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Sheila Kuehl at the Emmy Awards.
|Member of the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors|
from the 3rd District
December 1, 2014
|Member of the California Senate|
from the 23rd district
December 4, 2000 - December 1, 2008
|Member of the California State Assembly|
from the California State Assembly, 41st district district
December 5, 1994 - December 4, 2000
Sheila Ann Kuehl
February 9, 1941
|Residence||Santa Monica, California|
|Alma mater||University of California, Los Angeles|
Harvard Law School
Sheila Ann Kuehl
|Other names||Sheila James; Sheila James Kuehl|
Sheila James Kuehl (born February 9, 1941) is an American politician, former child actress, and currently the member of the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors for the 3rd District. In 1994, she became the first openly gay California legislator. Two years later, George magazine named her one of the 20 most fascinating women in politics and the California Journal selected her as "Rookie of the Year." The following year, she became the first woman in California history to be named Speaker pro tempore of the California State Assembly. In 1998 and 2000, the California Journal chose her as the Assembly member with the greatest intelligence and the most integrity. During this time, she was twice selected to speak about family violence and diversity at the Democratic National Conventions. After serving six years in the State Assembly, Kuehl was elected to the California State Senate. Between 2000 and 2008, she authored 171 bills that were signed into law by three different governors, including legislation to formally incorporate the rights declared in Roe v. Wade into California state law. In 2006, the Capitol Weekly selected her as the most intelligent member of the California Legislature. The story of her role as the first lesbian in the state legislature, along with three other pioneering lesbian legislators, is told in the documentary, Political Animals.
In 2014, she was elected to the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors. In her capacity as Supervisor, she serves as Chair of the Board of Commissioners of First 5 LA, First Vice Chair of the Board of Directors of LA Metro, and sits on the Board of the new Community Choice Aggregation (CCA) known as the Clean Power Alliance.
In her first three years on the Board, she has undertaken or collaborated in a number of initiatives and motions to improve the quality of life and reform systems in the County. A partial list of her achievements includes successfully championing the effort to raise the minimum wage, creating a Citizens' Oversight Commission for the Sheriff's Department, providing unprecedented funding and services for LA County's homeless population and those trying to find and keep affordable housing, and launching an historic Women and Girls Initiative to address the disproportionate burdens and disadvantages faced by women and girls.
Kuehl also helped establish oversight of the Probation Department and is working to reform the adult and juvenile justice systems, emphasizing "second chance" and anti-recidivism programs. She supported the creation of the Office of Child Protection, and oversaw the opening of Campus Kilpatrick - a state-of-the-art juvenile justice facility that emphasizes trauma-informed rehabilitation.
Kuehl was born Sheila Ann Kuehl in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Her father, Arthur, was an airplane construction worker at Douglas Aircraft. He was Catholic and her mother, Lillian, was Jewish. As a child actress she performed under the stage name Sheila James.
At age seven Kuehl's parents noticed that she loved to try to play piano and sing though she lacked any training. Kuehl's parents agreed to pay for lessons when a door-to-door salesmen came to their home selling Saturday classes for tap-dancing, ballet, and singing lessons at Meglin Studios. Her parents would accompany her by bus for tap-dancing lessons at the studio every Saturday. As the tap instructor's wife taught drama classes for an additional 50 cents, Kuehl's parents signed her up for those as well. The classes would have recitals on Monday nights to showcase what they had learned.
At one recital Kuehl played an assistant in a skit called "The Old Sleuth" where she sat under a table listening for clues. To indicate she was listening Kuehl made faces which caused the audience to laugh and encouraged her to make more faces resulting in more laughter. The skit was ruined but the drama teacher, Mrs. Meglin was impressed. Kuehl later recalled that Meglin told her mother "'The kid's pretty funny. Can she read?' And my mother said, 'Oh, yeah, she can read, she skipped two grades, she's really very good.' Mrs. Meglin said, 'There's a radio series holding interviews...at an agent's office on Sunset Boulevard. Would you be interested in taking her to the interview? All she has to do is read...' So we went for the interview and there were like 150 or 200 kids there and all you did was read. And I was called back...and eventually I got the part in what probably was the last family radio series before it went all music and news...'"
