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HARRY BRITT

The Legacy of Harvey Milk

 

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"I never expected to live to be 71 years old—I’m still not so sure about 72. but it is in very large part a tribute to Harvey Milk, because part of his greatness was not that he just found the smartest, best people in the world and offered them jobs, it was that he took some screwed-up people and helped them to see themselves as having within themselves some strengths and some powers and some beauty that gave them motivation and belief in themselves. and there aren’t too many better examples of that than me." —Harry Britt

Port Arthur

Don

Race

The Excerpts

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November 27, 1978

Harvey Milk

Harvey’s Politics

Election and Prophecy

 
 

White Night Riots in SF

The Candlelight March

The Appointment

Swearing in

The Riots

For my own account of the White Night Riots
(in Vortex 1)click here.—WR

Rachel & Ellen

 
 

Harry Britt

Born June 8, 1938, Harry Britt, Jr. grew up in Port Arthur, Texas, his father an oil refinery worker, his mother a housewife. As he told me during our interviews, “for at least the first 30 years of my life, and maybe more than that, I was really screwed up. I mean big-time screwed up.”�

 
 

Intensely shy, alienated from culture of the segregated South and its rigid gender roles, Harry remained largely unaware of the nature of his sexual and emotional feelings until adulthood. The one social niche in which he found a home was the Methodist church and its youth organizations, where he had his first experience serving in a leadership role.

In 1956, he entered Duke University, where he continued his involvement in church activities and also served as a fraternity president. Upon his graduation in 1960, he married the daughter of a Methodist minister and relocated to Dallas where he entered the Perkins School of Theology. Graduating in 1963, he spent the following year pursuing studies at the University of Heidelberg.


 
 

In 1964, he briefly entered the University of Chicago to pursue doctoral studies in the philosophy of religion. At the same time, he completed his ordination as a Methodist minister and served as pastor for two Chicago congregations. His exposure to Chicago’s ward politics and the civil rights efforts of Martin Luther King, Jr. heightened his commitment to social justice and led to his first involvement in grassroots politics. Shortly after King’s assassination, he left the Methodist church and his marriage ended.

When he arrived in San Francisco in 1972 he was unaware of the city’s large gay population and had yet to come to terms with his homosexuality. Coming out finally occurred when he responded to an ad in an alternative newspaper from another closeted gay men, seeking a companion to join him in exploring the city’s gay life. On their first night out, Harry found himself at the Black Cat bar, smitten with a bartender and stirred by the performance of the legendary drag queen, José Sarria. He never looked back.


 
 

January 8th, 1983 Supervisor Inauguration Photo

SF Board of Supervisors, Jan. 8, 1983. Harry Britt in top row, third from the right.

Mother Jones article

By 1975, Harry was a regular at the Toad Hall bar on Castro Street when he discovered that the little camera shop up the street was the site of daily debates between gay activists, would-be politicos, neighborhood pundits, bar stragglers, and the shop’s pony-tailed owner, a former New Yorker named Harvey Milk.

By that time Harvey had already run for the San Francisco Board of Supervisors once and lost. In 1975 he would lose the ponytail and take on San Francisco’s liberal political establishment by running for assemblyman against its hand-picked candidate. It was Harry’s first Milk campaign, followed by the effort two years later that resulted in his election to the Board of Supervisors.

The day after Harvey’s victory, Harry was with a group of supporters waving signs along Market Street emblazoned “Thank you, Harvey!” As Harry recalled in our interviews, “Harvey took me aside and told me that he expected to be killed, and that he wanted me to live my life in such a way that when he was killed, I would be available to be his successor.”

That Harvey consider Harry one of his protégés is evident in the assignments he gave him. First, Harvey asked him to serve as a gay community liaison to the No on 13 campaign. Proposition 13, which passed in 1978, significantly reduced property tax revenues and threatened local governments’ ability to offer vital services. It was strongly opposed by labor unions and community groups. Harry’s work on this campaign resulted in long lasting ties to San Francisco’s influential progressive network.

The other task Harvey pressed onto Harry was the organization of the San Francisco Gay Democratic Club—eventually the Harvey Milk Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Democratic Club. The club remains one of the most powerful political organizations in the city to this day.


 
 

Harry Britt in Parade

 

 

 

Harvey Milk Memorial March November 28, 2009

When Harry was appointed by Mayor Dianne Feinstein in 1979 he was practically unknown in the gay community. He faced a re-election campaign just months away in which all of Harvey’s previous competitors were likely to run against him. The women’s community was upset over the failure of Anne Kronenberg’s bid for the appointment (which Harry had actively supported). Worse, district elections had been eliminated. Harry would have to win a city-wide election, something Harvey had never achieved.

