Op-ed: The LGBT Roots of S.F.'s Habitat for Humanity
The March day I brought my husband, Joe, home from the hospital following brain surgery, I got a message from Habitat for Humanity Greater San Francisco.
The nonprofit organization is the local affiliate of Habitat for Humanity International, building affordable homes for working families with the help of community volunteers. My late partner, Stephen Jacoby, founded San Francisco’s Habitat affiliate before dying of AIDS complications in 1991.
The call from Habitat made me reflect on that landscape of my life in a way I hadn’t in a long time and of the trauma so many of us experienced during the height of the AIDS epidemic.
First I am compelled to honor the man I am married to today. Joe and I have been together for 14 years and were legally married in California prior to the passing of Proposition 8. We have a spiritual connection that is deep and emotional. Joe was born in the same hospital as Steve in Alton, Ill. As I did with Steve, we work together for the same airline. We survived as the AIDS crisis claimed our first partners and many of our friends and colleagues. We mutually believe it is in Steve’s spirit that we met.
Steve, a Navy and commercial airline pilot, met former first lady Rosalynn Carter in the fall of 1989 on a flight between San Francisco and Newark. Following protocol, he passed a note on a cocktail napkin via the working flight attendant to one of Mrs. Carter’s Secret Service agents and then to Mrs. Carter. It read, “Thank you for your support of Habitat for Humanity. Together we can make it happen.”
Last to deplane, Steve was surprised when Mrs. Carter waited in the jet bridge to meet him. She challenged him to bring Habitat to San Francisco — the last major U.S. city without a Habitat affiliate. The ultimate challenge was that Habitat International’s leadership had said San Francisco was too expensive a city for the model to work here. Complicating matters, Habitat for Humanity International was a Christian organization, and it wasn’t clear in the organization’s bylaws how that Christian mission could be inclusive of people from other religions or of gays and lesbians.
Steve, a quiet and humble man, was determined to found this Habitat in a way that honored a variety of faiths and included all people, regardless of race, gender, or sexual orientation.
He spent the last months of his life leading public meetings, forming a steering committee and a board, and applying for incorporation from Habitat. He was elected the first Habitat San Francisco board president in September of 1991, and he presiding over the first meeting of a board that included many different religions as well as LGBT people. Steve died five days after that first meeting.
Why would a man dying of AIDS dedicate his last days to making sure Habitat for Humanity was started in San Francisco?
Steve had always believed in service, in taking care of others and doing what was right. A leader, Steve stood as one of the representatives to lead newly hired union pilots in the strike against his airline in 1985. He sought volunteer work in every community he ever lived in. His first question to me upon moving to San Francisco was “What community organizations do you want to be involved with?” The day before he died, knowing I would not receive death-of-spouse benefits from our company, he challenged me to fight for benefits for gay and lesbian couples.
I acted on his request. In October 1998, I was subpoenaed by the city of San Francisco to testify on how gay and lesbian employees were discriminated against in our company’s benefits program. We won. And as a result, we had domestic-partner benefits at our company long before it became a national norm.
I lost track of what became of Habitat for Humanity in San Francisco after Steve passed. When a new president was elected, the board carried on Steve’s legacy, pushing for changes to the incorporation documents that would allow Habitat San Francisco to uphold its dedication to inclusion.
Since then, more than 200 homes have been built, not to mention the many Bay Area neighborhoods that have been revitalized, homes that have been repaired, community centers that have been renovated, and parks that have been cleaned up. Habitat Greater San Francisco is thriving.
I was thrilled to hear Habitat’s story. And Habitat Greater San Francisco was equally thrilled to hear Steve’s.
After learning more about Steve, Habitat San Francisco honored him this month with the first annual Stephen Blake Jacoby Memorial Build With Pride — a day for LGBT people and their supporters to volunteer at a Habitat construction site and continue Steve’s legacy of service and his dedication to inclusion and equality. I attended the build, wearing Steve’s Navy pilot jacket, which Joe and I hang in our closet to honor and remember him. I was asked to speak and shared the following story with the diverse group of volunteers:
Joe, who is recovering from surgery, and I recently watched The Normal Heart, which chronicles the early years of the AIDS crisis, before the disease had a name.
There is a scene in the movie where Tommy, played by Jim Parsons, gives a eulogy during which he ponders what the world lost when so many gay men died too young of AIDS. “Young men, at the beginning, just gone. Choreographers, playwrights, dancers, actors. All those plays that won’t get written now. All those dances never to be danced,” Tommy says.
We lost our Steve too young, I told the volunteers. But here in San Francisco we don’t have to ask what houses will never be built for families in need. Steve’s spirit lives on in Habitat for Humanity Greater San Francisco and that fills Joe’s and my normal hearts with pride and eternal love.
KENT BLOOM is the former partner of Stephen Blake Jacoby (pictured above), a Navy pilot who founded Habitat for Humanity San Francisco in 1991, just a few months before dying from an AIDS-related illness. The nonprofit affordable housing developer, now called Habitat for Humanity Greater San Francisco, honored Jacoby at the first annual Stephen Blake Jacoby Memorial Build With Pride June 6 and 7 – during which volunteers from the LGBT population and its allies helped build homes at the Habitat Terrace development in San Francisco. See more photos from the memorial build below.