Discarded by Hollywood, former sitcom star leads the fight for equality.
by David-Elijah Nahmod
Long, long ago, Sheila James seemed destined for Hollywood stardom. From 1959 to 1963, she played the zany Zelda on the classic sitcom Dobie Gillis. The hip series was unusual for its time, filled with fast-paced dialogue and biting social satire. James’s character proved to be particularly popular with viewers, and there was talk of giving the rising young actress her own spin-off series. But it never came to pass.
“I was too butch,” she recalls in a telephone interview with OutSmart.
At the time, she was also deep in the closet. After Dobie Gillis ended, she guest-starred on a number of series, but the handwriting was on the wall: her acting career was slowly coming to a close. Though her lesbianism had become somewhat known within the industry, she can’t say for sure whether or not it played a role in the demise of her career.
Undaunted, she staged a glorious comeback in the early nineties, albeit on a decidedly different stage.
As Sheila Kuehl, she served six years in the California State Assembly and
eight years in the State Senate. As the first LGBT-identified person to be elected to the California legislature, Kuehl authored 171 bills that were signed into law.
Currently a law professor at UCLA, Kuehl is now running for Los Angeles County Supervisor. It’s the latest chapter in a life that’s been dedicated to public service. “When the phone stopped ringing, I got a job at UCLA as an adviser to student organizations,” she recalls. “The students gave me some good advice: go to law school.
“Family law was my specialty,” Kuehl says. “I wanted to apply family law to LGBT issues. As a legislator, I brought through the very first bill that included sexual orientation in hate crimes.”
While she has always been a strong LGBT advocate, Kuehl firmly believes that all people are entitled to equality and justice. “I don’t want to put our community above any other,” she says. “I want our needs to be met, but our community needs to be engaged in the larger community. It’s not about whose issues are more important, but how similar the issues are.”
Prior to obtaining her law degree, Kuehl counseled at a camp for underprivileged children. “It felt good to do things for other people,” she says of the experience.
In 1989, Kuehl co-founded the California Women’s Law Center. Today, the organization remains a vibrant force for issues such as equal pay, violence against women, reproductive rights, and gender discrimination. She is also a strong youth advocate.
“I don’t have a one-note agenda,” she says. “It took me five years to get the California Student Safety and Violence Protection Act passed. We had incredible struggles, but we also had many straight allies.” She also stressed the need for a smooth transition to Obamacare. “Good attention has to be paid to healthcare issues,” she says. “Foster youth don’t have healthcare, and there needs to be mental healthcare for youth in the juvenile justice system.”
These are some of the issues that Kuehl is addressing in her run for L.A. County Supervisor. “It’s very early in the campaign,” she says. “There are no other candidates yet. I don’t know who’s going to run. Right now I’m raising money, educating myself about the county, visiting schools and clinics.”
Though she has greatly enjoyed her life in politics, Kuehl says she would enjoy one final fling in front of the cameras. “If I get the supervisor’s job, I’d like to do three terms. After that, I’d love to get a series. A guest shot on a series would be a great way to close out my career.”
Dobie Gillis currently airs on Me-TV, and the complete series has been released on DVD in a boxed set.
Visit sheilakuehl.org for more information on Kuehl’s work. To support her current candidacy, visit kuehlforsupervisor.com.
David-Elijah Nahmod lives in San Francisco. His eclectic writing career includes LGBT publications, monster magazines, and the Times of Israel.