Rest in Power, Harry Britt

Harry Britt succeeded Harvey Milk on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors and fought to build a queer politics that stood doggedly for workers’ and tenants’ rights. When he died last month, we lost a gay socialist icon.

As a founding member of the Democratic Socialists of America, Harry Britt profoundly shaped the landscape of politics in San Francisco.

On June 24, queer socialists lost a pioneer — Harry Britt passed away in San Francisco at the age of eighty-two, following two years of declining health. A founding member of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) and a gay socialist, Harry succeeded Harvey Milk on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors following his assassination in 1979. Harry embraced his identity as a gay socialist. In response to one reporter’s question about how the media portrayed him, Harry was unapologetic: “That’s what I am.”

Harry, a former minister, had a profound rage for justice. Much of his fire was directed at the timidity of liberals on issues of economic justice like rent control, limiting downtown development, guaranteeing health care, taxing the rich, and winning real equality for LGBT workers. He led fights to restrict rent increases and preserve low-income housing, and he was a key leader in making renters an organized force in city politics.

His most ambitious efforts, like preventing unlimited rent hikes when apartments became vacant and placing caps on the amount of office space that could be built in the financial district, were vetoed by the mayor who appointed him, now-senator Dianne Feinstein. Along with neighborhood activists, tenant rights organizers, communities of color, seniors, and the disabled, he built coalitions with labor unions and Lebanese grocers. The interests of workers were always the foundation of his politics.

Born in Texas, Harry had moved to San Francisco after getting divorced and leaving the Methodist ministry in 1968. He started his life as an openly gay man, and took a job in the post office. Throughout his political career, he would live frugally because he had to — $10,000 was the annual salary for a supervisor, but when it was raised to $30,000 (or when he was successful at his favorite hobby, betting on the horses), Harry always said he didn’t need much.

Harry led the San Francisco Gay Democratic Club, building it into a powerhouse for a generation of progressives and LGBT activists. Inspired by the gay-labor alliance Harvey Milk had created, the club was rooted in the social movement coalitions of the 1980s, pushing forward tenants’ and workers’ rights against the homophobia, anti-union attacks, and foreign interventions of the Reagan Republicans and the ascendant neoliberal Democrats.

Harry was especially dedicated to furthering the gay-labor alliance, and propelled years of victories for public workers and solidarity actions in San Francisco. He did so with the help of other socialist activists, including Howard Wallace, who led the Lesbian-Gay Labor Alliance, a precursor and inspiration for Pride at Work, the current LGBT AFL-CIO–affiliated organization. The boycott of the anti-union Coors brewing company, in support of the Teamsters, and the boycott of Shell, due to the company’s ties to apartheid South Africa, were notable campaigns.

In a 1983 profile of Harry by longtime DSA activist Maxine Phillips, she describes the root of his politics as the righteous anger of the “invisible people.” “DSA understood that it wasn’t an accident that these people were invisible,” Britt told Phillips. “All of us who have made a commitment to social change have felt that contradiction between what seems right and just and the way the system is organized.”

Much of the cadre for Harry’s campaigns came from labor and disenfranchised communities. Though many of the gay men who led his campaigns tragically died of AIDS, Harry left a lasting legacy for the LGBT community, pushing for the public health policies that continue to provide HIV services and education in San Francisco. Safe sex education, regulating bath houses, services for IV drug users, and culturally effective messages were controversial in liberal San Francisco at the time, especially before ACT-UP, as healthcare providers, elected officials, and others (led by Ronald Reagan’s federal government) ignored the emerging pandemic and killed hundreds of thousands of people with AIDS.

The anger behind the emerging LGBT power saw its most violent expression in the White Night riots. Many of us will never forgot that Harvey Milk was assassinated by a cop, Dan White, who also murdered liberal mayor George Moscone, and was sentenced to only seven years for manslaughter. In response, City Hall windows were smashed and police cars set on fire. The Bay Area Reporter printed Harry’s response:

“Harvey Milk’s people do not have anything to apologize for,” said Mr. Britt. “Now the society is going to have to deal with us not as nice little fairies who have hairdressing salons, but as people capable of violence. We’re not going to put up with Dan Whites anymore.”

As an elected official, Harry was a leader in the neighborhood-based movement for urban power — personally inclusive, feminist, and socialist — and he was consistently reelected through the 1980s, even after downtown business interests eliminated district-based elections, which had created a board much more responsive to neighborhood rather than developer interests.

Winning citywide was not a given. But as the strength of the movement grew in San Francisco — and Harry was able form coalitions with broader progressives — the Left was able to overcome Feinstein’s vetoes through the initiative process, implementing, for instance, the limit on commercial high-rise development and eventually restoring district-based elections.

Harry’s political trajectory continued upward when the San Francisco seat in Congress opened up in 1987. Harry jumped into a three-way race against a conservative supervisor, John Maher, and a major Democratic Party fundraiser, Nancy Pelosi. San Francisco DSA, Harry’s allies, and the LGBT community turned out big for the historic “Harry Britt for Congress” campaign.

Some analysts have criticized the effort for failing to mobilize Democratic progressives in sufficient numbers and instead emphasizing the milestone of electing an openly gay member to Congress. To those of us on the ground, it was clear that Pelosi’s success at picking up conservative support against the “gay socialist” made the difference — she prevailed over Harry 36 percent to 32 percent.

In 1989, Harry became president of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, having won the most votes citywide. Harry stayed on the board until 1992. With the support of the crusading California Nurses Association, where I worked, he made a spirited run for State Assembly in 2002 with the slogan “Give ‘Em Hell, Harry.” Like many progressive campaigns in San Francisco and elsewhere, we won the election day turnout but could not overcome the amount of mail ballots sent in early from conservative voters.

A powerful personal memory, representative of the role Harry always played, occurred when I had the pleasure of bringing him to a Pride celebration at my daughter’s elementary school in 2004. Harry met my husband, and urged the kids to be champions for social justice. As a teacher at New College in San Francisco until its closure in 2008, Harry educated another generation of left and queer activists, teaching environmental science and LGBT politics, sharing his experiences, developing his commitment to atheism, and leaving a legacy of alliance building, socialist politics, and queer power.

The DSA owes much to that legacy. Harry profoundly shaped the landscape of politics in San Francisco. And on a personal level, without his mentorship, I likely would not have gone on to serve as DSA’s national director, becoming the first openly gay director of a US socialist organization in 1989.

So, thank you Harry. Rest in Power.