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Still Fighting: Mark Levine Brings A Quarter-Century of LGBTQ Activism to the General Assembly

From marriage equality to representation on television, Mark Levine's been fighting for the advancement of the LGBTQ community for decades. Today, as a member of the House Of Delegates, his fight continues.

Marilyn Drew Necci | July 4, 2018

Here’s the first article from our Summer 2018 Pride Guide, released in conjunction with VA Pride and available around RVA this week. We’ll be sharing more of these in the coming weeks, but why wait? Grab yourself a copy now! For details on where to find one, click here.

Marriage equality advocate, muckraking journalist, Nazi hunter — Mark Levine has been all of these things and more in his lengthy career. These days, he’s putting his extensive experience fighting for social justice to use as the Delegate for the 45th District in Virginia’s House Of Delegates. And he’s working harder than ever.

“I’ve been a fighter for more than 20 years,” Levine told me when I reach him one Thursday morning. He was preparing to record one of two broadcasts he produces each week for his radio show, Mark Levine’s Inside Scoop From Washington. “It used to be 5 days a week,” he said. “Being a delegate, I had to cut back.” But the show, which Levine has been producing for 15 years, is still going strong, heard in 42 markets through the Progressive Voices Network.

Levine’s progressive roots run deep. Born in Nashville to a liberal Jewish family, he learned what it was like to be different from a very young age. “There’s not that many Jews in the South, but there was definitely prejudice against me growing up,” he said. Having a supportive family made a big difference in his life, giving him the foundation he needed to spend his life fighting for what was right. “My parents taught me that you can be right and the whole world can be wrong,” he said. “It was a point of pride for me to be a Jewish kid, frankly. I really think it helped me in the coming out process.”

Levine speaks on the House Of Delegates floor

Not that the coming out process was quick for Levine. Growing up in the 80s, with the AIDS epidemic at its height, he struggled to understand and accept himself. “My family was never prejudiced,” he said. “My religion didn’t speak against it. But I didn’t want to be gay — not because I thought there was something wrong with it, I just knew that society hated gay people. And there’s nothing more closet-inducing than a deadly disease.”

Instead of exploring his sexuality, Levine focused on his studies. While pursuing his undergraduate degree at Harvard, he used the vast archives of the university’s world-renowned Widener Library to try to understand himself. “I found every book I could on homosexuality,” he said. “It was a real education. I didn’t really know what being gay was.” By the time he’d completed his undergraduate studies, Levine felt comfortable enough to admit to himself that he was gay. But he wasn’t yet ready to tell the world. Instead, he headed for Switzerland on a Fulbright Scholarship. “It wasn’t far enough away,” he said, laughing. “I decided I can’t go to a gay bar in Switzerland because I know people in the country of Switzerland. That’s how paranoid I am.”

Seeking a nearby metropolis in which to explore his sexuality, he was fortunate to stumble upon Amsterdam. “It was just the next-nearest country, and I actually happily fall into the most progressive gay-friendly place on earth,” he said. “Amsterdam made it all cool. I still have a group of gay guys in Holland that I’m really close with, that really helped me come out.”

Soon, Levine was back in America, earning his law degree at Yale and spending a summer working for the US Department of Justice’s Office of Special Investigations, helping to deport Nazi war criminals who’d come to the US illegally. Once he finished law school, he decided to find an American version of Amsterdam. “I decided to take a job in Los Angeles,” he said. “I hear they’re pretty gay-friendly out there. I want to be in a place where I can explore being gay with no consequences, and I felt like San Francisco was a little too obvious.” Arriving in California, Levine didn’t just immerse himself into the gay scene; he also dove into gay advocacy.

“My first protest was in 1993, to have gay representation on television. That was pre-Will And Grace,” Levine said. Planning to march on Hollywood studios, Levine soon found himself with a seat at the table. “They were very smart — they didn’t just have us march outside. They invited us in. I remember sitting across from a bald-headed guy, talking to him about having gay folks on TV. He said, ‘I just don’t think America’s ready for it.’ I said, ‘I think this is a really good demographic for you.’ He wasn’t struggling against me, he was thinking. I said, ‘Why don’t you try it, see if it makes you some money?’ A couple years later, we had Will And Grace.”

