New San Francisco Supervisor Dorsey is gay, sober, and living with HIV

  • by Matthew S. Bajko, Assistant Editor
  • Monday May 9, 2022
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New District 6 Supervisor Matt Dorsey, left, is all smiles May 9 as Mayor London Breed swears him into office. Photo: Jane Philomen Cleland
New District 6 Supervisor Matt Dorsey, left, is all smiles May 9 as Mayor London Breed swears him into office. Photo: Jane Philomen Cleland

In naming Matt Dorsey as the new District 6 supervisor, San Francisco Mayor London Breed has not only appointed the second gay man living with HIV to fill a vacancy on the Board of Supervisors in recent years but also someone who has personal experience combatting a substance use disorder. An alcoholic who also overused a variety of drugs, including crystal meth, Dorsey has been clean and sober for 19 months as of May 7.

"I was very honest about it," Dorsey, 57, told the Bay Area Reporter about his discussion with Breed when he spoke with her privately last month about his interest in being named the supervisor for the city's South of Market, Treasure Island, and Mission Bay neighborhoods. "I have spent most of my adult life in recovery."

Breed will swear Dorsey in as supervisor at noon Monday (May 9) at Delancey Street, the nonprofit provider of services to substance abusers with a restaurant on the city's Embarcadero in District 6. Brothers John and Bill Maher, the latter of whom served on the Board of Supervisors, co-founded the agency in 1970.

According to a 1988 Los Angeles Times story, Bill Maher was himself "a former Delancey Street resident and reformed drug addict." More recently, District 3 Supervisor Aaron Peskin admitted last summer that he had a drinking problem and sought treatment for alcohol use.

Dorsey will now serve alongside Peskin and gay District 8 Supervisor Rafael Mandelman, until now the lone LGBTQ community member on the board. In June 2018, Mandelman defeated former District 8 Supervisor Jeff Sheehy, a gay man who became the first person living with HIV on the board when the late mayor Ed Lee appointed him to the vacant seat in January 2017.

"I hope it is meaningful to people who maybe have HIV or have a substance use disorder or are from the LGBTQ+ community," said Dorsey of his now becoming a supervisor.

Dorsey will serve out the remainder of the term vacated by Assemblymember Matt Haney (D-San Francisco) last week and will need to run in November for a full four-year term under the newly drawn boundaries for District 6. The city's redistricting task force pulled out the Tenderloin and most of the city's Transgender District from District 6, except for the stretch of the cultural district that runs along Sixth Street, and moved it into District 5.

Expected to seek the District 6 seat is queer San Francisco Democratic Party Chair Honey Mahogany, as she had already planned to run for it once Haney had stepped down. Mahogany, a well-known drag queen, had worked for Haney at City Hall as his de facto chief of staff.

Mahogany told the B.A.R. Monday that they were "not surprised" by the mayor's decision and understood she had long known and worked with Dorsey. They plan to formally enter the race for the supervisor seat within the month and believes their having worked with Haney the last four years and gotten to know the district will resonate with voters.

"I do believe, though, what the voters of District 6 need is someone with experience in the legislative office and doing the work," said Mahogany, whose last day working at City Hall was May 3 when Haney was sworn in as an assemblymember.

While Haney campaigned for the Assembly seat, he had repeatedly urged Breed to name as his successor Mahogany, who would be the first transgender and nonbinary person to serve on the board as well as the first LGBTQ African American supervisor in the city if elected in November. But as the B.A.R.'s Political Notebook reported last month, Breed faced pressure to pick someone else who was aligned with her more moderate faction within the local Democratic Party.

"I think the mayor wanted to appoint somebody close to her who will act in her interests, and District 6 voters will have the opportunity to elect somebody who will act on their interests," Haney told the B.A.R. "Honey has been in the trenches building housing, delivering on community safety, and working block by block for decades in District 6. She is the most prepared, capable and determined to deliver the change that they need."

Gay state Senator Scott Wiener (D-San Francisco), who has known Dorsey for two decades, told the B.A.R. that Breed had made "a very strong appointment" in choosing Dorsey.