Having landed the role at the age of eight Kuehl (billed as Sheila James) starred with radio and film veterans Penny Singleton, Gale Gordon, Bea Benaderet, and Jim Backus on the family radio program The Penny Williamson Show airing live from Studio B of the NBC studios in Hollywood. Airing in the adjacent studios was the popular drama The Cisco Kid and The Bob Hope Show with Doris Day (whom Kuehl admired). Kuehl would later cite her interaction with the other NBC radio talent as influential in forming her professionalism and comedy skills. The show centred around Singleton playing Penny Williamson a widow selling real estate in a small town to support two daughters (played by Kuehl and Mary Lee Robb). The show was "a light-hearted pitch for women's liberation, portraying Penny and her daughters as highly competent, self-sufficient females" dealing with bungling suitors competing for Penny's affections.
Due to her talent exhibited on radio, Kuehl's agent convinced her parents to bring her to auditions for a television role. Kuehl later recalled "The same 200 kids I think were there for the interview [as had been for the radio audition] and I was called back and called back and called back and eventually I got that part. And beginning in 1950, I did that series for six years." Kuehl was signed to play Jackie, Stuart Erwin's tomboy daughter, in the television series The Stu Erwin Show (also known as Trouble with Father) from 1950 to 1955.
After The Stu Erwin Show ended Kuehl continued to work as an actress while going to school. Due to academic success Kuehl had been able to skip two grades and by sixteen was attending the University of California, Los Angeles. As her college studies continued she moved into a sorority house and began spending summers as a counsellor for a children's camp. At the age of eighteen while working at the camp Kuehl met a twenty-one year-old counsellor named Kathy and fell in love. Kuehl would later recall "It was just a funny attraction that neither of us would acknowledge. Then, one night she and I were sitting together at her place. She was rubbing my back and we just, like, went to bed. It was wonderful. But then we stayed up all night wondering if we were really sick." They concluded that they were "sick" but that nothing could be done. Kuehl later recalled "There was no movement then. There was nothing to read. I knew no lesbians. We just figured this was a rare thing and that we were two women who'd fallen in love and that we had to keep it a secret because nobody would approve. We didn't dare tell a soul." After that summer, with Kathy going to school in San Diego, the two exchanged passionate letters daily for a year.
During this time Kuehl began the acting in the role she is probably best known for - her portrayal of teen-aged genius Zelda Gilroy, the wannabe girlfriend of the title character in the television series The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis, which aired on CBS from 1959 to 1963. Zelda was originally intended to be a one-shot character in the early Dobie Gillis episode "Love is a Science," but Dobie creator Max Shulman liked Kuehl and had her signed on as a semi-regular cast member.
Kuehl later recalled how she landed the part "Well, when you're an actor with an agent, no matter how old you are, you go on interviews. I went on lots of interviews for lots of guest shots...and I had done two [episodes] on Love that Bob [The Bob Cummings Show] with Bob Cummings and Dwayne Hickman, who played his nephew, and the director Rod Amateau, so I had met all the people who eventually were going to be much of the team for Dobie Gillis. In 1959, I was at UCLA, and I went on an interview for Dobie Gillis and I walked on the set and they all said 'Oh, hi, we know your work, you're fine. Just go across the street and meet Max Schulman [the writer director].' As it turned out, Max and I were the same height, and he was like buried behind the desk when I walked in. And he said, 'What's the first line?' And I said, 'I love you.' And he said, 'You're hired!'"
Signing a contract with Dobie producer 20th Century Fox Television required Kuehl, then 18 and in college studying theater, to change her major to English, so that Shulman, also a successful author, could act as her proctor on set in order to allow her to continue her studies. Kuehl earned a bachelor's degree in English from the University of California at Los Angeles in 1962, during the show's final season.
