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07/03/11-by Bridgette P. LaVictoire
It is unknown how or why Jean Harris passed away, all that is known is that the sixty-six year old activist and lesbian passed away this past week. She had been ill for many years with a variety of health issues, including chronic pain and liver disease. She was found at her Palm Springs home by Denise Penn, her wife. Penn, who is fifty, said that “Activism should have been Harris’ first name.”
For Stephanie Loftin, Harris was the campaign manager who got her into politics back in 2006 when Loftin ran for Long Beach’s third district council seat. Loften said of Harris “She hunted me down and said, We need a gay or and [sic] lesbian candidate in the third district. It was impossible to say no to Jean Harris. Her public persona was this gruff and tumble old dyke, but underneath her truck driver exterior she was a charming, tender-hearted woman who would do anything for her friends.”
Harris had been part of LGBT politics for over three decades, and was behind several grassroots, nonpartisan LGBT political advocacy organizations throughout California. Penn also stated “Jean would not stay in the office. She would be walking the precincts and jumping fences in gated community. She would not let a locked gate stand in her way of reaching potential voters.”
Harris was raised in Long Beach, CA, where she lived most of her life. She worked her way through college and graduate school by working in a male-dominated field- that of climbing telephones for GTE. She went on to enter into a management position. She entered politics back in 1971 as a field organizer for McGovern, but it would not be until 1987 when she would leave GTE to become chief of staff to San Francisco Supervisor Harry Brit and presiden tof the city’s Harvey Milk Lesbian/Gay Democratic Club.
That group played a key role in the “lavender sweep,” which brought LGBT candidates Roberta Achtenberg, Carole Migden, Harry Britt and Tom Ammiano into office during the early nineties.
It was in 1996 that Harris helped to create the California Alliance for Pride and Equality, which is known today as Equality California. Harris transformed CAPE into the powerful lobbying group that it is today. Indeed EQCA executive director Jim Carroll stated:
“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.
She would go on to work for California Assembly Speaker Emeritus Herb Wesson and Speaker Fabian Nunez. She then worked as one of the principal consultants for California Senate President Pro Tem Don Perata.
According to friend Kim Hanedel, who worked with Harris in San Francisco politics:
“Jean Harris was a true radical. She did not believe in asking for her rights, she knew they had to be taken.
“Her style was often difficult (she was an incredible screamer) and she made enemies, some of the most dangerous from her own SF community. But, very early in her career she had figured out that by allowing herself to be the lightening rod, she was able to divert attention while she worked behind the scenes to create the progress that was best for the movement.
Harris is survived by her wife (domestic partner), Denise Penn, as well as their four children- Jake, Jann, Jill and Rachel as well as their granddaughter Brooke. Her mother Mary just turned 90, and she is also survived by her two brothers Roy and George, and her sister Linda.
The fight for equality continues in California and across the United States. One day, we will achieve what Jean Harris set out to do.