"He's an incredibly talented, hardworking, committed public servant, and I know he will do a great job on the Board of Supervisors," said Wiener, who has endorsed Dorsey in the fall race for the seat. "He also brings powerful lived experience to the role, particularly around addiction, which is such a huge challenge in the city."

New District 6 Supervisor Matt Dorsey has worked as a civilian in the San Francisco Police Department for the last two years. Photo: Courtesy SFPD  

SF struggling with overdoses
Dorsey's appointment comes as the city is grappling with how to respond to an epidemic of drug overdoses that has been far more deadly than the COVID-19 pandemic. Since January 1, 2020, when San Francisco's medical examiner began tracking the numbers, nearly 1,500 people have died due to a drug overdose. As of May 1, 865 people have died from COVID in the city.

Dorsey, as director of strategic communications at the San Francisco Police Department and part of Police Chief William Scott's command staff, took part in the monthly calls with other city officials to hear the latest tally of those who have died from a drug overdose. He told the B.A.R. that he is "acutely aware" that he is "one bad decision away" from being added to the list.

"I think the public health calamity that San Francisco has right now with drug overdose deaths feels to me a lot like the AIDS crisis. It certainly is the biggest public health calamity since AIDS; it has been twice as deadly as COVID-19," Dorsey told the B.A.R. Sunday, May 8, in his first print media interview since being told by Breed she had chosen him for the supervisor seat. "I think in the same way that those of us who remember those times during the early days of AIDS were wondering where is the outrage at the number of people we are losing, I feel that today as a drug addict."

Dorsey's fight with addiction
During the 75-minute interview at Harvest Market on Eighth Street, a short walk from his rented apartment at Trinity Plaza, where he has lived the past 12 years, Dorsey spoke about his struggles with addiction since his teenage years when he would drink alcohol to excess.

"I have spent most of my adult life in recovery. December 2, 1992 was my first sobriety date," said Dorsey. "I identify as an addict and an alcoholic."

He had come to realize that his drinking "was unsustainable" and gave up alcohol for the next eight years. He joked that his first stretch of sobriety "mapped closely to the Clinton administration."

But in 2000 during the dot-com era, Dorsey took up party drugs like meth, ecstasy and GHB, which he did with other gay men at private social parties in people's homes. He also used drugs equivalent to Xanax to help bring him down off his highs.

"I got that under control but had a couple relapses since then," recounted Dorsey, who noted that he had "added it up and I have been in recovery I think close to just under 25 years."

One of his hardest relapses came in 2018 when he was again working in the private sector.

"I think, for me, I am the kind of person who has struggled with substance use disorder based on more of what I can get away with more than anything driving me to it," Dorsey explained. "Some people come to it because of trauma and some people are built without an off switch, and I am the latter."

Now that he is a supervisor, Dorsey told the B.A.R. he plans to work with Breed, health officials, and his former colleagues in the police department and city attorney's office, where he had served as spokesman for former city attorney Dennis Herrera, on figuring out how to open a supervised consumption site where substance users can not only go to consume their drugs but also seek out services to help them deal with their addictions. He suggested to the B.A.R. that the city could use the model that New York City officials have used to open such facilities by partnering with a nonprofit to run them.

"I am a believer in supervised consumption sites," said Dorsey. "I was one of the people when Dennis Herrera was running for mayor, I advocated very strongly he should support it and he did."

Having seen firsthand the legal repercussions that can come from city employees and officials ignoring federal law, such as when former mayor Gavin Newsom ordered his administration to marry same-sex couples in 2004, Dorsey said he isn't surprised by the fear of seeing city employees staffing a supervised consumption site be held legally liable.

"The city has very good reasons for why they want to get their arms around the liability issues," he said.

Also key for him is having "political consensus" on the issue, said Dorsey.

"One of the most important things is to get our arms around issues of drug addiction in San Francisco," he said. "I am optimistic that we can."