Having signed a contract in 1960 to do 21 shows for the next season of Dobie, that same year Kuehl was elected an officer in both the University student government and in her sorority. Despite this success, things became difficult that summer when love-letters to Kathy that she had accidentally left at the sorority house were found by the cleaning staff and turned over to the alumnae council of the sorority. When she returned from summer vacation the council (while speaking in coded language and carefully avoiding the word "lesbian") confronted Kuehl with the letters demanding an explanation. Kuehl later recalled that at first she tried to deny it and failing that "I then just clammed up and took my sorority pin off and put it on the table and left. I cried all the way home." She was officially expelled from the sorority and despite assurance that no one would be told why she was aware that rumours were spreading. Some of the members of the sorority refused to speak to her afterwards and avoided her. Kuehl moved back in with her parents under the cover story that she was homesick but was still a member of the sorority which they knew she loved being a part of. Whenever her parents knew of a sorority meeting taking place, to prevent discovery, Kuehl would go to a coffee shop during that time and return with a story about the events of the meeting that she had not attended.
Despite Kathy moving to L.A. and their being able to see each other daily, the social sacrifices Kuehl was contemplating put a strain on their relationship. Kuehl later recalled "By then the whole idea of being queer was so overwhelming and scary. Not the sexuality, but the loss of everything. To be that way for good meant no family, no children, no career, nor normalcy, no parents. It seemed at that point that I should really get out of it. I told [Kathy] I didn't want to see her any longer." Kuehl had seen a man casually on and off during her relationship with Kathy and began working to make it more serious. They kissed but they did not have sex and they almost got engaged. Kuehl couldn't get Kathy off her mind and broke up with the man to resume the relationship with her. Kuehl's closeted relationship with Kathy continued until the beginning of the 1970s, and had lasted 12 years before they broke up.
After Dobie Gillis ended its run, Kuehl (as "Sheila James") co-starred with Kathleen Nolan, formerly of The Real McCoys, in the short-lived ABC television series Broadside, a female version of McHale's Navy, in its 1964-65 season.
Opportunities for acting work steadily diminished and Kuehl was forced to sell her Malibu house. She later recalled this period saying "I couldn't even get a commercial." Due to worries about her career and being closeted she fell into a serious depression and developed a drinking problem. She was able to move forward after seeking help. She then moved in with her then-girlfriend, Kathy, and began working at the UCLA student activities office helping students organize around the rising political movements of the 1960s.
Kuehl was able to make television guest appearances on National Velvet, McHale's Navy, The Donna Reed Show, The Beverly Hillbillies, Petticoat Junction, The Adventures of Ozzie & Harriet, Marcus Welby, M.D. and The Ed Sullivan Show from 1963 to 1970. By the end of the decade, acting roles had dried up for her. Though Kuehl "can't state with certainty that she was blacklisted" from further acting jobs over her sexuality, she claims that afterwards, "with few exceptions, the phone stopped ringing." A pilot for a Dobie Gillis spin-off, in which the character Zelda was the lead, was produced, but the president of CBS, Jim Aubrey, thought Kuehl was "too butch" to be a star for their network. Subsequently, the pilot was not promoted and did not sell, but Kuehl was not told about this immediately. Rather, she was informed by the director, Rod Amateau, when she arrived to shoot the following episodes. She was devastated by the news.
Kuehl's only acting roles beyond 1970 were in two Dobie Gillis reunion projects: a 1977 sitcom pilot produced by James Komack, Whatever Happened to Dobie Gillis?, and a 1988 television movie sequel, Bring Me the Head of Dobie Gillis. In both productions, Dobie had married Zelda and the two were running the Gillis family grocery store and raising a teenage son named Georgie Gillis.
Reflecting on the lasting impact of her role as Zelda, Kuehl told an interviewer "First, there were no smart girls on television, period. All the girls were better looking than me, but dumb. I didn't mean the actresses were dumb, but that was sort of what you had to be in those days. So, a smart girl, brash, did not know she was a loser, which was sort of the theme for all the characters on Dobie Gillis...you just keep doing what you are doing because you don't know there's anything wrong with you. And the other thing, of course, 20 years later I started getting letters from young women saying 'You were such a role model for me,' and now that the women's movement had started I could see why. An independent, smart girl, knew what she wanted, went after it, but not in a mean way. And always by the end of the show if you were doing anything dishonest against your friends, you would repent. Because friendship was always the most important thing."
