Warning: This post contains mentions of suicide.
Senator Anthony Portantino continues to utilize his professional position to defend civil and human rights.
Portantino has authored or co-authored several bills related to mental health support, such as Senate Bills 565, 14, 224, and 972. The lattermost measure made it mandatory for schools to add the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline call number to student identification cards for scholars attending grades 7 to 12 and those pursuing higher education. This year, he introduced three bills related to mental health. Among them is SB 1207, which was signed into law by Gov. Gavin Newsom in September and calls for healthcare providers to cover the treatment of maternal mental health conditions and mental health conditions that have stemmed from or been worsened by the circumstances of COVID-19.
In December 2022, the state senator and Burbank resident gave a $100,000 check provided by the state of California to the Burbank Community YMCA Social Impact Center, which is Burbank’s first-ever LGBTQ+ resource center. Earlier in the year, he attended and spoke at Family Pride in the Park, the city’s first pride gathering.
Portantino’s enthusiasm for mental health and LGBTQ+ advocacy originated through his family. His brother Michael was an activist and publisher who acquired the San Diego Gay Times in 1989. Despite the news, the outlet has been in decline when Michael bought the Times, under his leadership, the newspaper began to thrive in the San Diego region. Through his work and in his personal life, Michael, who was a gay man, “promoted civil rights and human rights and dignity with every ounce of who he was,” Portantino says. One trailblazing move Michael made was renaming the paper the Gay & Lesbian Times in 1991, which paved the way for unity between members of the LGBTQ+ community.
“Within the community, there were periodicals that targeted the gay community, others that targeted the lesbian community, marketed different aspects. And my brother’s philosophy was, ‘We’re one community with one civil rights struggle. We should have a central place to advocate,’” Portantino said. “… That was the first major periodical to market to the community as one community versus a separate community. And so within the history of LGBT history, that was a significant sociological advancement of the civil rights cause. Then the paper became the largest gay weekly in California during my brother’s time running the paper.”
Sadly, 12 years ago Michael died by suicide at the age of 52. He was survived by his niece whom he and his partner, Bill, raised as their daughter, Tatiana, his mother, Barbara, Portantino, and his two other siblings, Phil and Mary Ann. Aside from being passionate about LGBTQ+ rights, Michael was committed to family and showed an interest in gender issues as he parented Tatiana. This includes one instance Portantino recalls in which Michael debated with McDonald’s in favor of gender equity after being asked whether Tatiana wanted a gender-specific toy with her Happy Meal.
“He loved being a dad. That was the other thing that made him sort of special is, I like to say he was a soccer dad before anybody even used the phrase soccer mom,” Portantino said of Michael. “He never missed a soccer game and never missed the first day of school and was a great dad to my niece. … He loved being a part of a family. He loved raising Tatiana and being an advocate for her and became a strong advocate on gender issues as well.”
Following his untimely death, Michael’s legacy as an impactful advocate has endured. In recent years, Portantino’s daughter took a gender and civil rights college course and showed her classmates a speech that Michael gave at the Millennium March on Washington for Equality. This event saw hundreds of thousands of people joining at the turn of the century in support of equal treatment for the LGBTQ+ community. During the gathering, Michael spoke before the crowd about the hallmarks of his family unit, such as “tolerance, respect, and the celebration of our differences.”
“I’m proud of the family values my family lives, and I’m proud of the fact that they’re here with me today,” Michael said via C-SPAN. He added, “Often, we hear our detractors talk about our lack of family values. I’m here to tell you, everyone here, everyone listening, that we do have family values. Our family values just might be a little different than theirs. Ours are love, acceptance, tolerance, respect, and the celebration of our differences. Theirs seems to be intolerance and hatred. Maybe they should learn a lesson from our family values. Most importantly, don’t let them define your families. Love, commitment, and support make a family.”