The grocery store's owner, Gil Desaulniers, has lived in District 6 since 1983 and has known Dorsey for 15 years, as Dorsey and his colleagues from the city attorney's office would often lunch there. Desaulniers said Dorsey is well aware of the problems he has faced as a small business owner with people high on drugs coming into his store and causing problems.

"He's heard me complain so many times over all the years. My street is the worst," said Desaulniers, who recently had eye surgery after a woman attacked him with pepper spray and clawed his face because he had asked her to wear a face mask while in the store.

Dorsey "is the perfect guy," said Desaulniers, to be his district supervisor.

"I am happy about it," he told the B.A.R.

Professional life
One of three siblings in an Irish and Italian Catholic family, Dorsey was born in Bristol, Connecticut and lived for a year in Georgia as a kindergartener. But his parents moved the family back to New England and settled in Westfield, Massachusetts.

"It is two towns over from where Art Agnos grew up in Springfield," noted Dorsey, referring to the former San Francisco mayor.

After earning a bachelor of science in speech with an emphasis in political communications from Emerson College in Boston, and newly out of the closet, Dorsey moved to Los Angeles's Venice neighborhood in 1990 to work on then-San Francisco District Attorney Arlo Smith's unsuccessful campaign for attorney general.

He then moved to San Francisco due to Smith hiring him an investigator in the D.A. office's Family Support Bureau. Dorsey also served as a deputy press secretary and speechwriter in a part-time capacity for Smith.

The Democratic National Committee hired him for a job in Washington, D.C. in 1993 to help promote then-President Bill Clinton's failed Healthcare Reform Act. A year later Dorsey had started his own political consultant firm Koenig & Dorsey; in 1999 he went to work for a technology PR agency.

At the start of the new decade he was back at political consulting until Herrera hired him in September 2002. Dorsey left the city attorney's office in September 2016 to become a partner and head of the communications practice at Lighthouse Public Affairs, LLC. He joined the police chief's staff in January 2020.

Apart from working for other elected officials, Dorsey served on the Democratic County Central Committee that oversees the San Francisco Democratic Party. He was appointed to it in 2011 and elected to a four-year term on it in 2012, serving as its secretary. But he opted not to seek another term in 2016.

"There wasn't the fire in the belly to do a second term on the DCCC," he explained. "I had a lot of fun on the DCCC. I learned a good lesson, I think, to not burn bridges with people. It's funny, a lot of people I never voted with on the DCCC are now personal friends who are being very supportive of me now."

He credits three now-deceased gay men — Dennis Collins, the first gay investigator in the D.A.'s office who was a spokesman on Smith's campaign, political consultant Jim Rivaldo, and B.A.R. political columnist Wayne Friday — for teaching him about the city's political landscape.

"They showed me the ropes of San Francisco politics the three of them," Dorsey said.

He believes he contracted HIV in 2003 due to condom failure, as Dorsey told the B.A.R. he practiced safe sex. It is why he was an early supporter of PrEP, the medication taken orally that prevents people from contracting HIV.

"It is why I am such an advocate for PrEP. Its efficacy is so much better than condoms," he said.

Dorsey has a boyfriend he has been seeing for seven months, but for now, the Brazil native prefers to remain anonymous, he told the B.A.R.

A practicing Catholic to this day, Dorsey is a longtime parishioner at Most Holy Redeemer Catholic Church in the Castro LGBTQ district. He asked Father Donal Godfrey, the author of the 2007 book "Gays and Grays: The Story of the Gay Community at Most Holy Redeemer Catholic Parish," to do the invocation at his supervisorial swearing-in ceremony.

"I think spirituality is part of my recovery journey," said Dorsey, who has attended mass at Most Holy Redeemer since 2004. "I have quarreled with the Catholic Church since childhood. I have accepted I am going to have quarrels with any religious tradition I seek to be a part of."

As for why he hasn't sought out a more progressive denomination, Dorsey joked that, "with Catholicism, I know the words already and know when to stand up. I know all the basics."

UPDATED 5/9/22 with comments from Honey Mahogany and Matt Haney.

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