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Lee Left Lasting LGBT Legacy

by Matthew S. Bajko

Mayor Ed Lee, right, congratulates Jeff Sheehy after naming him to the vacant District 8 supervisor seat in January
Mayor Ed Lee, right, congratulates Jeff Sheehy after naming him to the vacant District 8 supervisor seat in January  (Source:Kelly Sullivan)

During his nearly seven years as mayor of San Francisco, Ed Lee left a lasting legacy on LGBT rights, from appointing the first bisexual and HIV-positive members of the Board of Supervisors to being a national voice opposing policies that discriminated against LGBT individuals.

Lee, who unexpectedly died early Tuesday at the age of 65, last year co-founded the group Mayors Against LGBT Discrimination with other leaders of major cities across the country to fight back against anti-LGBT laws being passed in various states. He also was one of the first mayors to ban taxpayer-funded travel to North Carolina and Mississippi due to political leaders in the two Southern states enacting laws that targeted their LGBT citizens.

Just last Friday Lee co-authored a guest opinion piece for the Philadelphia Inquirer with that city's mayor, as well as the mayor of Washington, D.C., calling on the U.S. Supreme Court to rule against a Colorado baker seeking the right to deny service to same-sex couples.

Human Rights Campaign President Chad Griffin said in a statement that the national LGBT rights organization was "deeply saddened" by Lee's sudden passing.

"Mayor Lee was a tireless advocate for LGBTQ equality who worked to make San Francisco a stronger, more vibrant, and inclusive community," stated Griffin. "As the first Asian-American mayor in the city's history, he was both a trailblazer and a dedicated public servant admired by millions. Our hearts go out to his family, friends, and all those grieving his loss today."

Lee signaled his support for LGBT rights from the moment he was named the city's interim mayor by the supervisors in January 2011, noted Thomas Horn, a mayoral appointee to, and current president of, the War Memorial Board of Trustees.

"His first day as mayor, he attended an event at the GLBT History Museum because it was important to him to show solidarity," said Horn, the Bay Area Reporter's former publisher who knew Lee for more than 20 years and considered him a friend. "He was a leftie from the 1970s (people forget) and never lost his compassion for marginalized communities. I think he will go down as one of San Francisco's best mayors."

In 2011 Lee became the first sitting mayor to speak at the Trans March, the annual event that kicks off San Francisco's Pride weekend. While he was booed off the stage at the event last year due to complaints around his handling of the city's housing crisis, Lee continued to support the transgender community, naming the first mayoral adviser on transgender issues in the country and financially supporting the LGBT Community Center's employment services for transgender individuals, as well as programs for LGBT homeless youth.

"With his former civil rights background, he was very supportive of the LGBT community, very much so. We are going to miss that," said Theresa Sparks, who last month stepped down as Lee's senior adviser on transgender initiatives due to her retirement after working for the city in various positions over two decades. "That is not suggesting (acting) Mayor (London ) Breed is not supportive. It is just that Mayor Lee showed that on almost a daily or weekly basis in just how he dealt with the community."

On AIDS issues, Lee was a stalwart supporter from the moment he became mayor. He named HIV-positive people, including a transgender woman, to serve on the city's health commission and backfilled tens of millions of dollars in federal HIV/AIDS funding cuts.

"Every single year I was a member of the Board of Supervisors, we received more federal HIV cuts, and every single year the mayor did not hesitate to backfill those cuts from our local budget," remarked gay state Senator Scott Wiener (D-San Francisco), who represented District 8 on the board from January 2011 through last December when he was sworn into his legislative seat.

Monday morning Wiener was with Lee to announce a new recycling program in the city, which would turn out to be the mayor's last official public appearance.

"Mayor Lee, although he did not come from the LGBT community, he was unbelievably supportive of our community," added Wiener, who during his first year in office secured funding from the mayor to makeover the streetscape in the heart of the city's gay Castro district, which included the creation of rainbow crosswalks and the installation of an LGBT walk of fame. "He deserves a lot of credit for that."

