Sunday, July 24, 2011

The Jean Harris Memorial at Delancey Street: A Fearless Activist, and a Hell of a Friend

Lesbian activist Jean Harris speaking about Domestic Partnership legislation in October 1999

The cover of the Jean Harris memorial program featured an eye-catching portrait and a quote from California Democratic Party Chairman John Burton: “A fearless activist, and a hell of a friend.”
Burton joined more than forty political activists and friends of Harris at Delancey Street in San Francisco on July 21 to present a tribute to the tireless promoter of LGBT rights. Burton said that he received numerous complaints about Harris being a “pain in the butt” when she was working for the Democratic Party. He said that “A pain in the butt that gets the job done is better that someone who does not do the job.”

Harris lost her two daughters to an ex-husband in a custody battle. That set her on an activist course that would lead to other lesbians and gay men not losing their children to ex-partners, and multiple other rights now taken for granted. She co-founded Lesbian Agenda for Action, the first lesbian political action committee (PAC) in the U.S., steered San Francisco’s domestic partner legislation to victory when she was an aide to San Francisco Supervisor Harry Britt, and co-produced the “Lavender Sweep” that elected several lesbian and gay candidates. Harris also instigated needle exchange while working for San Francisco Mayor Frank Jordan, became the executive director of Basic Rights Oregon to take on homophobic bigots, and the first executive director of the organization that became Equality California (EQCA).

Harris was front and center at a Queer Nation marriage equality protest at San Francisco City Hall, and she shooed the San Francisco Police Department Tactical Squad away after a storming of the City Clerk’s office and a mock wedding for eight couples. Her small army of domestic partnership campaigners easily overwhelmed local and bussed-in fundamentalists who tried to stop her. She met her match during the Rodney King protests in San Francisco when she was clubbed along with many others, and a huge angry cry went up when her clubbing was screened at the Roxie Theatre. Harris was decked out in a tuxedo and thoroughly enjoyed herself as the host of an election night celebration when Harry Britt became San Francisco Board of Supervisors President with over 110,000 votes.

Notables who attended the event at Delancey Street included: Kate Kendell, Roma Guy, Eileen Hanson, Happy Hyder, Dianne Jones, Dana Van Gorder, Geoff Kors, Ken Jones, Rafael Mandelman. Leslie Katz, Sharon Johnson, Kate Monica Klein, Lea Militello, and Melinda Paras. The reception was coordinated by Carol Stuart, and the choice of space and catering was impeccable.

Democratic Central Committee member Carole Migden passionately and eloquently summed up Harris and she received sustained applause:

Democratic Central Committee member Carole Migden

“Jean Harris was an absolutely original person, a harbinger ahead of her time. Coming from an awful life, Jean blasted into town in the mid eighties with a fierce agenda and a razor focus. She quickly gained access to important people. She intuitively understood the levers of power and how to use them. She was intense and charismatic and she cared nothing about status or personal gain. She provoked and prodded, dressed like a man and took the bullet that came with that. She was cool, older than us, attracted women like a magnet and usually traveled in a pack. Jean was confident, and you knew when she entered the room. Many times over the years Jean would stop by my office unannounced. In came Jean, in came the most important issue of all time. To experience Jean Harris was like being caught in a tidal wave. You are awestruck and transfixed. You know you are witnessing something profound and encompassing. The force was stronger than you, you stopped resisting for the best and knew here there’d be a lot of mopping up later. Jean invented a social media way before Zuckerberg and way before texting and tweeting took hold.  I love Jean Harris. She made me shine and she gave me many good times. I hope her profound contributions to LGBT equality get the recognition they deserve.”

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