(UPADTED July 1): Elaine Woo at the LA Times just posted a wonderful Obit of Jean, including interesting new details about her life. Please check it out.
(UPDATED with bio at 2:10pm Pacific) Late Sunday night, June 26, open lesbian Palm Springs City Councilmember Ginny Foat sent an email to friends announcing the death of longtime lesbian politico Jean Harris:
First I must apologize for contacting you in this manner but there are so many people to contact that I could not call all of you.
It is with great sadness and grief that I let you know that our friend Jean Harris passed away yesterday. Many of you have not seen Jean in awhile since she retired to her condo in Palm Springs. After leaving her job with the State Senate she tried relaxing around the pool of her condo but did not give up politics. She was very active in my last campaign, Steve Pougnet’s congressional run for the 45thCD, several races in Long Beach and other parts of the State. And of course always in local and state Democratic party business. She was considering a possible position with the Democratic Party when her health took a bad turn. She has been very quiet about her physical condition. In Jean’s own inimitable way she was always in charge and tried to do that with her health. Unfortunately she was not in charge and rather suddenly lost that battle. We are not sure if her heart or her liver failed but what does it matter. Jean herself never failed. We have lost another icon in the LGBT movement.
No arrangements have been made either for a funeral or a memorial. Denise is understandably not thinking of that yet. In the meantime we are both trying to notify as many people as we can. I will keep you informed as soon as a decision is made regarding arrangements. Please forward this to whomever you think would need to know.
For my friend Jean,
UPDATED 2:10PM – PRESS RELEASE FROM DENISE PENN:
CALIFORNIA LGBT COMMUNITY ORGANIZER JEAN HARRIS
June 27, 2011
(Palm Springs) LGBT Community leader Jean Harris died at home in Palm Springs last week from complications due to several health issues. She was 66.
Jean Harris has been on the cutting edge of LGBT politics for over three decades and has built state-wide nonpartisan LGBT political advocacy organizations in both Oregon and California. In Oregon, she brought together and organized LGBT activists to defeat a statewide discrimination measure (No on 13) and was the first Executive Director of “Basic Rights Oregon,” founded in 1996. Harris moved back to California, bringing her skills to The California Alliance for Pride and Equality (CAPE) which was to become the present-day Equality California (EQCA). As the Executive Director, she transformed CAPE from a fledging grass-roots organization to a powerful lobbying organization with a database of close to one million registered voters.
Harris was raised in Long Beach and received a Bachelor’s degree from California State University at Long Beach, and did her post graduate work at California State University at San Francisco.
She worked her way through college and graduate school working in a male-dominated field – climbing telephone poles for GTE – and rapidly advanced into a management position.
Harris began her work with the Democratic Party in 1971 as a Field Organizer for the McGovern campaign. Since that time, she has served in the Democratic Party as a Member of Campaign Selection, Legislative, Affirmative Action, and Budget Committees; Member of Delegate Selection Committee of California Democratic Party; Assembly District Chair of 16th Assembly; was appointed Delegate by Assembly member John Burton; and elected Chair of Lesbian/Gay Caucus of California Democratic Party.
She left her position with GTE to become Chief of Staff to San Francisco Supervisor Harry Britt in 1987, and as President of San Francisco’s Harvey Milk Lesbian/Gay Democratic Club, was a key figure in the “lavender sweep” during which LGBT candidates Roberta Achtenberg, Carole Migden, Harry Britt, and Tom Ammiano were swept into office in San Francisco during the early nineties.
She then served as Special Assistant to San Francisco Mayor Frank Jordan; liaison to the Board of Supervisors on the budget, and the mayor’s staff liaison to Health Department and Health Commission. After leaving CAPE in 2003, she worked on the West Coast campaign for Governor Howard Dean’s presidential campaign, “Dean For America.” Subsequently, she worked for California Assembly Speaker Emeritus Herb Wesson, and Speaker Fabian Nunez. then worked as a Principal consultant for California Senate President pro Tem Don Perata, working closely with the LGBT Legislative Caucus.
She is survived by her partner, Denise Penn; their children: Jake, Jann, Jill and Rachel; her grandaughter Brooke; siblings Ray and Linda; and her mother who just celebrated her 90th birthday. A private service will be held for the family and a celebration of life is being planned and will be announced at a later time
(Below is from my original post. Reaction below that)
Harris, a mainstay in San Francisco and Democratic Party politics for decades, also headed Basic Rights Oregon and California Alliance for Pride and Equality in 2000 and 2001 respectively, (CAPE was the pre-cursor to Equality California) and was nationally known for her field organizing skills and voter identification projects.
Harris was also renown for making waves. For instance, in November 1991, chairwoman of the Lesbian-Gay Caucus of the California Democratic Party, she interrupted a news gaggle between reporters and Democratic presidential contender Bob Kerrey – who had been caught telling a lesbian “joke” – and demanded that Kerrey “support state and federal legislation aimed at outlawing discrimination against gays, according to the Los Angeles Times.