Over the years Lee worked with the supervisors to plug a total of $14.9 million in federal HIV funding cuts. In recent weeks he had worked with the board to backfill a $1.4 million cut to local AIDS programs set to kick in next month.

Appointed gay District 8 Supervisor Jeff Sheehy , who met with Lee Monday to discuss emergency funding to house the city's homeless this winter, told the B.A.R. his thoughts were with the mayor's family. Lee, like Sheehy, lived in Glen Park and loved reminding Sheehy at public events that he was his supervisor at City Hall.

"I can't imagine what they are going through; it has got to be so heartbreaking. He heads out to Safeway, you know, and he leaves behind a wife and two daughters," said Sheehy, adding that it was hard to say goodbye to his own daughter and husband Tuesday morning.

Prior to Lee's tapping him to fill the vacant supervisor seat, Sheehy didn't know Lee well. But the two became close this year, often meeting for a meal at Tyger's, a diner in their neighborhood.

"Getting to know him, really I found him to be one of the most decent and genuine people I have known from politics. He didn't have ego," said Sheehy, noting that, "We were neighborhood guys and dads. When we spoke our focus was on policy and solving problems, it was not about our political ambitions or careers."

Many LGBT leaders expressed shock and sorrow at the news of Lee's passing. Christina Olague, the bisexual woman Lee named in 2012 as District 5 supervisor only to lose her race that fall for a full term on the board to Breed, wrote on Facebook, "Sad, my heart goes out to his family and the community on the passing of San Francisco's first Chinese American Mayor..."

City College board member Alex Randolph , a gay man initially appointed to the oversight committee in 2015 by Lee, recalled working with him to organize the same-sex wedding ceremonies that took place in 2008 when Lee was the city administrator and he was the LGBT liaison to then-mayor Gavin Newsom , whom Lee succeeded after Newsom was elected the state's lieutenant governor in 2010.

"He has been a champion of my community and people like me for a very long time. It is a loss to the city, a loss to me personally, and it is a very sad day," said Randolph, who last spoke to the mayor two weeks ago and had a meeting planned with him the day after he died.

Rebecca Rolfe, executive director of the city's LGBT community center, told the B.A.R. Lee leaves behind "a really strong legacy" not just on LGBT issues but myriad matters he tackled while in office.

"It is an enormously sad day for all of San Francisco," said Rolfe, who recently returned from a monthslong sabbatical. "I think Mayor Lee was someone who wanted to really understand the challenges of the city and be practical in solving those challenges."

Gay BART board director Bevan Dufty , a former District 8 supervisor who worked for Lee as his first adviser on homeless issues, told the B.A.R. that Lee's lasting impact on San Francisco would not be known for some time but that there is no question he "made history" during his time in office.

"I think losing someone so unexpectedly is so traumatic, and as our city's mayor the effect is widely felt," said Dufty. "As a former political staffer, I think a lot about his family, who made many sacrifices for him to serve in such an all-encompassing position, and then I think about his staff, who are devastated at his loss."

Lesbian Health Director Barbara Garcia , like Dufty one of several out city department heads Lee appointed as mayor, told the B.A.R. she, like so many others within city government, is "very saddened" by the mayor's passing. She had been working closely with Lee on ending the HIV epidemic in the city as well as potentially opening the country's first safe injection site and expects those initiatives will continue to move forward under the new mayor.

"The mayor was clearly continuing the leadership of the previous mayor in response to HIV and AIDS and that is so important for the continuation of the work we have been trying to do to get to zero HIV transmissions, HIV deaths, and stigma," said Garcia, who met the ambulance that brought Lee to Zuckerberg San Francisco General Hospital and remained there until early Tuesday morning. "He always provided us an opportunity to look at issues in the community to improve overall health."

Web Extra: For more queer political news, be sure to check Monday mornings at noon for Political Notes, the notebook's online companion. This week's column featured political holiday gift ideas.

Keep abreast of the latest LGBT political news by following the Political Notebook on Twitter @

Got a tip on LGBT politics? Call Matthew S. Bajko at (415) 829-8836 or e-mail


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