At the same time as he was having his first successes in LGBTQ activism, Levine was also finding love for the first time. “I meet a guy named David. I could go on and on about David and what a really special person he was. But his parents were not too keen on him being gay,” Levine said. “He takes me home on Christmas, and his parents aren’t even used to him being gay, so I get the full brunt of the dislike. It was unpleasant.”

Then disaster struck. “In May of 1995, David’s not feeling well, and some clinician says he’s got signs of being positive,” Levine said. “He took the test, and I did too. I was negative. I was out waiting in the hall, and he’s in there for an hour. And I’m like, ‘Oh god.’” When David finally emerged, Levine’s fears were confirmed. “He really descended fast. We found out he was HIV positive one day. Two days later he had to go to the hospital. Two days after that, he was on a respirator. By that Saturday night, I have to call his parents — who, remember, don’t like me very much — and tell them they have to hop on a plane to California the next day, or their son may not live to see them again.”

Four months after receiving his initial diagnosis, David died. Less than a year later, Levine’s sister was murdered, which began a ten-year fight to bring her killer to justice. It was a tough period for Levine. “I wasn’t that much of an activist when David was dying, or when Janet was killed,” he said. But by the late 90s, he’d gotten back into the fight for LGBTQ rights.

At the time, California was considering Proposition 22. After a high-profile case in which Hawaii’s laws against gay marriage were challenged, “states were worrying that people would get married in Hawaii, come back to their home states, and be married,” Levine explained. “[Prop. 22] says, ‘Only marriage between a man and a woman is legal,’ which was already part of California law, but it also said that ‘Only marriages between a man and a woman are legal or recognized in California,’ and ‘recognized’ was a secret clause that no one noticed.”

Debating Prop 22, 2000

Levine knew the proposition would pass. But he at least wanted to go down fighting. “We need to say, not, ‘We already can’t get married, don’t worry about it,’ but ‘We should get married!’ Because even though we’re gonna lose this battle, we can win the war.” He gained little support from the official No On 22 campaign committee, of which he was initially a member. “They looked at me like I had two heads. ‘America’s not ready for that.’ [So] I resign from the committee, and I and three others found Marriage Equality California.”

This was 1999, when “marriage equality” was not a phrase anyone was uttering in public. Levine and his cohorts were out to change that, and they started with an action designed to make a big splash in the media. “We’re going to try to get married. We know it’s illegal, but what the hey!” On the big day, they gathered at the Beverly Hills Courthouse. “We put real couples to the front, and they were denied. [MEC co-founder] LJ [Carusone] and I tried to get married; we were denied. And then in about 30 minutes, we were done. But we wanted to go all day, we had cameras there!”

So they got creative. “We just started mixing and matching. I tried to marry like five people,” Levine recalled, laughing. “It actually started a tradition where, every Valentine’s Day, gay couples would try to get married. It was a great one for the press.”

Having attempted an unsuccessful campaign against a bad law, Levine started thinking about ways to create better laws. As a lawyer himself, he was perfectly suited to the task. “Vermont had just passed civil unions,” he said. “I knew that because of Prop. 22, it’s illegal for gay couples to marry. But it wasn’t defined what marriage is. So with another California lawyer, I went through the whole statute book and we worked together to draft a bill that would basically give gay couples all the rights of marriage, but they’d call it a civil union.”

Once he had a good bill, he looked for a California legislator to introduce it. “We presented it to an openly gay legislator, expecting to be welcomed with open arms. She laughed at us! She said, ‘This will never pass. Marriage will never happen in our lifetimes.’” Later convincing freshman California assemblyman Paul Koretz to introduce the bill, Levine soon encountered further resistance. “I get a call from [Koretz],” Levine said. “He said, ‘I’m gonna have to withdraw your bill. All the gay groups are against it.’”

