Jean Harris dies at 66; forceful gay-rights organizer

Jean Harris, a feisty advocate for gay and lesbian rights and longtime Democratic Party activist who helped elect openly gay candidates in California, has died. She was 66.

Harris, who had a number of serious health problems, was found June 25 in her Palm Springs home by her partner, Denise Penn. An autopsy to determine the cause of death is underway.

An Orange County native, Harris played a key role in mobilizing support for the so-called lavender sweep of 1990, when San Francisco voters elected two lesbian supervisors and a gay school board member.

She held prominent leadership posts in Democratic circles, including chief of staff to San Francisco Supervisor Harry Britt, who succeeded gay icon Harvey Milk after his assassination in 1978, and deputy to Mayor Frank Jordan after he took office in 1992.


Known as a savvy organizer, Harris became the founding director of Basic Rights Oregon, the state’s largest gay-rights organization, in 1996. Under her guidance, the group collaborated with environmental, labor and abortion-rights groups to build a base of 125,000 gay and pro-gay voters that became a decisive force behind the defeat of a 2000 ballot measure to prevent discussions of homosexuality in Oregon schools.

Following the victory in Oregon, she returned to California to serve as executive director of the Alliance for Pride and Equality (now called Equality California), which became one of the state’s most influential advocacy organizations for the rights of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender individuals. In 2001 she worked with then-Assemblywoman Carole Migden (D-San Francisco) to pass AB 25, a landmark bill that granted domestic partners many of the same rights as married couples.

“Her legislative advocacy, grass-roots organizing and coalition building became the bedrock for the modern LGBT justice movement in California,” Jim Carroll, interim executive director of Equality California, said in a statement this week.

Harris left the organization in 2003 to campaign for Democratic presidential candidate Howard Dean. She later worked for former state Assembly Speakers Herb Wesson and Fabian Nuñez and former state Senate President Pro Tem Don Perata.


Born in 1944, Harris grew up in Long Beach. She majored in history at Cal State Long Beach before enrolling in post-graduate courses at San Francisco State.

She worked her way through college climbing telephone poles for GTE, eventually rising into the management ranks. In 1971 she entered politics as a field organizer for Sen. George McGovern’s presidential campaign. In later years she served as chair of the California Democratic Party’s Lesbian/Gay Caucus and president of San Francisco’s Harvey Milk Lesbian/Gay Democratic Club.

Once described as “the lesbian Al Sharpton” for her colorful personality and confrontational style, Harris was unabashed about her sexuality and political goals.

“She could be a pain,” said John Burton, the former state legislator who chairs the California Democratic Party. “She’d push and sometimes people got upset with her, but she cared enough to not be nice in order to achieve the community’s goals.”

Harris favored men’s clothing, telling authors Karen V. Hansen and Anita Ilta Garey that she wore ties “because I want every man who sees me to know … I’m after their power. … They know right up front, I’m a dyke, I’m tough, I’m here, I want to know exactly what’s going on, and if you’ve got the power, I’m gonna try and take it from you.”

In addition to Penn, her partner of 10 years, Harris is survived by her mother, a brother, a sister, four children and a granddaughter.

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