After Milk’s murder, friends disclosed that, eerily fearing assassination, he had recorded a tape naming three possible successors — and ruling out Jim Foster. Feinstein followed his wishes, appointing a left-wing activist named Harry Britt.
As she prepared for a November 1979 election for her own, full term as mayor, however, Feinstein’s political relations with gay voters broke down.
Amid a wave of national media attention, she angered LGBTQ people with an insensitive comment in a Ladies Home Journal interview: “The right of an individual to live as he or she chooses can become offensive,” she said. “The gay community is going to have to face this. It’s time for us to live here respecting each other’s lifestyles but that doesn’t mean imposing them on others.”
In May that year, she stumbled in her first big crisis as mayor: Thousands of gay people and others rioted, after a conservative jury found Dan White guilty of two counts, not of murder, but voluntary manslaughter — the equivalent of vehicular homicide.
Conservatives bashed Feinstein for being too lenient with protesters, while Britt led cries of outrage from the left, blaming her after cops invaded a gay bar at closing time during the “White Night Riot” and beat patrons and others milling on Castro Street, the heart of Milk’s district.
Anger over the cops, her magazine quote and increasing reports of street attacks on the LGBTQ community cost her politically. She was forced into a runoff against her conservative archenemy on the Board of Supervisors, after a gay realtor named David Scott captured 10 percent of the November vote in his run as a protest candidate.
It starkly demonstrated that gay people now held the balance of electoral power in San Francisco.
In the runoff, Feinstein apologized for her magazine comments. “I don’t come to you as a perfect person that knows all of the answers and that doesn’t make mistakes,” she said at a crucial debate sponsored by a local gay Democratic club. “But I do come to you as someone who has got a heart and a concern and a very deep interest and desire to represent this community.” She won Scott’s endorsement — and a four-year term of her own.
One more big political clash with the gay community remained.
In 1982, the Board of Supervisors passed a measure authored by Britt authorizing city health and other benefits for “domestic partners” of unmarried public employees, which primarily affected gay people. Under heavy pressure to veto the bill from religious leaders, Feinstein agonized; finally, against the unanimous advice of City Hall counselors, she killed it.
Once again, the Castro District bloomed with “Dump Dianne” posters. Worse, backlash to the veto fueled a once-lagging recall campaign; launched by a fringe group called the White Panthers that was mad about her push for gun control, the moribund effort suddenly qualified for the ballot.
However, she quickly framed the recall as a referendum on the rogue White Panthers, winning big and ensuring her easy reelection a few months later.
Feinstein would later express regret for the controversial veto, but many gay political organizations did not forget, and highlight it still in assessments of her record.
Britt, who finished a close second in the 1987 special congressional election that sent Nancy Pelosi to Washington, later recalled meeting with Feinstein about the legislation.
“She told me she was very sympathetic, but she didn’t want to blaze any trails,” Britt, told me several years before his death in 2020. “She said, ‘Harry, I understand it’s a personal thing but I’m mayor of all the people.’ It really was a morality thing with her.’”
The Ultimate Concern
In the 1980s, passions on other issues faded when AIDS began to ravage the Castro District. And Feinstein’s leadership on the crisis remains her greatest legacy in the city of her birth.
San Francisco’s first patient with Kaposi’s sarcoma, a rare disease then called “gay cancer,” and later linked to AIDS, was diagnosed at General Hospital on July 1, 1981. The city became the country’s early center of the HIV/AIDS epidemic and soon it affected 50 percent of more than 50,000 gay men then estimated living in the city, the nation’s highest per capita rate of AIDS.
At the time, years before new drugs would change the prognosis, it was a near-universal death sentence. At the end of Feinstein’s mayoral tenure, the Los Angeles Times reported, “more San Franciscans (were) dead of AIDS than from all the wars in this century, combined and doubled.”
However, in partnership with its world-class research hospitals, community organizations and the CDC, the city built a public and private network of AIDS-related services, hailed as “The San Francisco Model” of care, widely viewed as the best in the world.
Three years before President Ronald Reagan uttered the word “AIDS,” Feinstein also organized the first national AIDS task force, through the U.S. Conference of Mayors.
Characteristically, her management of a crisis with huge impact on the gay community was not controversy-free.
In 1982-1983, backed by local government health authorities, Feinstein moved aggressively to close dozens of gay bathhouses, identified as sites enabling widespread spread of infection. Some gay organizations and business leaders fiercely objected, fearing a new era of repression, and viewing the bathhouses as effective places to distribute information and education about AIDS.
Later, however, even some gay leaders who strongly and consistently opposed Feinstein during her decades in local politics, credited her on AIDS.
“She was extraordinarily sensitive to the AIDS issue throughout the epidemic,” recalled Carole Migden, a close ally of Milk, who later served as a city supervisor and in the state legislature.
“She does not understand what gay people are all about,” Migden added, “but she has understood the issues of disease and death. And all other issues pale in comparison to this.”
Feinstein concluded her tenure as mayor in 1988, and in 1990, ran a strong but unsuccessful race for governor against then-U.S. Sen. Pete Wilson (a campaign in which his Republican campaign strategists leaned on reporters to write about the “lesbian wedding in her backyard” nearly 20 years before). Two years later, however, she trounced Gov. Wilson’s appointed successor to his old seat, beginning the 30-plus years in Washington that marked the second half of her historic career.
Beyond better-known achievements in the Senate — forcing release of the CIA torture report, a 25-year effort to pass the California Desert Protection Act and a decade-long federal ban on assault weapons — she took, and maintained, a high-profile stance as one of the most visible supporters of gay-rights issues and causes in Congress.
From early in her tenure, she advocated for the right of gay people to marry, helping to lead the fight against the Defense of Marriage Act, which prohibited the federal government from recognizing same-sex unions; in 1996, she was one of just 14 senators to vote against the bill, which Democratic President Bill Clinton signed into law. In 2008, she inveighed against California’s Proposition 8, which sought a state constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage, and she later led a congressional group in filing an amicus brief in the landmark Obergefell v. Hodges case before the U.S. Supreme Court, which ultimately legalized same-sex marriage nationwide.
She took similar action on behalf of the civil rights of gay people on a host of other bitterly contested matters: opposing the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy restricting gay people from serving openly in the military; supporting the Matthew Shepard Act to expand federal hate crime laws; seeking to prohibit discrimination against adoptive and foster parents because of sexual orientation; and expanding the government’s data collection parameters to include broader definitions of gender identity.
In 2023, she assailed the Supreme Court for “enshrining discrimination against LGBTQ individuals” in Creative LLC v. Elenis, which ruled that a web designer who was unwilling to work for same-sex couples could ignore a Colorado state law outlawing such discrimination.
“This decision,” she said, “will harm real people who again can be treated as second-class citizens.”