Assassinated San Francisco mayor’s papers give fascinating glimpse of early gay rights politics

Assassinated San Francisco mayor’s papers give fascinating glimpse of early gay rights politics

In June 1977 an irate San Francisco resident mailed off a letter to then-mayor George Moscone. The focus of his ire was the planned Pride celebration at the end of the month.

He complained that his relatives were likely to cancel their visit to the city after hearing on their local news about the “faggot (they say ‘gay’) festival AKA orgy” to be held in the city. In permitting the event, the letter writer asked Moscone, “Why do you buckle to the fag desires, other than VOTES?”

Moscone sent a 210-word reply in late July thanking the person for their letter and defending the right of the city’s gay “tax-paying” residents, which he estimated numbered more than 100,000 men and women, to hold the annual event.

“I am sorry that you object so violently to this parade, and that you feared for the safety of your relatives because such an event could take place in San Francisco,” wrote Moscone.

“I would inform you, first of all, that our City passed an ordinance in 1972 which prohibits discrimination against citizens on the basis of race, religion, or sexual preference. As the mayor of San Francisco I am sworn to uphold the laws of this City to the best of my ability, and that is exactly what I intend to do.”

The correspondence is just one illustration of how close Moscone was, both politically and socially, to the local LGBT community during his time in office. It is among the roughly 160,000 documents that make up the George Moscone Collection housed at the University of the Pacific Library’s Holt-Atherton Special Collections.

Moscone graduated with a B.A. in sociology in 1953 from the university in Stockton, California, when it was known as the College of the Pacific. A star basketball player and leader of the student government during his time there, Moscone received an honorary law degree from the private university in 1976.

His family agreed to donate Moscone’s papers to his alma mater in 2014. After receiving a $47,232 grant last year from the National Archives’ National Historical Publications and Records Commission, the university was able to process the archival material and digitize a portion of the documents so they are accessible online to researchers, students, and anyone interested in learning more about Moscone.

“Our whole purpose is to share. We really want to get these into people’s hands and allow them to see history first hand,” said Mike Wurtz, the head of special collections at the university.

In July, the library uploaded roughly 200 items online from the Moscone collection. The documents include Moscone’s letters and speeches, photos, and other ephemera from his life. There are also 60 oral histories that filmmakers hired by the university are incorporating into a documentary about Moscone.

“He was a real progressive and made no apologies about it,” said Joseph Olson, the project archivist hired to process the collection. “He was just a man of the people; a San Franciscan born and raised. I think the values he had were really shaped by San Francisco itself.”

The politician was straight – but not narrow

George Moscone’s political career was launched in 1963 when he won a seat on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. Three years later he was elected to the state Senate and quickly rose to the powerful majority leader position.

While in the Legislature, Moscone cemented his reputation as a progressive politician, helping to pass legislation that legalized abortion in California and repealed the state’s anti-gay sodomy laws.

He was sworn in as San Francisco’s 37th mayor in January 1976. One of his first moves as mayor was to appoint gay rights activist Harvey Milk to the city’s Permit Appeals Board. It marked the first time an LGBT person had been given a mayoral appointment to a major oversight body.

The following year Moscone appointed the late Del Martin, a well-known lesbian leader, to the city’s Commission on the Status of Women. The mayor also helped push through district elections for the city’s supervisor seats that year, paving the way for Milk to again make history.

In November 1977, Milk won a supervisor seat, marking the first time an out LGBT candidate had won elective office in both San Francisco and the state of California. The following April, Moscone and Milk, in conjunction with then-supervisors Carol Ruth Silver and Bob Gonzales, enacted the most sweeping gay rights protections of any city in the country. Known as the Human Rights Ordinance, it banned discrimination based on sexual orientation in employment, housing, and public accommodations in the private sector.

In response to the parents of a gay son living in the city who had written him in thanks of signing the law, and included a $20 donation to the mayor, Moscone responded with a note of his own.

Dated July 1, 1977, Moscone noted that, “In San Francisco we have tried to set a dignified example for the rest of the nation. We have tried to show the rest of the world that people can live together in peace, free from hostility and prejudice. That will continue to be our highest priority in this city, and I hope our nation as well.

“With the support of generous people like you, we will surely triumph in the end,” he added.

Moscone also received praise for how he handled the tragic killing of Robert Hillsborough, a gay man and city gardener, that June outside his home in the Mission district mere days ahead of the annual Pride weekend. One letter from a city resident thanked Moscone for his “forthright and decisive manner.”

It prompted a solemn reply from the mayor, with Moscone writing in a letter dated June 30, 1977 that he learned with “great sadness and anger” of Hillsborough’s death. “Such an outrageous attack has no place in our city and I am grateful for the excellent work done by the San Francisco Police Department in apprehending those suspected of being responsible for this senseless crime,” he wrote.

His unflagging support for the LGBTQ community in black and white

The archive also documents more joyous moments of Moscone’s mayoralty. Several press clippings from the spring of 1978 recount his throwing out the first pitch at the season opener for the city’s gay softball league. Another from the January 30, 1978 issue of the San Francisco Examiner reported on the mayor being “warmly received” at the annual contest to elect the next Empress of the Imperial Court, a charitable organization formed by local drag queens.

Moscone’s administration was the first to designate city funds toward the annual Pride celebration. The archive includes a March 2, 1978 news release from the city’s then chief administrative officer Roger Boas announcing that $10,000 from the hotel tax fund had been allocated to the event, then known as the Gay Freedom Day Parade.

