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Sheila Kuehl: Classic sitcom star becomes LGBT champion
by David-Elijah Nahmod
2013-07-17


Fifty years ago, Sheila James was a young actress, best known for her portrayal of the zany, lovesick Zelda on the classic sitcom Dobie Gillis. Surprisingly wry and hip for its time, the series brought James to the brink of TV stardom.

It wasn't meant to be. A proposed spinoff series starring James as Zelda never happened, and her acting career slowly petered out. According to IMDB, her last acting role to date was in the 1988 reunion movie Bring Me the Head of Dobie Gillis, in which she played Zelda one final time. It was her first on-camera role in a dozen years. The film was made a decade after her graduation from Harvard Law School, and she was already established as a political activist to be reckoned with.

Today, Sheila James Kuehl is an out lesbian with a long history of public service. She has served eight years in the California State Senate and six years in the state assembly. The first openly LGBT person to be elected to the California legislature, she authored 171 bills that were signed into law.

Currently a professor at UCLA, Kuehl is now running for Los Angeles County supervisor. Although she is far more interested in social issues than show business, Kuehl was more than willing to discuss her days as a sitcom star.

"I was too butch" she said in a phone interview with Windy City Times.

It was the 1960s, the third year of Dobie Gillis, and the director had asked her to take a walk so they could discuss why nothing had happened regarding her spinoff series. "I was sensitive because I was closeted at the time," she said. She had nothing but the highest praise for Dwayne Hickman, her TV co-star. "He was very supportive of me," she said. "I never found Dwayne to be homophobic."

She recounted her appearance on Good Morning America nearly 30 years later, when she appeared with actor Dick Sargent (Darren #2 on Bewitched) on the occasion of Sargent's very public coming-out. Hickman called in to the show to express his support for Kuehl.

She explained how her segue from Hollywood to law school happened. "When the phone stopped ringing I got a job at UCLA as an adviser to student organizations," she said. "I counseled at a camp for underprivileged children while at UCLA. It felt good to do things for other people. Students gave me some good advice: go to law school."

"Family law was my specialty," Kuehl said. "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 peoples are entitled to equality and justice. "I don't want to put our community above any other," she said. "I want our needs to be met, but our community needs to be engaged in the larger community. It's not about who's issues are more important, but how similar the issues are."

In 1989, Kuehl co-founded the Women's California Law Center. The organization focuses on issues such as equal pay, violence against women, reproductive rights and gender discrimination. Kuehl is also a strong youth advocate.

"I don't have a one-note agenda," she said. "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 health care issues," she said. "Foster youth don't have health care, and there needs to be mental health care for youth in the juvenile justice system."

These are some of the issues that Kuehl will be addressing in her run for supervisor. "It's very early in the campaign," she said. "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."

Kuehl said that a show-business return is not off the table. "But not now," she said. "I have no time. 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."

Visit Article Link Here or Article Link Here for more information on Kuehl's work.


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