After leaving the acting profession in the early 1970s, Kuehl became an adviser to students in campus activist groups at her alma mater, UCLA, and eventually became an associate dean of students. When Kuehl was passed over for a promotion that was given to a man, Kuehl felt that her treatment had been unfair and became interested in a legal career to address the position of women in the workplace.
In 1975, at age 34, after being denied admission into UCLA, Kuehl was accepted at Harvard Law School. In her third year she was elected class marshal and president of the student council. She received her J.D. in 1978. During her final year, she chaired the celebration of the 25th anniversary of the first group of women to be admitted to the law school, and became the second woman to win Harvard's prestigious Ames Moot Court Competition, judged by a panel including Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall. Keuhl recalled that the Justice "strode over to me, clasped my hand in his two huge hands and said, 'Lady, I like your style.'" Kuehl was recognized in the ABA's Law Student Division magazine as one of the nation's top five law students.
It was while at Harvard that Kuehl came to grips with her sexuality, she later recalled "So it wasn't until I went to [Harvard] law school in my thirties that I fell in love again with a woman after having dated lots of men in between, and I thought 'Oh, no, this is really who I am.' And by then in the mid-seventies, there was consciousness about being gay. My second partner was out...and I was still in the closet I thought, [but] I wasn't really in the closet at school. It's just sort of like you creep out a little at a time. But there was no movement, no organization, no club at Harvard, and so when we came back and lived together, it only lasted a couple of years and she left. I was so broken-hearted but I had no one to talk to. I hadn't told anyone I was even in a relationship. So I decided to come out to my sister and then my friends and very shortly thereafter my parents. And that was probably '79, so I was 38. So I knew I was gay when I fell in love with a woman for the second time. It wasn't an aberration for me...."
After law school, Kuehl became an associate at Richards, Watson & Gershon in Los Angeles, where her practice focused on municipal law. She later became an associate at Bersch & Kaplowitz in Beverly Hills, practicing family, anti-discrimination, and civil rights law.
While working in private practice in Los Angeles Kuehl began fund-raising for the Sojourn Center for Battered Women (which she eventually served as Chair). Staff from other shelters soon began asking Kuehl for legal advice and training in domestic-violence law. Kuehl later recalled this time saying "I had to learn what there was, which wasn't much." She then joined a handful of other lawyers in trying to assist in crafting legislation on the issue which included a bill that required judges in custody cases to consider evidence of domestic violence.
In the 1980s Kuehl became an adjunct law professor at the University of Southern California, and later an associate professor at Loyola Law School where she taught courses on family law, sex discrimination, and education.
During her 1986 inauguration as president of the Women Lawyers' Association of Los Angeles Kuehl introduced Torie Osborn as her partner in the same manner that previous presidents had introduced their husbands. The incident became the lead story of California's daily law journal. (The pair would later separate in 1991, but remained close friends).
In 1989, along with Abby Leibman and Jenifer McKenna, Kuehl formed the California Women's Law Center to promote gender issues, including expanding the rights of divorced women and reforming hiring procedures in male-dominated professions, such as law enforcement.
Kuehl was elected to the California State Assembly in 1994, becoming the first openly gay person elected to the California legislature. While running for office Kuehl found she was able to offset some negative stereotypes people had about lesbians thanks to their familiarity with her role as Zelda. She told an interviewer "When people know gay people personally, they tend to feel differently about the whole community. And all of a sudden, here's a person that they knew very well that they found out was lesbian."
In office Kuehl became a founding member of the California Legislative LGBT Caucus. She recalled "My Democratic colleagues were enormously welcoming. I mean it was more than I could have expected. I walked into my first Democratic caucus and Antonio Villaraigosa, Kevin Murray, Barbara Friedman, John Burton and probably three or four other folks came up to me and said, 'We don't want you to have to eat lunch by yourself so we are the honorary Gay and Lesbian Caucus.' It was lovely."
