crowds overwhelmed the officers, using bricks and two-by-fours to destroy stained-glass windows in their rage. The crowd set fire to the building and chanted anti-Wilson slogans as it burned. In Los Angeles, protesters marched through the streets, disrupted and stopped traffic, and held multiple nonviolent protests over several weeks, well into the month of November.


Governor Wilson had managed to sandwich himself politically between two powerful California constituencies, the conservative right of the Republican Party and the progressive left of the Democratic Party. Though he would serve as governor until 1999, he would never find his footing as he tried to assuage both constituencies. Wilson’s political career turned sharply to the right, as signaled by his veto. Wilson heard the voices of angry gays and lesbians, but he was swayed by conservative Republicans, who continued to eschew his middle-of-the-road, tax-and-spend politics. The right sustained its pressure on Wilson at the same time that protesters made their anger known to Wilson at gatherings throughout the state. John J. Duran, an Anaheim attorney and cochair of the Lobby for Individual Freedom and Equality (LIFE Lobby) LIFE Lobby (a key sponsor of AB-101), contended that Wilson’s veto led to questions about his political stances. Duran said that “Wilson absolutely caved in to the far right of his own party and to fundamentalists on gay rights. What else then? Abortion? What else will the right hold him hostage to?”

The people of California would pass a proposition modeled after AB-101 by a 2-1 margin. In 1992, Wilson signed into legislation AB-2601, AB-2601, California[AB2601] authored by Assemblyman Friedman. AB-2601, similar to AB-101, added sexual orientation as a protected class in the state’s labor code. Wilson signed the legislation, noting that it afforded “a wholly adequate remedy to those suffering discrimination and is responsive…to the need for fairness to innocent employers and their employees.” The gay and lesbian communities disagreed and fought for legislation during his second session that would transfer responsibility for enforcing workplace discrimination protections for gays and lesbians to the Department of Fair Employment and Housing, the same department that handled all other forms of discrimination. Gay and lesbian advocates argued that a law of protection existed and no one knew how to use it. Wilson vetoed the bill on October 13, 1997.

During his years as governor, Wilson supported Proposition 187, legislation denying state-financed benefits to illegal immigrants; vetoed several pieces of gay rights legislation, including a 1994 domestic partnership bill; attempted to block the regents of the University of California from providing domestic partnership benefits to their employees; and significantly shifted to the political right. Though Wilson had dreams of a presidential run, his inconsistency with promises and his stance on Proposition 187, a position that Republicans later called a mistake, ended his dreams. California;GLBT discrimination
Protests and marches;AB-101[AB101]
Civil rights;California
Employment rights;California

Further Reading

  • Berstein, Dan. “Initiatives Are at the Top of Politicians’ List of Favorite Things.” Sacramento Bee, August 5, 1996.
  • D’Emilio, John. “Gay Politics and Community in San Francisco Since World War II.” Socialist Review 55 (January/February, 1981): 77-104.
  • _______. Making Trouble: Essays on Gay History, Politics, and the University. New York: Routledge, 1992.
  • Gewertz, Catherine, and George Frank. “Wilson Criticized by Both Sides After Gay Rights Bill Veto.” Los Angeles Times, October 1, 1991, p. 1.
  • Harris, Scott, and George Ramos. “Gay Activists Vent Rage over Wilson’s Veto Protest.” Los Angeles Times, October 1, 1991, p. 3.
  • Kaiser, Charles. The Gay Metropolis: 1940-1996. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1997.
  • Marcus, Eric. Making History: The Struggles for Gay and Lesbian Equal Rights, 1945-1990, an Oral History. New York: HarperCollins, 1992.
  • Murphy, Dean, and Victor Merina. “March by One Thousand Gay Activists Halts Business Protest.” Los Angeles Times, October 6, 1991, p. 5.
  • “Rights Watch: Political Veto.” Editorial. Los Angeles Times, October 1, 1991, p. 6.

April 27, 1953: U.S. President Eisenhower Prohibits Federal Employment of Lesbians and Gays

1972-1973: Local Governments Pass Antidiscrimination Laws

June 27, 1974: Abzug and Koch Attempt to Amend the Civil Rights Act of 1964

July 3, 1975: U.S. Civil Service Commission Prohibits Discrimination Against Federal Employees

1978: Lesbian and Gay Workplace Movement Is Founded

June 2, 1980: Canadian Gay Postal Workers Secure Union Protections

December 4, 1984: Berkeley Extends Benefits to Domestic Partners of City Employees

November 8, 1988: Oregon Repeals Ban on Antigay Job Discrimination

May 1, 1989: U.S. Supreme Court Rules Gender-Role Stereotyping Is Discriminatory

September 23, 1992: Massachusetts Grants Family Rights to Gay and Lesbian State Workers

1994: Employment Non-Discrimination Act Is Proposed to U.S. Congress

April 2, 1998: Canadian Supreme Court Reverses Gay Academic’s Firing

July, 2003: Singapore Lifts Ban on Hiring Lesbian and Gay Employees

July, 2003: Wal-Mart Adds Lesbians and Gays to Its Antidiscrimination Policy