That year Moscone also took a very public role in helping Milk and other LGBT leaders defeat the anti-gay Briggs initiative on the fall ballot. The measure known as Proposition 6 would have banned LGBT people and their straight allies from working in the state’s public schools.

Several documents in the archive illustrate Moscone’s opposition to the ballot measure. One is the statement he issued May 9, 1978 asking the public not to sign the petitions in support of placing it on the ballot.

Saying he was “staunchly opposed” to the Briggs initiative, Moscone lambasted it as a “dangerous measure” that strikes “at the heart of our democracy.” He noted he was “proud” to have recently signed the city’s groundbreaking gay rights law and was equally “disturbed that the Briggs initiative would reverse the positive effects of such legislation.”

An item in the September 29, 1978 edition of the San Francisco Chronicle noted Moscone’s attendance at a $100 a plate fundraising dinner for anti-Prop 6 group the No on Six Committee. It quoted the mayor as saying the initiative was “the most outrageous distortion of what this country stands for I’ve ever seen.”

When John Briggs, the Republican state senator behind the measure, attempted to hold a news conference in San Francisco on Halloween night near the public celebration then held along Polk Street, Moscone showed up with Silver, Milk, and other city leaders. As the Chronicle reported the following day, Briggs spoke to reporters “and then got in his car, surrounded by 4 aides, and sped off.”

Coverage of the defeat of the measure is also included in the archive. A clipping from the November 8, 1978 Chronicle reported how Moscone had shown up at the Market Street headquarters for the anti-Prop 6 campaign and declared, “It puts to rest the people who would run for office on the basis of fear issues.”

The mayor added, “This is not a victory over a lightweight like John Briggs. It is a victory over the despair that has fallen on gay people. It’s a victory of intellect over emotion.”

His relationship with Harvey Milk was fraught at times

While Moscone and Milk’s political alliance is well known, a review of the documents in the mayor’s archival collection reveals how their collaboration was at times strained. For instance, to the chagrin of Moscone, within weeks of Milk being sworn in to his seat on the permit appeals board he announced he would run for a state Assembly seat, a race that he lost.

According to various press clippings in the archive, Moscone had been under the impression that Milk would use the oversight body seat to gain name recognition ahead of running for supervisor in 1977.

“Harvey knew how I felt about it, before all of this,” Moscone told the Bay Area Reporter in an article published March 18, 1976.

The mayor explained that he had told Milk, “I am going to give you the shorter of the staggered terms so your term will end in 1977. Then there will be no conflict. When you quit you will be declaring for the Board of Supervisors. He knew very well that I was trying to help him and that I did not want his service on the permit board to be used for campaigning.”

Yet Milk didn’t view his appointment in the same politically advantageous light as Moscone. Nor was he willing to wait to seek public office.

In a story that April published by the Advocate, Milk said, “I’m not controllable. I wouldn’t be anybody’s puppet.”

Moscone replaced Milk on the appeals board with another gay appointee, lawyer Rick Stokes, which the Advocate article noted had “no immediate political ambitions.” Stokes, however, would unsuccessfully challenge Milk for the newly created District 5 supervisor seat that included the gay Castro district in the fall of 1977.

The issue of mayoral appointments was a particular flashpoint between Moscone and LGBT leaders. Early in his tenure the mayor faced criticism from Milk and Phyllis Lyon, a lesbian activist and longtime partner of Martin’s, for not appointing either to the police commission, which had yet to have LGBT representation. (Lyon and Martin made history in 2008 when they were the first same-sex couple to marry in San Francisco.)

As quoted in one undated press clipping contained in the archive from the Sentinel, a gay newspaper, Lyon asked, “When is anybody ever going to be ready?” in response to a suggestion that Moscone felt the timing wasn’t right to name an out police commissioner. Milk was quoted as asking the same question.

Yet in a letter Milk sent to Moscone, he informed the mayor he had written the paper to refute the tenor of the article and claimed that his quote in the story was “a fabrication.” Milk suggested the story was meant to make both him and Moscone “look poor” and apologized for the paper’s “yellow journalism.”

However, Milk would again that year publicly criticize Moscone for not appointing more LGBT people to city boards and commissions. A May 17 newspaper clipping from a local newspaper reported that Milk felt the mayor, who had named three out appointees, had slighted gay people because he had appointed more women and minorities.

“We certainly haven’t had our share considering we voted for him,” Milk told the reporter from the San Mateo-based paper.

In an interview published in the November 23, 1977 issue of the B.A.R., which is also included in the archive, Moscone pledged that he would name a gay person to the police commission before he left office.

Attorney Matthew Coles, a gay man who worked to elect Moscone as mayor and helped write the gay rights bill that he signed into law, said in a recent interview that he found Moscone’s support for the LGBT community to be genuine and from the heart.

“He was one of those straight men you run across from time to time who wasn’t in the least bit uncomfortable around gay men,” recalled Coles, who is now on the UC Hastings faculty. “Particularly back then, among straight men, that was pretty unusual. I thought he was very honest and a sincere supporter.”

Tragically, Moscone’s term as mayor was cut short on the morning of November 27, 1978. Disgruntled former supervisor Dan White had snuck into City Hall with a gun and fatally shot both the mayor and Milk.

One of the more chilling documents in the collection is the news release Moscone intended to issue that day announcing he was appointing Don Horazny to White’s vacant supervisor seat. Written in red ink on the first page is the note that it was “NEVER ISSUED.”

The George Moscone Collection is open to the public by appointment or documents in the archive can be accessed online.

Matthew S. Bajko is an assistant editor at the Bay Area Reporter. This article is published as part of the LGBT History Project.

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