When Kuehl was elected as a Democrat to the California Assembly in 1994 a Republican majority was seated for the first time in 20 years. This was due largely as an out-flowing of the enthusiasm stoked up by Newt Gingrich's strategy supporting Republicans for Congressional and U.S. Senate seats. Kuehl recalled "The Republican majority was quite a different kind of Republican, not a moderate, not a Rockefeller Republican. They were primarily Bible-thumpers and very right-wing. So it was not the most welcoming Republican group, though they loved Zelda Gilroy, and it was very difficult for them because they already liked me so much.... And to their surprise, we all got along very well. ...The Republicans were pretty horrible about LGBT stuff. They all virtually said stuff like, 'Well, they're all spawn of the devil, oh, but not you, Sheila....'"
One of the first acts Kuehl did while in the Assembly was to introduce a bill (The Dignity for All Students Act - AB 222) to protect public school students from discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. The bill was supported by most of her fellow Democrats whom Kuehl later recalled were brought "into a space where they were in a civil rights movement where they had never been at their age and they were feeling it and felt good about themselves when they would stand up and support me." The debate was cited by the media, such as the LA Times, for its moving speeches, most notably Assemblyman Tom Torlakson's support of the bill which included a here-to unknown revelation that his brother had been bisexual and died of AIDS. The bill failed to pass the Assembly by one vote (it was opposed by 37 lawmakers, including seven Democrats). Supporters of the bill blamed "a state-wide public relations campaign by anti-gay groups aimed at moderate Democrats" which "featured mailers, newspaper ads and protests largely targeted at Latino lawmakers." Kuehl's opponents also held that the "proposal would open the door to a sweeping gay agenda in public schools." Republican Assemblyman Bruce Thompson claimed the bill wasn't about "civil rights, but it's about special rights [for homosexuals]," and it's "the issue that will divide this state and country more than any other."
While in the Assembly Kuehl served as Speaker pro tempore during the 1997-98 legislative session, becoming the first woman in California history to hold the position. Kuehl served three full terms (six years) in the California Assembly which was the maximum allowed under term limits that had been adopted in 1990.
After three terms in the Assembly, she was elected to the California State Senate in 2000, beating Assemblyman Wally Knox in the Democratic primary and becoming the first openly gay person elected to the Senate. Re-elected in 2004 with 65.7% of the vote, she was repeatedly voted the "smartest" member of the California Legislature.
In 2002 Kuehl co-authored the Religious Freedom and Civil Marriage Protection Act that defined marriage as a civil contract between two persons. The bill went on to pass the state legislature - the first time a state legislative body in the USA voted to approve same-sex marriage rather than respond to a court order to do so. The bill was vetoed on September 7, 2005 by Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger who held that the matter should be decided by the courts or by popular referendum.
In 2004 Gavin Newsom the mayor of San Francisco held that denying homosexuals the right to marry was a violation of the due process clause in the California Constitution and allowed them to go forward (until a later Court order was made). After the mayor's announcement Kuehl presided over a number of same-sex marriages on the steps of San Francisco's City Hall rotunda. Among those whose wedding she officiated was Assembly-member Jackie Goldberg (who authored AB 205, a sweeping domestic partner benefits law) and her partner for twenty-eight years Sharon Stricker (a poet and activist). The couple's newly married son and daughter-in-law were in attendance. Kuehl also officiated over the weddings of Torie Osborn and her partner, Lydia Vaias; Jehan Agrama and Dwora Fried; Patti Giggans and Ellen Ledley; Barrie Levy and Linda Garnets; and Avi Rose and Ron Strochlic. Assembly-member Mark Leno (who had recently introduced a bill to change the family code to allow marriage equality) also attended the ceremonies giving a blessing in English and Hebrew to the couples.
Also in 2004, Kuehl authored Senate Bill 1234, an omnibus act intended to protect Californians from hate crimes, which the bill defined as criminal acts committed in whole or in part because of the victims' actual or perceived disability, gender, nationality, race or ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation or association with persons with any of those characteristics. The bill targeted crimes, not First Amendment-protected speech. It also protected undocumented immigrants from deportation due to reporting hate crimes, increased civil protections from discrimination, and provided for law enforcement training concerning crimes against homeless persons and law enforcement response to homelessness, bill was later enacted into law.
In 2006, Kuehl sponsored a bill to prohibit the adoption by any school district in California of any instructional material that discriminates against persons based on their gender or sexual orientation.