As a result of the Portantino brothers’ activism, the Family Service Agency of Burbank opened the Michael & Anthony Portantino Suicide Prevention Library & Resource Center earlier this month. The FSA is a nonprofit that offers the public valuable mental health counseling, as well as resources for people who are at risk for or experiencing homelessness. FSA Executive Director Laurie Bleick stated that the center “is a space dedicated to the lives and work of two extraordinary leaders within their communities – brothers who built understanding and have inspired compassion.”
Portantino is a loyal FSA ally who has publicly recognized the contributions of the organization, such as when he named the group the 25th State Senate District Nonprofit of the Year in 2018. In addition, he delivered a $400,000 check to the FSA at their annual gala in October 2022 to aid local unhoused families. He calls it “an honor” to be involved with the FSA and a “very powerful” gesture by the nonprofit to honor Michael’s legacy.
“First of all, FSA does a tremendous job just reaching out and doing behavioral health, providing that service for both the school district and other folks in need,” Portantino said. “And their work on homeless[ness] and those folks who need shelter – they’re just a great organization. To be associated with it is an honor in and of itself. … From the first time I went to an FSA event, I bonded with [Bleick] over the importance of behavioral health in our complicated, pressure-filled lives and the effect on young people. When I shared my story about my brother and that I had a personal stake in this issue, we forged a very productive relationship.”
Since Portantino has opened up about Michael’s passing, many people who have also lost loved ones due to suicide have shared their stories with him, he says. He’s become even further motivated to use his platform to assist anyone who is encountering mental health struggles after witnessing firsthand the commonness of these situations. As the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports, a mental illness or mental disorder diagnosis will at some point in life, emerge for over 50% of people. In 2021, the World Health Organization wrote that over 700,000 people die by suicide annually.
“… I think that’s the biggest lesson for me in this whole thing is how many people shared their personal perspective on their family situation,” Portantino said. “Once I became a member of the club, once I became a survivor of a family member who died by suicide, just how many people came up to me and shared their story … It was very eye-opening, how prevalent it was.”
When asked what strategies he would recommend to those who have the desire to become involved in human and civil rights activism, Portantino voiced the importance of confronting ignorant expressions in one’s day-to-day interactions with others. Additionally, showing encouragement toward people who also stand for equality is a strong next move, he states.
“I think it starts first with our interpersonal relationships. If you’re in a situation where somebody is spewing hate, speak up. Speak out,” Portantino said. “Don’t associate with people who are spreading their hateful rhetoric, and don’t be shy about being an inclusive person and being an advocate on the micro level. And then you translate that activism to supporting people who support civil rights and human rights and dignity and LGBTQ+ rights. So speak out, and then step up.”
Portantino has been celebrated in the past for his backing of these causes. In July 2022, the Urban Los Angeles National Alliance on Mental Illness presented him with the Bebe Moore Campbell National Minority Mental Health Award. Previously, the officeholder was recognized as a Behavioral Health Champion by the California Council of Community Behavioral Health Agencies, and the California Mental Health Advocates for Children & Youth chose him as the 2022 Policy and Legislative Leadership Award recipient. Moreover, in 2011 the youth LGBTQ+ rights group the Stonewall Young Democrats, offered him their Hero Award. As he carries on this mission, Portantino emphasizes the ability each person possesses to have a positive effect on the world.
“There’s two kinds of hope in the world. There’s what I call sideline hope and in-the-game hope,” Portantino said. “And we need both. We need cheerleaders on the sidelines saying, ‘I hope the kicker makes the field goal.’ But then we also need somebody who actually makes the field goal, somebody who turns their hope of winning the game into the action of winning the game. So start being on the sideline as a cheerleader, but then get in the game and make a difference. And one person can make a difference.”
If you or someone you know is in need of support, here are some resources:
Crisis Text Line: text HOME to 741741
The Trevor Project: call 1-866-488-7386 or text START to 678-678
Veterans Crisis Line: call 988, then press 1 or text 838255
Family Service Agency of Burbank 24-hour hotline: call (818) 845-7671.
To learn more about the Family Service Agency of Burbank and their mission, visit their site here.