From conservative to gay rights advocate, the unusual trip of Sen. Roy Ashburn

State Sen. Roy Ashburn, R-Bakersfield, receives a hug from Jane Parsons, chairman of the Fresno County Republican Party, during an election-night party held in Fresno Tuesday, Nov. 2, 2004.
State Sen. Roy Ashburn, R-Bakersfield, receives a hug from Jane Parsons, chairman of the Fresno County Republican Party, during an election-night party held in Fresno Tuesday, Nov. 2, 2004.
AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli

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After voting against gay rights measures for a decade, California Senator Roy Ashburn looks to become a strong voice for gay rights after coming out only three months ago.

After a DUI arrest brought up suspicions about where California Senator Roy Ashburn had spent his night, he was forced to openly announce that he is a homosexual. Many things have changed for Ashburn and his family, but most notable is the senator's change in his stance on gay rights.

For over a decade as both a state assemblyman and senator, Ashburn staunchly voted against any piece of gay rights legislation that came his way.

"I was so petrified by my secret, paralyzed," Ashburn told KPCC's Patt Morrison today. "On [gay rights] issues my practice up until three months ago was to vote no if it had anything to do with gay rights, gay marriage, I was a no. I did not want in any way for my secret to be revealed if I were to speak on a bill or show any interest in the subject matter. I cast votes that deprived gay people of their rudimentary rights and I am truly sorry.”

Ashburn also says that since he has switched sides on gay rights issues, many of his supporters have left his side in the last three months, although the reaction to the news has been quite mixed.

"There has been a very high level of understanding and compassion toward me from gay rights organizations, and people from the district have been very kind," said Ashburn, who has represented the 18th district since 2002. "I’ve received many calls, e-mails, and letters but that doesn’t mean the other side of the conversation isn’t going on. Everything people believed to be true about me was wrong, so I understand that I have hurt people and let them down.”

The senator said that he is still the same person fundamentally and he is not going to change as a person despite any shifts in his thoughts on gay rights. Ashburn is also not looking to change political parties although he is well aware of the reputation the Republican party has for strictly conservative family values.

“The Republican party first and foremost hold that government should have a limited roll and not have a huge presence in the private lives of our citizens. Somewhere along the line that got misconstrued as anti-gay and sometimes anti-minority values, but I don’t have to go to another party because I still feel comfortable here."

According to Ashburn, he has already voted in favor of two measures which would expand gay rights, and has become one of the loudest voices in the fight against the military's 'dont ask, dont tell' policy reform. He is also open to becoming a spokesman for many of the gay rights organizations that have showed him support, especially when speaking on gay marriage.

"My view is that anyone who chooses to get married should be able to," said Ashburn, who has a wife and four daughters whom he refused to speak about. "They should get a civil contract which binds them, and then take additional steps to have the contract take on a marital connotation. So government should get out of the marriage license business as a whole."

Ashburn also expressed his appreciation for those who have continued to bolster him in a time that has been both very difficult and rewarding.

"It has been a wild ride," said Ashburn. "It has been a real time of soul searching and remarkable support from people of all walks of life and I will continue to need their help because I am still in the process of growth and change."

Ashburn also took the opportunity to renew his commitment to his position in office, and in the public eye.

"At eight years old, I got into politics. I dragged my parents down to the county registrar and made them vote for Ronald Reagan. I can’t imagine not being involved in politics or public policy, I just simply can’t see it. My sexual orientation may change my views on a few things, but I will continue to serve my district with fervor."

When asked by Patt Morrison to confirm rumors he was planning to attend next month's gay pride parade in San Diego, Ashburn replied that he was present at the 2009 parade, albeit closeted, and considers attending this year's parade "tempting, because I love San Diego so much."