2023 ushers in new SF LGBTQ Dem club leaders

  • by Matthew S. Bajko, Assistant Editor
  • Wednesday January 11, 2023
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Mawuli Tugbenyoh, left, shown with Congressmember Nancy Pelosi, was elected as the Alice B. Toklas LGBTQ Democratic Club's new male co-chair. Photo: Courtesy Mawuli Tugbenyoh<br>
Mawuli Tugbenyoh, left, shown with Congressmember Nancy Pelosi, was elected as the Alice B. Toklas LGBTQ Democratic Club's new male co-chair. Photo: Courtesy Mawuli Tugbenyoh

San Francisco's two main LGBTQ political clubs are bidding adieu to their male leaders of the past two years. It means new leadership for the groups in 2023, when no local elections are scheduled to take place.

At the Alice B. Toklas LGBTQ Democratic Club, male co-chair Gary McCoy stepped down Monday, January 9, when his two-year term came to an end. The club members elected Mawuli Tugbenyoh to succeed McCoy for a term that will end in early January 2025.

"I am confident in his ability to move Alice's mission forward," McCoy, who is gay, told the Bay Area Reporter about handing over leadership duties to Tugbenyoh.

His tenure coincided with not only two global health crises but also bitter battles last year over the city's redistricting process and elections for the even-numbered seats on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. McCoy, formerly a staffer for Congressmember Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco), now works for HealthRight 360 and is a vocal advocate for opening safe consumption sites in the city as a way to address drug overdoses.

"The last two years have been met with the COVID-19 pandemic, the mpox outbreak, multiple recalls, many multiple election cycles, a return to our in-person Pride Breakfast, many policy debates and discussions, and continued relationship building — all with our club's mission at the forefront," wrote McCoy, himself in recovery, in his goodbye message as Alice's co-chair.

Tugbenyoh, a gay man, is director of policy and communications at the city's human resources department. A Bay Area native who grew up in the East Bay, he moved back to Oakland a year ago after living in San Francisco for a decade.

He has been an Alice member for 12 years and has served on its board the last nine, most recently as co-chair of the policy committee. Tugbenyoh is the club's fourth Black co-chair.

For the next 12 months he will serve alongside the club's female co-chair and fellow Oakland resident Iowayna Peña, a director of real estate and development with the San Francisco Giants.

Her two-year term will end in early January next year. It is the first time Alice has been led by two Black co-chairs since the election in 2008 of Susan Belinda Christian to serve alongside the late Julius Turman.

"At least this year, when there are no elections scheduled at this point, I think it is a really good time for us to focus on building our bench of LGBTQ leaders in the city, and focus on community service as well as building up a diverse board. I think that is going to be really important," said Tugbenyoh.

Change in election dates

Because of a ballot measure adopted by voters last year, all of the fall elections for city positions such as mayor and treasurer-tax collector that were to be held in 2023 will now be held the same year as U.S. presidential elections starting next year.

Tugbenyoh hailed the election in November of three gay men as supervisors in San Francisco, a first for the city, and noted all three are Alice members. With the trio all white and cisgender, he added that he does want to work on encouraging more people of color and transgender residents to run for local office.

There has yet to be an LGBTQ Black or Asian member of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, nor one who identifies as trans or nonbinary. Plus, the other three gay men and one lesbian who served in the city's state legislative seats in Sacramento were all white.

"It is up to us as a club to do the work to be more inclusive and make sure we are reaching out to every community because I don't think it is actually that difficult of a task," Tugbenyoh told the B.A.R. "We have to position the club in such a way it is welcoming and inclusive to more Black members, more Asian members, and more trans members, and just make sure we are more welcoming to those folks."

Contested Milk club presidency election

Meanwhile, members of the Harvey Milk LGBTQ Democratic Club are set to elect new leadership at their meeting Tuesday, January 17. Current club president Edward Wright decided not to seek a third one-year term.

He had been a legislative aide to former District 4 Supervisor Gordon Mar, who lost his bid for reelection last year against his gay opponent, Joel Engardio, sworn in last Saturday to the westside seat covering the Outer Sunset and Lakeside neighborhoods.

"Being a legislative aide and Milk Club president were dreams I feel so lucky to have realized," wrote Wright in a goodbye message he posted to his social media accounts. "I've been challenged and inspired, learned an immense amount — about myself, our city, and movement — and done things I never thought I could, or would do."

Running to replace him are several current Milk club board members. Michael Rouppet and Melissa Hernandez are running to be elected as co-presidents, while Jeffrey Kwong is seeking to be the club's sole president.

Kwong, a gay man, grew up in the city's Chinatown district and graduated from Lowell High School. A provider of special education services to East Bay school districts, he has been serving as the Milk club's vice president of events and fundraising the last two years. He had joined as a member in 2015 and was first elected to the board in 2018 as an at-large member.

"I think people have seen me work hard," said Kwong, whose board position makes him responsible for the club's involvement in events, rallies, vigils, parade contingents, and street fairs. "I think people know I live and breathe the Harvey Milk club. I want to create a stronger organization that is ready to take on 2024."

Among Kwong's goals should he be elected president this year is to double the Milk club's membership and diversify it.

"If elected I will be the first Asian American elected in close to three decades," noted Kwong, who told the B.A.R. the last such Milk club leader was Angie Fa.

She served as president in 1992. Fa that year also became the first out lesbian to win a seat on the city's public school board.

Meanwhile, Hernandez would return female leadership to the club since the departure of former co-president Kaylah Williams in 2021. A pansexual Latinx femme who moved to the city from Texas a decade ago, she has been serving as the club's vice president of communications.

She works as a legislative aide to District 5 Supervisor Dean Preston, who will be up for reelection next year in a newly redrawn seat that now includes the Tenderloin and its Transgender District. Rouppet has been serving as one of the club's events and fundraising officers and helped revive its HIV Caucus in 2021.

The queer activist and Bay Area native has called San Francisco home since 1992. He found himself homeless a decade ago following a wrongful eviction and worked for a time as a tenant counselor at the Housing Rights Committee of San Francisco.

In a statement to the B.A.R. they noted that over the past 12 months their work with the Milk club has included advocating for equitable access to the mpox vaccine and treatment, affordable housing, tenant rights, anti-corruption, and criminal justice reform in San Francisco.

"In this election, we are offering members a clear choice. Melissa and Michael have delivered on caucus building, increased membership, securing progressive policy positions and endorsements within the club, worked with legislators to secure progressive policy outcomes, and proven community organizing that will be critical for building a broader movement that brings the club back to its progressive roots," they wrote.

They also want to take the off-year for local elections to focus on building up the club's membership ranks, including offering dues waivers for those who can't afford the fee to become a member, and drafting "an anti-corruption plank" in light of the corruption scandal that has rocked City Hall over the last several years, leading to the arrests or departures of several department heads. Rouppet last year launched an Anti-Corruption Caucus in the club.

"This year San Francisco will continue to face the same crises year after year without real leadership at the highest levels on: 1. An affordable housing crisis, 2. A homelessness crisis, and 3. An overdose crisis. These are queer issues and they affect our communities deeply," Hernandez and Rouppet noted in their statement to the B.A.R. "Milk Club members have a genuine opportunity to lead policy discussions on these fronts and build a real progressive coalition of the US's to address some of our biggest challenges ahead.

"Just months ago, we watched San Franciscans get redistricted to divide and diminish LGBTQ political power without respecting our community input or having any real accountability," they added. "Looking ahead, it is clear we must organize to keep our values at the discussion table when progressive voices in San Francisco are being targeted and our most vulnerable groups are put at-risk. The future of our policy discourse and direction will have real life consequences."

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