Throughout her career as a legislator, Kuehl took a leadership role on health care policy. Her foremost objective was securing passage of legislation to establish a single-payer health care system in California. SB 840 passed both houses of the legislature in 2006, but was vetoed by Republican Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger; it was reintroduced in 2007 and again passed the state Senate, with a vote pending in the Assembly. SB 840 passed both houses of the California legislature in August 2008 and was, again, vetoed by Governor Schwarzenegger.
On January 28, 2008, The New York Times reported that Kuehl planned to vote against a health care plan sponsored by Governor Schwarzenegger and supported by a majority of Democrats in the Assembly, while opposed by a majority of Republicans. Her opposition along with the opposition of Senator Leland Yee led the Times to predict that California's widely touted healthcare bill – widely but inaccurately called "universal" coverage – would be effectively killed. However, by the time the bill came to the Senate Health Committee, chaired by Kuehl, all but one of the Democratic Senators on the Committee had grave doubts about the bill and, after an eleven-hour hearing on the bill and an intervening week to caucus, on January 28, 2008, one Democrat voted yes, three abstained and three (including Kuehl), along with all Republicans, voted in opposition.
During her time in the state Legislature Kuehl authored bills pertaining to domestic violence, child support services, family leave, and discrimination based on gender, disability and sexual orientation. Later when speaking to an interviewer she reflected "I was a women's rights attorney and a law professor. My interest was primarily issues of equality on the basis of gender, whether it was workplace discrimination, protection from domestic violence and sexual assault, child care, custody issues for married women. That was my area of expertise, so we started with that. I had participated in writing virtually all of the domestic violence laws, and then brought bills to expand them once I was [in Sacramento]. I knew, that as the only gay person, it would fall to me to bring protective bills. And I chose the most difficult one first, because anything having to do with children is a flashpoint for the opposition. And so it was very difficult."
Kuehl served in the California Senate for two terms (eight years) the maximum allowed under term limits adopted in 1990.
In 2009, Kuehl became a member of the California Integrated Waste Management Board. In 2010, she started Kuehl Consulting and served on the board as a member of the Public Policy Institute at Santa Monica College.
On November 4, 2014, Supervisor Kuehl was elected to the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors. She assumed office on December 1, 2014, thus becoming the first openly LGBTQ person to ever serve on the Board. As the representative of Los Angeles County's 3rd Supervisorial District, she serves the interests of nearly two million residents, and is responsible for managing 431 square miles of land stretching from the ocean to Los Feliz, and from Venice up to San Fernando. In 2018, she is serving as Chair of the Board of Supervisors.
In her capacity as Supervisor, she serves as Chair of the Board of Commissioners of First 5 LA, First Vice Chair of the Board of Directors of LA Metro, and sits on the Board of the new Community Choice Aggregation (CCA) known as the Clean Power Alliance.
In her first three years on the Board, she has undertaken or collaborated in a number of initiatives and motions to improve the quality of life and reform systems in the County. A partial list of her achievements includes successfully championing the effort to raise the minimum wage, creating a Citizens' Oversight Commission for the Sheriff's Department, providing unprecedented funding and services for LA County's homeless population and those trying to find and keep affordable housing,
Kuehl previously had a ten-year romantic relationship with Torie Osborn, who served as a deputy mayor in L.A. Osborn went on to support Kuehl's run for Supervisor and joined her staff as principal deputy for strategy and policy.
Los Angeles County limits its Supervisors to three consecutive four-year terms in accord with a 2002 measure. When running for the office she was asked if she missed acting and responded that the camaraderie in public service mirrored her favourite aspect of acting, and then stated "I suppose if I get to be a supervisor and then I'm termed out, I'll be, you know, fairly elderly but still able to do things, and then I guess my ambition would be to be Betty White for a couple of years."
Reflecting on her political career Kuehl told an interviewer, "I was very proud of the fact that I wasn't too frightened to run for office as a gay person. [You imagine] people making anonymous phone calls in the middle of the night to tell you you're a horrible person only in worse language than that, or imagine getting spat at. It's the same thing people go through about coming out. But it turns out to be much better than you expect."
| California State Assemblymember,
| California State Senator,
| Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors