Editorial: Feinstein was a trailblazer

  • by BAR Editorial Board
  • Wednesday October 4, 2023
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Senator Dianne Feinstein spoke with reporters following a town hall in San Francisco in 2017. Photo: Rick Gerharter
Senator Dianne Feinstein spoke with reporters following a town hall in San Francisco in 2017. Photo: Rick Gerharter

U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-California), who died last week at the age of 90, will be remembered for a lot of things, but to many older LGBTQ people, she is recalled as the steadfast leader who worked to heal San Francisco following a tragedy that propelled her into the national spotlight. It was November 27, 1978, when Feinstein, then president of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, standing inside City Hall announced to the world that then-mayor George Moscone and gay supervisor Harvey Milk had been shot and killed by disgruntled ex-supervisor Dan White. Watching that old TV footage, which was replayed in the hours after her death was announced, brought back a flood of memories for so many. We couldn't believe that both city leaders had been assassinated. Moscone was a progressive leader and Milk, of course, made history when he was elected just a year earlier, becoming the first out LGBTQ person to win elected office in California. He only served for 11 short months.

As board president, Feinstein became mayor — the first woman to lead San Francisco — and went on to serve in that capacity for a decade, easily surviving a recall and winning reelection during that time. Her leadership occurred during the worst of the AIDS crisis, and Feinstein allocated millions of dollars to help stop the spread of the disease. As gay former KPIX-TV reporter Hank Plante noted in a social media post, Feinstein's AIDS budget was more than then-President Ronald Reagan's was for the entire United States. The "San Francisco Model" was born during her administration, as nonprofits sprang up to work with people living with AIDS and health officials in a partnership that endures today. She did face criticism for city health leaders' decision to close the gay bathhouses, but relied in part on their expertise at a time when thousands of gay men were dying of a disease that had virtually no treatment.

Paul Pelosi, left, Congressmember Nancy Pelosi, and Katherine Feinstein pay tribute to the late Senator Dianne Feinstein as she lies in state in San Francisco City Hall October 4. Photo: Chronicle pool  

As mayor, Feinstein appointed LGBTQ people to city boards and commissions, and hosted the wedding of one of them, the late Jo Daly, the first lesbian to serve on the Police Commission, in her garden. She appointed Harry Britt, a gay man, to replace Milk on the Board of Supervisors. Her veto of Britt's domestic partner legislation caused a rift in her support from the LGBTQ community and was one of the reasons for the 1983 recall. The city later passed a domestic partner ordinance, and of course, jump-started the marriage equality movement in 2004 when then-mayor Gavin Newsom ordered city officials to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples. That exposed another split with the LGBTQ community, when Feinstein, then a U.S. senator, said Newsom's actions were "too much, too fast, too soon."

But Feinstein remained an ally to the community when she won election to the Senate in 1992. Most significantly, she was one of only a few senators who voted against the hideous Defense of Marriage Act that for decades banned federal recognition of same-sex marriage. Even Joe Biden, then a U.S. senator from Delaware, voted for DOMA at the time. Feinstein also voted against the homophobic "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy that prevented gays and lesbians from serving openly in the military. Both of those laws have since been repealed.

While Feinstein had a complicated relationship with LGBTQs over the years, we recognize her commitment to the community. Allies such as Feinstein are rarely perfect, yet, especially back in the 1990s, it often took some degree of courage for a mainstream political leader to stand with us. It was a different time. Feinstein's actions in support of the community led to support from other political leaders over the years, as they evolved in their thinking. Ultimately, she served the city and state well and will be missed.

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