The Times reported:
“I really felt compelled to come here and look you in the eye,” Harris said to Kerrey. “You’re in a town with a high population of lesbians and gays . . . . We can’t tolerate the kind of thing that has happened.”
Harris later acknowledged that Kerrey received a 92% approval rating from the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force for his voting record in the last congressional term. But she said the fact that Kerrey could receive that rating and “still be telling lesbian jokes” reflected “the level of our civil rights these days.”
There will be more on Harris’ life – but here are some initial reactions from friends:
Comedienne/longtime LGBT activist Robin Tyler:
Jean Harris is known as one of the best organizers in our community. She was a fantastic activist.
But I remember her for the fun we had together.
We went to Russia in 1990. (when it was still under Communism). I told her to bring a tux for a demonstration in the square. Although we were just friends, we kissed and the picture was published on the front page of many European newspapers. We both laughed. The community will really miss her. I know I will.
Geoff Kors, former executive director at Equality California:
Jean was a trailblazer in the truest sense of the word. I learned so much from her, especially when I first became involved in LGBT politics. Her leadership and tenacity is the reason San Francisco voters restored domestic partnership back in 1990 after taking them away in 1989. And she built CAPE into a strong statewide organization. Time and time again she pushed forward for our rights when many urged waiting. Jean impacted — and will continue to impact — millions in our community.
“The LGBT community and the greater Democratic Party family will sorely miss Jean Harris. She was the consummate political insider, yet often found herself excelling in the outsider role. Jean focused on many political causes, but she worked tirelessly on LGBT issues and was an essential part of the strategy that ultimately turned the Coachella Valley blue. Jean never hesitated to call out-the deceivers, the charlatans and the chicken-hearted, and she never acquiesced to our opponents. Her energy and fearlessness will be missed.”
“Jean Harris was one of our most special warriors. For decades she fought fearlessly for our rights, to elect our candidates, to make sure good and fair protections passed in Sacramento and to tirelessly encourage all of us to keep our hearts in the fight. She was such a wonderful woman and we will miss her deeply.”
Equality California Saddened by Death of LGBT Veteran Activist Jean Harris
San Francisco- Jean Harris, an ex-Deputy Mayor of San Francisco and the founder of California Alliance for Pride and Equality (CAPE), died on Saturday, June 25, 2011. CAPE later became Equality California.
Statement from Equality California Interim Executive Director Jim Carroll:
“Jean was a tireless advocate for the LGBT community, and she will be terribly missed. Her colorful and indomitable spirit inspired generations of LGBT activists throughout the state and nation.
“At a time when California had extremely limited rights and protections for LGBT people, she dreamed and fought for equality and for a better California. Her legislative advocacy, grassroots organizing, and coalition building became the bedrock for the modern LGBT justice movement in California.
As Executive Director of CAPE, Jean worked with then Assemblymember Carole Migden to introduce and pass AB 25, which granted registered domestic partners some of the most basic rights offered to married opposite-sex couples including:
Make medical decisions in the hospital or act as a conservator.
Inherit property without a will.
Administer an estate.
Seek compensation for the loss of economic or social support.
Relocate with a domestic partner without losing unemployment benefits.
Use sick leave to care for a family member or provide them with employer-based health coverage without additional taxation.
File disability benefits on behalf of an incapacitated partner.
Adopt a partner’s child using the stepparent adoption process.
Continue health coverage for surviving domestic partners of retired government workers.
Statement of California Democratic Party Chairman John Burton and CDP LGBT Caucus Co-Chairs Clark Williams and Pat Washington, PhD on the Passing of LGBT Icon Jean Harris
The LGBT and broader civil rights community lost both a friend and a movement icon with the passing of former CDP LGBT Caucus Chair Jean Harris on Saturday, June 25, 2011.
Harris spent decades on the front lines of Democratic and LGBT politics. A 2001 article in The Nation rightfully described Harris as “one of the savviest gay organizers in the country” and appropriately credited her leadership of Basic Rights Oregon as the reason that Oregon was the only state to withstand the tide of anti-gay referenda sweeping the U.S. in 2000.
Harris served as Deputy Mayor of San Francisco, Executive Director of Basic Rights Oregon, and founder of California Alliance for Pride and Equality. In these positions, and many others ranging from campaign strategizing and grassroots organizing to voter identification and registration, Harris did much more than simply “occupy” political and social space—she maximized it to promote a progressive agenda, especially for LGBT rights.
We join with the many other groups and individuals mourning the loss of this fierce champion of LGBT rights. We offer our condolences to Jean’s family and friends and extend our heartfelt sympathies especially to her partner—our friend and CDP LGBT Caucus officer, Denise Penn.