In our interviews, Harry related how he was not only re-elected in 1980, but again in 1984 and 1988. As the highest vote-getter in his last campaign, he served as president of the Board of Supervisors. In 1987 he was narrowly defeated in an election for San Francisco’ congressional seat, coming in just four points behind his opponent—future House Majority Leader Nancy Pelosi.

During his twelve years on the Board of Supervisors, Harry built an unparalleled record of progressive legislation and activism. He successfully consolidated his support within the city’s contentious lgbt community and forged alliances with traditional left and progressive organizations, including labor unions, neighborhood groups, women’s organizations, and minority and civil rights advocates.

In 1982, Harry put the issue of marriage equality on the map when he authored the nation’ first comprehensive legislation establishing domestic partnerships. Although passed by the Board of Supervisors, the measure was vetoed by mayor Dianne Feinstein. It would take another ten years and three city-wide proposition campaigns before the legislation was finally signed into law in 1992. (Harry himself, I should note, remains an ardent critic of institutionalized marriage and the desire on the part of some in the lgbt community to adopt or imitate heterosexual institutions.)


Harry Britt and Carole Migden

Harry Britt with friend and ally, former State Senator Carole Migden, at the 29th Annual Harvey Milk Club Dinner, May 29, 2007.











Harry Britt and Tom Ammiano

Milk protégés: Assemblyperson Tom Ammiano and former Supervisor Harry Britt, GLBT Historical Society Gala 2008

 
     

While Harry’s efforts to establish civil unions for gays and lesbians had a national impact, his impact on the city of San Francisco has been no less profound. As a supervisor he played a key role in creating rent control and preserving rental housing, limiting downtown growth, creating low-income housing, preserving neighborhoods, and police reform. In the mid-1980s, he led efforts to divest San Francisco of its South African investments.

What makes Harry’s career truly extraordinary is that he accomplished all this while also serving as the city’s highest openly gay elected official during the onset of the HIV/AIDS epidemic. At “ground zero” for a health crisis of international scope, countless individuals and groups turned to him for leadership, resources, political support, and hope. As my interviews with Harry reveal, he paid a terrific personal toll in these years as he sought mobilize the community to fight the epidemic even as his own friends were dying.

Following his retirement from the Board of Supervisors in 1992, Harry directed the weekend BA Degree Completion program at New College of California. In 2002 he undertook a belated and unsuccessful campaign for assemblyman against another gay candidate. Since New College’s closure in 2008 he has been retired, living in San Francisco’s Haight District.

—Will Roscoe
August, 2010


 
  Harry Britt


Harry Britt with a Für lessen Nachschrift
from his studies at Heidelberg, Sept. 9, 2009

My Friend, Harry

I came to the Bay Area in 1978 to complete an internship at the Pacific Center for Human Growth in Berkeley. Working with the Center’s director, future state senator Carole Migden, we created a community-based campaign to push United Way into funding gay agencies. We asked Harvey Milk to be our spokesperson and he readily agreed. The campaign was a success and Pacific Center became the first glbt nonprofit in the country to win United Way membership.

That fall, on Harvey’s recommendation, I was hired to coordinate voter registration for the SF No On 6 campaign, the infamous Briggs Initiative directed against lgbt school teachers. That was when I met Harry Britt, who was actively building the San Francisco Gay Democratic Club. I still remember the day he put his arm around me while we were walking on upper Market Street invited me to the next meeting of the Club.

But something happened that changed all our lives. Harvey was shot and killed by a former cop, Dan White, who received the lightest of all possible sentences. Many, like Harry Britt, were inspired to renew their commitment to Harvey's quest for political power in San Francisco. I found myself drawn to the possibilities of creating new culture within the old, and three months after the White Night Riots of May 21, 1979, I was attending the first gathering for radical faeries.

My path crossed Harry Britt’s again in the 1990s. He was teaching at New College of California, an alternative school in the city. He invited me to lecture on my research on Native American two-spirits to his classes; later, when I was teaching at UC/Berkeley, he returned the favor. We remained in touch.
Between August and October 2009, Harry and I sat in front of a digital recorder every Wednesday evening and talked. Twenty hours of oral historyHarry Brittwere recorded, which has been transcribed thanks to a generous donor. I hope to find opportunities to publish or broadcast the material in the future.

—Will


Harry Britt and Will Roscoe, October 7, 2010