Remembering Harry Britt

Last week, In the midst of Pride, we lost a queer socialist pioneer, former San Francisco Supervisor Harry Britt, who passed away at age 82. Harry was a personal mentor to me and carried on the legacy of Harvey Milk for a generation of LGBTQ activists. Harry gained prominence as a gay leader after being appointed by then-mayor now U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein to take over for the slain Harvey Milk, and Harry always identified as a socialist. He personally made sure that I went from a campus “Youth Section” leader to an activist in SF DSA. He was a founding member and experienced leader of DSA in 1982, and became a DSA Vice-Chair.  (Note: this week Religious Socialism features DL’s first profile of Britt in 1983, by our current Editor, Maxine Phillips,)

Harry shepherded my schooling and transition to SF politics at a huge, unforgettable political dinner of the LGBTQ Harvey Milk political club that Harry had co-founded. My boyfriend and I, co-leaders of our college chapter, sat at one of Harry’s table, where we listened to a stimulant-fueled keynote by then-U.S. Representative John Burton of the reigning “Burton-Brown” (as in Willie Brown) machine. It was a moment of drama and some tension, the recognition of gay political power by the San Francisco Democratic liberal establishment. That ascendance was created by a smart, relentless group of LGBTQ activists. Most of the men from that cohort would be dead from AIDS within a decade.

As AIDS devasted our community in the 1980s, Harry made history, not only championing an inclusive version of  historic domestic-partner benefits essential to people with AIDS, who were denied visitation and legal rights by families and healthcare providers, but fighting to ensure funding and support for the public health fight against HIV/AIDS. Always the socialist, Harry was for a few years the only consistent progressive vote on the SF Board of Supervisors and the leader in the effort to establish rent control for tenants. Many times his progressive initiatives were vetoed by Mayor Feinstein, including limits on downtown development, condo conversions, and the ground breaking effort to limit rent increases when an apartment became vacant (“vacancy control”).

Some struggles succeeded by going around the mayor, such as the initiative to restrict office development in San Francisco. Harry also led the fight to establish the country’s first Office of Citizen Complaints to review police actions in San Francisco.

We can 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 and eight months for manslaughter. That verdict touched off the White night riots, when as Tim Redmond described in 48 Hills, 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.”

When Harry came to San Francisco to live openly as a gay man, he worked in the U.S. Post Office and only reluctantly took center stage in progressive politics with his appointment to the Board of Supervisors. He often excoriated liberals for their timidity on issues of economic justice. Never content with winning only civil rights, Harry demanded the freedom, liberation, and justice that animated the years after Stonewall. He was instrumental in building the gay-labor alliance that helped elect Harvey Milk, and propelled years of victories for public workers and solidarity actions in San Francisco. Harry did that with another mentor and friend, Howard Wallace, who led the Lesbian-Gay Labor Alliance, a precursor and inspiration for Pride at Work, the current LGBTQ AFL-CIO-affiliated organization. The boycott of the anti-union Coors brewery, in support of the Teamsters union, and the boycott of Shell oil because of the company’s ties to apartheid South Africa, were notable campaigns.

His battles with Mayor Feinstein continued, but in 1987, when the San Francisco seat in Congress opened up after the death of Sala Burton, widow of Phil Burton, who was the political brains and brawn of the liberal machine, Harry jumped into a three-way race against a conservative supervisor, and a major Democratic party fund-raiser, Nancy Pelosi. It was my honor then as a labor organizer and activist in San Francisco DSA to be a precinct worker for “Harry Britt for Congress.” That was the formative electoral campaign of my life. Unfortunately, Pelosi prevailed with 36% to Harry’s 32%.

In 1989, Harry became President of the Board of Supervisors, based on his winning the most votes city-wide. He no longer represented the district Harvey Milk had won, since corporate interests had eliminated the neighborhood-based district election system. Harry’s re-election was a direct result of his political alliance building, rising LGBTQ power and his legislative accomplishments. He also believed in direct action demonstrated by his many arrests for social justice causes.

Harry stayed on the Board of Supervisors 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” (see photo). Like many progressive campaigns in San Francisco and elsewhere, we won the election day turn-out but could not overcome the absentee ballots sent in from more conservative voters.  A powerful memory is when I had the pleasure of bringing Harry to a Pride celebration at my daughter’s elementary school in 2004, where he 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, sharing his experiences, developing his commitment to atheism, and leaving a legacy of alliance building, socialist politics, and queer power. All of us in DSA owe much to that legacy. Harry profoundly shaped the landscape of politics in San Francisco. Personally, without his mentorship I likely would not have gone on to serve as DSA National Director, in 1989 becoming the first openly gay director of a U.S .socialist organization.

Thank you, Harry! Rest in Power.