At the time, Levine was shocked. Today, he understands exactly what happened. “I talked later with my co-writer of this bill, and he taught me something then which I unfortunately have found true ever since,” Levine said. “He said, you have a ‘Not Invented Here’ problem. These gay groups make a lot of money by telling people what they’re doing. They have to keep people thinking they’re essential. If two lawyers in LA can come up with a great bill, and the gay groups have nothing to do with it, how are they gonna raise funds?”

It was a frustrating end to a promising piece of legislation, but it taught Levine some valuable lessons in the way politics works. He learned still more a few years later when he went to work as chief legal counsel for Congressman Barney Frank, one of the most prominent gay politicians in the US. “We did major work behind the scenes, where we got [survivor’s benefits for] gay and lesbian survivors of couples in 9/11,” Levine said. “I learned a lot by watching Barney go through this.”

Frank taught Levine that sometimes you get more from playing your cards close to the vest. “The Bush administration didn’t want to give benefits to gay couples. Barney let them know that he would go public.” In light of the widespread sympathy for 9/11 survivors, this wasn’t a chance the Bush administration wanted to take. “We came up with a compromise, that the Bush administration would work behind the scenes to make sure that all the gay couples got full compensation, and in return we could keep the whole thing hush-hush. That was a thing I learned from Barney — you work behind the scenes quietly. If all’s going well, you never say a word. If it’s not going well, you blast them.”

Levine’s time with Frank brought him to the DC area, and he settled in Alexandria, which is where he began his radio show. “I kept learning stuff behind the scenes that I felt the American people should know about,” he said. On the show, he dug into a variety of issues relating to the workings of government, using his time in politics to bring insights about the political world to his listeners. But his broadcasting career didn’t keep him entirely out of the political arena. In 2009, Levine worked with DC councilman Phil Mendelson to write the District of Columbia’s marriage equality law.

Levine’s history of fighting for LGBTQ rights was a big part of his campaign for General Assembly in 2015. “When I ran for Delegate in 2015, I had literature where I proudly discussed my role in marriage equality and LGBT rights, and my community loved it!” he said. “I thought it was a plus, and I guess it was, because I won.”

Since joining the General Assembly, Levine’s proven himself to be as committed to LGBTQ rights as he was before taking office. Every year, he’s presented a comprehensive bill to protect LGBTQ people from discrimination in all facets of public life. “Every single place I could find in the Code [of Virginia] where there’s any anti-discrimination law, sexual orientation and gender identity is added to it,” he said. “I think that bill will become law the moment Democrats gain control of the House of Delegates and the Senate.”

Even after seeing a huge wave of Democratic victories in the 2017 election, Democrats still don’t control the General Assembly. But regardless of the institutional roadblocks that stand in his way, Levine’s not giving up. And he sees hope for the future in the youth on the frontlines of LGBTQ rights today. “I often feel like the establishment does not get it. Even the gay establishment,” he said. His own experience fighting for marriage equality has proven this to him. “It took young people. Young people are leading the way. A lot of these movements are going to require shaking up old ideas, and it’s going to take new blood to do that.”

Levine’s not as young as he once was, but he still has big ideas. The biggest involves the very name we use for our community. “I don’t say LGBTQ, I say rainbow,” he said. He hopes that moving away from an acronym will keep people from feeling left out. “I feel like all these letters divide us. I want to say we’re all stripes of the same rainbow. All across the nation, I want us to talk about the rainbow community.” He laughs. “I’m a dreamer — I try to make nationwide things happen from just my own brain.”

Mark Levine has been trying to make things happen for the LGBTQ community for a very long time. When he started talking about marriage equality, even the established LGBTQ activist community thought he was out on a limb. Today, marriage equality is the law of the land, and Levine is more inspired than ever. “I think it’s important to look back, and recognize how far we’ve come, because it seems hopeless under Trump,” he said. “But if you recognize how far we’ve come, and how impossible it seemed back then, it really gives you hope for the future. People have accused me of incorrigible optimism, but that’s just who I am.”

Top Photo: Levine celebrates the Supreme Court granting marriage equality. All photos courtesy Mark Levine