Lesbian activist Amber Hollibaugh dies

  • by Cynthia Laird, News Editor
  • Wednesday November 15, 2023
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Amber Hollibaugh. Photo: Courtesy National LGBTQ Task Force
Amber Hollibaugh. Photo: Courtesy National LGBTQ Task Force

Longtime lesbian activist Amber Hollibaugh, who resided for a time in San Francisco back in the 1970s, died suddenly October 20 at her home in Brooklyn, New York. She was 77.

The cause of death was complications of diabetes, according to a statement from her family.

Ms. Hollibaugh was a community organizer and author, perhaps best known for her 2000 book, "My Dangerous Desires: A Queer Girl Dreaming Her Way Home." She was a self-educated leading intellectual in the LGBTQ, feminist, sexual liberation, and economic justice movements, friends and colleagues noted.

Her Bay Area connection occurred in the mid- to late-1970s and early 1980s. She was a co-founder of the San Francisco Lesbian and Gay History Project in 1978. In 1985, people held a public meeting in San Francisco that included members of the history project. Members of that group, along with the San Francisco Gay and Lesbian Periodical Archives, grew into the GLBT Historical Society, according to the society's website.

Ms. Hollibaugh was also involved in the campaign to defeat the statewide Briggs initiative in 1978. Proposition 6 on the California ballot would have banned gays and lesbians from teaching in public schools.

Cleve Jones, a longtime gay activist, recalled Ms. Hollibaugh in a phone interview with the Bay Area Reporter.

"She was quite extraordinarily charismatic," Jones said.

Ms. Hollibaugh, who was born June 20, 1946 in Bakersfield, California, came from a very poor family and was not formally educated, though she was extremely well read. Her partner, award-winning novelist Jennifer Levin, wrote in a Facebook post that Ms. Hollibaugh left "a chaotic and violent home at 16."

"She joined the women's movement, studied Marxism by day, and supported herself as a stripper and sex worker by night," Levin added.

What struck Jones was that during the Prop 6 campaign, Ms. Hollibaugh, who was a member of the Bay Area Committee Against Briggs, or BACAB, found effective ways to talk to working class people about the initiative and how it would harm people.

Jones also recalled Ms. Hollibaugh during the White Night riots that broke out in 1979 after a San Francisco jury convicted Dan White of manslaughter instead of murder in the assassination of gay supervisor Harvey Milk that had occurred on November 27, 1978. That same day, White, a disgruntled ex-supervisor, also shot and killed then-mayor George Moscone.

"I remember standing on the steps of City Hall on May 21, 1979," Jones said. "Rocks were flying and people were screaming for revenge and all the gay leaders were pleading for nonviolence.

"Somehow, Amber got hold of the bullhorn and said, 'I think we should do this more often!' And all hell broke loose," Jones said. "I'll never forget that." (Jones had posted a similar comment on Facebook after Ms. Hollibaugh's passing.)

Soon enough, police cars were set on fire as the riot spiraled out of control.

Jones said that Ms. Hollibaugh was also a pioneer in fighting for the rights of sex workers.

Levin remembered her partner.

"Amber was a radical political organizer, a sex radical, a charismatic public speaker, and a passionate advocate for the most vulnerable and excluded among us: those who, through poverty or race or disability or sexual expression, have no piece of the pie and no place at the table, who were never invited to the table to begin with," Levin wrote on Facebook.

Other activities

Ms. Hollibaugh moved to Brooklyn in 1981, according to the statement from friends and colleagues. She worked for the New York City Commission on Human Rights, where she was director of education for its AIDS division. She worked for the Gay Men's Health Crisis in New York City for seven years and was founder and director of its Lesbian AIDS Project and subsequently the national director of women's services.

Ms. Hollibaugh worked as a senior strategist for Services and Advocacy for GLBT Elders, or SAGE, where she was director of education, advocacy, and community building. She served in a senior strategist role for the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force (now the National LGBTQ Task Force).

Prior to moving to New York, Ms. Hollibaugh lived in Chicago where she was the chief officer for elder and LBTI women's services at the Howard Brown Health Center.

Barbara Satin, a past faith work director and current consultant for the National LGBTQ Task Force, had known Ms. Hollibaugh for many years.

"My early activism had focused on trans inclusion plus the affirmation of queer folks within faith settings — then I met Amber who introduced me to the beautiful, old LGBT community — my peer group," Satin stated. "These pioneers, on whose shoulders we have built a burgeoning progressive movement, had hopes, expectations, fears, and concerns around aging that were seriously overlooked by the broader community. Through her work on LGBTQ aging at the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, including the publication of 'Outing Age,' the seminal work on the issue, Amber spotlighted the needs and expectations that our elders had and offered practical and appropriate responses to their difficult situations."

Satin, who noted that she is approaching her 90th birthday, stated that Ms. Hollibaugh added "an important element to my activism."

"Amber Hollibaugh still is my role model for doing activism with grace and style," she stated.

Levin stated that Ms. Hollibaugh "was trouble."

"Amber was relentless. Amber was a force of nature. She was maddening. She was dazzling. She had a generous heart and an old soul. And to say all these things is to describe only a small part of who she was," Levin stated.

In addition to Levin, Ms. Hollibaugh is survived by her stepsons, Mak Levin and Van De Laurier.

A funeral was held in New York City October 29. A memorial service, open to friends, family and the community is being planned in the coming weeks.

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