Grand marshals: A lifetime of fighting for justice

  • by Cynthia Laird
  • Tuesday June 19, 2007
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Pat Norman, this year's lifetime achievement grand<br>marshal, has spent much of her life fighting for social justice. Photo: Jane<br>Philomen Cleland
Pat Norman, this year's lifetime achievement grand
marshal, has spent much of her life fighting for social justice. Photo: Jane
Philomen Cleland

When Pat Norman rides in Sunday's Pride Parade as this year's lifetime achievement grand marshal, it will be a culmination of her accomplishments in the social justice, AIDS, African American, and Native American communities.

"I had no idea this was going to happen," Norman told the Bay Area Reporter in an interview last month. She was in the midst of preparing to move to Hawaii to live with one of her sons, which she did in late May. She was expected back in San Francisco today (Thursday, June 21) to participate in various Pride activities leading up to Sunday's parade.

Norman, 68, and now slowed by health issues, most recently served on the San Francisco Human Rights Commission; she previously served on the Fire Commission and was the first lesbian African-American to sit on the powerful Police Commission. She is believed to be the first out black lesbian to run for political office; her race for supervisor in 1984 ended in defeat.

She is also well known for founding the Lesbian Mothers Union, which started after the Stonewall riots and addressed custody issues for gay women.

Norman has six children, ranging in age from 12 to adulthood. She has seven grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.

She was born and raised in Brooklyn, New York, by parents whom she said were "very conscious about what was happening in the world." She went into the Navy, "but got out." She spent time in Dallas, and came to San Francisco in 1971.

One of her sons, Zach Norman, 14, just finished his freshman year in high school. He lives in Texas with Norman's former partner. Zach was last in San Francisco for spring break and is busy preparing for a full summer of activities. He spoke with the B.A.R. by phone last month.

"I think she really deserves it," he said of Norman's lifetime achievement grand marshal honor. "She's devoted her whole life to helping out the lesbian and gay community."

For nearly 20 years, Norman has served as executive director of the Institute for Community Health Outreach, which trains outreach workers in the Bay Area and elsewhere. Now on sabbatical, she said that Deborah Oliver Wilson is overseeing the agency. According to its Web site, an alert was issued last year after ICHO received word that a $500,000 state grant for its training programs would not be renewed.

Norman said that ICHO still has other contracts.

"It's going to be awhile, at least a year," Norman said of her leave. "I need a break."

Combating racism

Norman has spent much of her adult life fighting for social justice. During the 1980s, she co-chaired broad civil rights marches for peace, jobs, and justice, according to the letter nominating her for lifetime achievement grand marshal. She was a delegate for presidential candidate Jesse Jackson in 1988 at the Democratic convention, and she served on the state Democratic Party Central Committee.

At the local level, Norman also has been involved in fighting racism, including problems in the Castro years ago.

"It's strange," she said, of changes she's seen in the last three decades. "We go on, and certainly, there is some progress. On the other hand, there are issues in 1971 that are still the same issues we're dealing with now."

She first spoke for this story with the B.A.R. days after the death of the Reverend Jerry Falwell, a longtime champion of anti-gay causes. "Jerry Falwell died and we know what he started," she said of his founding of the now-defunct Moral Majority and building up Christian conservatives into a political force. "We still have those who are like Jerry Falwell who try to undermine our progress. I'm still seeing the same enemies."

She has seen changes in the LGBT community. "Awhile ago there was almost no consciousness around racism, sexism, classism. Also, we have a need to continue to focus � we're part of the human movement, not just sexual orientation. We need to expand our vision and horizons and include not just orientation, but as people who work everyday, who go to the same churches."

According to a profile of Norman on http://www.answers.com/topic/pat-norman, at the June 1994 march on the United Nations in New York City, which was co-chaired by Norman and commemorated the 25th anniversary of the Stonewall riots, demonstrators unfurled a one-mile long, 30-foot wide rainbow flag to symbolize lesbian and gay rights. Roughly one million people converged at the Avenue of the Americas and proceeded to the Great Lawn in Central Park.

Norman was also the first gay person hired by the San Francisco health department to serve the lesbian and gay community and helped initiate the community's response to the AIDS epidemic, according to the Web site.

Courage

Jewelle Gomez, the noted African American lesbian author, and her now-partner, Diane Sabin, have been friends with Norman for more than 20 years. They met when Gomez was in the city to give a reading (before moving here) and Norman was running for supervisor.

"I think lesbians of color are usually the last people anybody wants to see," Gomez said.

"The big impression for me was seeing, for the very first time in my life, an out lesbian of color running for public office in a major town," Gomez told the B.A.R. in a recent interview. "We were all just in awe that a lesbian of color was putting herself out in that way and I think it took a lot of courage to do that.

Gomez said that the most enduring thing about Norman is her "commitment to civil engagement" through her work on various city commissions over the years. "I feel Pat has done a lot of work for this city."