Guest Opinion: The AIDS crisis brought out the best in Dianne Feinstein

  • by Sal Rosselli
  • Wednesday October 25, 2023
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The late U.S. senator Dianne Feinstein was a champion on AIDS funding. Photo: Rick Gerharter<br>
The late U.S. senator Dianne Feinstein was a champion on AIDS funding. Photo: Rick Gerharter

The last time Dianne Feinstein, who died September 29, ran for U.S. Senate, the member-leaders of my union voted to endorse her opponent. At the time, the question seemed to be not so much why weren't we endorsing her in 2018, but why had we endorsed her in every election dating back to the San Francisco mayoral recall of 1983.

As a gay man, who came of age in the San Francisco of the late 1970s and early 1980s, supporting Feinstein through the years was an easy choice that could be hard to explain, especially to younger generations who only knew her as a centrist senator.

Mayor Feinstein wasn't any more progressive than senator Feinstein. She vetoed what would have been the nation's first domestic partnership law in 1982. She also vetoed the expansion of rent control. And, she was hardly a reliable ally for union workers.

One of my first private conversations with her came in 1981 when I was leading a small janitorial workers union that was on strike against United Artists Theaters. She puffed on a cigarette, blurted out some swear words, and made it clear that she would not be lending any political support.

That same year, San Francisco's first patient with what then was called Kaposi's sarcoma, soon to be known as "gay cancer," was diagnosed at San Francisco General Hospital.

The epidemic was underway; healthy, vigorous men started getting sick in staggering numbers.

Everyone in the community tried to do whatever they could to help. I volunteered providing in-home care to men, who were frail, frightened, and dying alone.

Gay men certainly aren't the only group of people who face hatred and discrimination. But our experience, at that time in particular, was unique because many people in our community weren't just oppressed by the government, the police, and the prevailing majority, they were ostracized by their families.

For so many gay men, San Francisco was the only place that ever felt like home. And their friends, many of whom were now sick and dying, were the closest thing they had to family.

Feinstein did not understand gay people or gay culture. There were times when she said hurtful things and did hurtful things. But, she understood the devastation of AIDS. She genuinely cared for the people who were suffering and dying, and she made sure that the city wouldn't abandon anyone.

Gay former supervisor Harry Britt, who authored the domestic partner bill that Feinstein vetoed, recalled that "Dianne spent more time visiting AIDS patients in hospitals than I did. She was a giver."

Fortunately for San Francisco, Feinstein was also a "doer."

Under her leadership, the city partnered with hospitals, community organizations, and federal authorities to build the "San Francisco Model" a network of AIDS-related services that was hailed as the best in the nation.

At a time when the president of the United States refused to acknowledge the existence of AIDS, Feinstein was dedicating more resources to address AIDS in San Francisco than the federal government was dedicating for the entire country.

At this point, I was Feinstein's appointee on the San Francisco Human Rights Commission and a leader in Service Employees International Union, Local 250, the San Francisco-based health care workers union. Our union played a role in the San Francisco Model by producing the nation's first educational literature for caregivers, helping them be less afraid to treat people with AIDS.

Feinstein's stellar record on AIDS and commitment to helping those suffering from it wasn't necessarily a political advantage in her quest for statewide office.

In 1990, her Republican opponent for governor highlighted the fact that Feinstein had officiated a lesbian wedding two decades earlier. Meanwhile, Feinstein told the Los Angeles Times that if elected, "I'm going to see that AIDS is treated as the No. 1 health emergency. ... If that takes more money," she added, "I'm not going to be shy. I'm going to find ways of getting it."

Feinstein lost the governor's race, but was soon elected U.S. senator. She voted against the Defense of Marriage Act, which banned federal recognition of same-sex marriage and opposed "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," the policy that required LGBTQ members of the military to stay in the closest. Both initiatives were later repealed.

Feinstein wasn't for the underdog, but she had a sense of right and wrong, and she was able to grow and change.

In my union, it's the members who decide endorsements. Over four decades of Feinstein running for office, the only endorsement I wish we could take back is the one that she didn't get.

Sal Rosselli, a gay man, is a San Francisco resident and the president of the National Union of Healthcare Workers, which represents more than 17,000 health care workers in California and Hawaii.

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