The Powerful LGBT Group Behind California's Most Radical Laws Is Setting Its Sights on Washington

Bolstered by corporate cash and Democratic allies, Equality California rose from obscurity to dominate Sacramento

Former Equality California Executive Director Rick Zbur with Kathy Griffin and Lance Bass. (Photo by Phillip Faraone/Getty Images for Equality California)
March 4, 2023

If you’ve ever been shocked by a radically progressive California law, chances are you have one group to blame.

Founded 20 years ago as an LGBT advocacy group, Equality California has since grown to become a major player in California politics. Fueled by millions of dollars in donations from corporations like AT&T and Comcast to advocacy groups like Planned Parenthood, the progressive group has emerged as the savviest user of Sacramento’s legislative system. Together with its Democratic allies, Equality California helps set the legislative agenda and has pushed all manner of "woke" policies that help minors get sex changes in secret and let men into women’s prisons.

The group now wants to make its mark on the rest of the country. From its Washington, D.C., office, the group lobbies for federal legislation to legalize abortion, grant amnesty to illegal immigrants, and ban guns. Donors who give $50,000 or more to the group are given access to Equality California’s highest donor tier, "National Trailblazer." In a speech praising the group, Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D., Calif.) called Equality California "the way of the future" and warned that "the days are numbered for the people who would stand in the way of liberty and justice for all across every community in our country."

Equality California was not always a progressive powerhouse. For most of its existence, the group was a minor player in Sacramento, and failed to even block a 2008 ballot measure banning gay marriage in the state. By 2014, as the courts began meeting LGBT advocacy groups’ demands to mainstream gay marriage, some in California’s gay community began to wonder if Equality California was even necessary.

Enter Rick Zbur.

Now a Democratic state representative, Zbur was then a powerful Los Angeles attorney and progressive advocate. He quickly set about changing Equality California’s strategy after taking the helm. Zbur expanded the group’s mandate to include other progressive causes, like immigration expansion and abortion, while pushing to expand LGBT issues beyond civil rights protections. After the 2016 election, Zbur again reimagined Equality California as an anti-Trump "resistance" stalwart, leading a high-profile federal court fight against the administration’s ban on transgender soldiers.

In Zbur’s first year as executive director in 2014, Equality California had just $2 million in revenue. By 2017, it had tripled to $6 million.

As Equality California’s revenue increased, so did its political spending. The group’s largest campaign contribution in 2010 was a $5,000 donation to then-San Francisco district attorney Kamala Harris. Now, the group doles out millions of dollars annually to top allies like state senator Scott Wiener (D.), who for his 2016 and 2020 senate races received more than $2.2 million in contributions, polling, mailers, and ads from Equality California.

Donations flow from the State Capitol to Equality California as well. The group counts state senate leader Toni Atkins as a "local leader," a donor tier that includes anyone who gives between $5,000 and $9,999 to the group. Atkins has in turn collected thousands of dollars in campaign contributions from Equality California. Lieutenant Governor Eleni Kounalakis (D.), who is widely seen as a likely successor to Governor Gavin Newsom (D.), holds the same donor status as Atkins.

Donations are just one of the ways Equality California and state legislators help each other out. California allows nonprofits and other groups to "sponsor" bills in the state legislature. Groups like Equality California can draft legislation and recruit friendly lawmakers to introduce it, and lawmakers can tap influential organizations to sponsor legislation that may need a boost.

Equality California’s clout and cash make it an ideal partner for legislators who want to make use of this system. State Democrats feel pressured to support bills bearing Equality California’s name, lest the group pull their endorsement or smear them as bigots.

"Their narrative is to disagree with us, is to hate us, and hatred toward us is hatred toward the kids who feel bad about themselves," said Greg Burt, policy advocate for the California Family Council who has opposed many of their bills. "That has scared everyone into silence."

Former assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez (D.) felt the group’s wrath when she tried to block an Equality California bill to allow minors as young as 14 to have a same-sex relationship with an adult up to 10 years older.

"Give me a situation where a 24-year-old had sex with a 14-year-old, any kind of sex, and it wasn’t predatory," Gonzalez, an influential union-backed Democrat, said.

Her opposition led Equality California to "downgrade" her rating as an LGBT-friendly lawmaker. Zbur warned that the group would not allow "legislators to play shenanigans" to avoid controversial votes. The measure passed the following year.

In a statement to the Washington Free Beacon, an Equality California spokesman said the group sponsors legislation that serves its mission of pushing "to achieve full, lived equality for all LGBTQ+ people."

"That mission includes ensuring" that "no one faces discrimination for who they are or whom they love," the spokesman added.

In its first 15 years, Equality California sponsored 90 bills that passed the legislature. Since Zbur took over in 2014, it has added another 95 bills and resolutions to its record.

Lawmakers who carry Equality California-sponsored bills often ask their corporate backers to donate to the group, campaign finance records show. These donations are allowed through California’s "behested payments" system, where public officials can directly solicit contributions to the causes they support. In Sacramento, it’s seen as a way for companies and special interests to curry legislators’ favor outside of lobbying and campaign contributions.

Since 2018, the group has collected $2.2 million in behested payments from a roster of corporate donors that includes tech firms, teachers unions and other labor groups, Planned Parenthood, and the San Francisco 49ers. AT&T, Gilead Sciences, and the marijuana dispensary-finder Weedmaps are among the group’s top donors.

Powerful organizations in Sacramento often team up on bill sponsorship to add to the pressure. Unions, several of which donate to Equality California, are a particularly important ally, as are Planned Parenthood and the American Civil Liberties Union. Together, this coalition overhauled California schools’ sex education curriculum to include instruction about gay sex and gender identities. Planned Parenthood and Equality California consult with districts on how to teach the program.

As Equality California has accumulated power, criticizing its methods has become a risky proposition.

"They’re very powerful because no one wants to be labeled a hater," said Burt. "You don’t want to be called a hater, so now kids are being sterilized. The results of silence are just devastating."

Those who fight back against Equality California and its progressive coalition are met with swift blowback. When a record number of California parents ran for school boards last year in an effort to combat the radical curricula they saw taught over Zoom classes, Equality California sprung into action. The group nearly doubled its footprint in school board races last cycle, boosting over a dozen candidates. The group’s teachers’ union allies helped tamp down the parental movement by pouring millions into races.

Still, some Californians are fighting to dismantle Equality California’s legislative record. Mothers are suing school districts whose employees, they say, pressured their children to undergo sex changes. Female inmates have mobilized against a law that lets biological men into women’s prisons, and cops are speaking out against a 2022 law that allows prostitutes to loiter with impunity, which they encourages sex trafficking.

"We stand by the critical civil rights laws that we’ve helped to pass here in California, and we appreciate the attorney general and the California Department of Justice for defending those laws in court," Equality California’s spokesman said.

The legal pushback may not be enough to slow the tide of Equality California-backed bills coming out of Sacramento. Zbur is now in the statehouse, where he is already at work on furthering the group’s agenda. Additionally, the legislature is set to take up bills that will allow the state to take custody of children whose parents won’t let them get sex changes, mandate that public schools carry books about transgenderism, and more.

As some of their critics see it, this was the group’s plan all along.

"When no one stands up to them, the result is they introduce crazy bills, and they get crazier year after year," Burt said. "They have some radical goals, and those goals are to completely transform how we think about gender and sexuality."