Activist Jean Harris Dies
BY Trudy Ring
July 02 2011 12:40 PM ET
Jean Harris, a longtime lesbian activist who helped elect gay candidates
as well as establish domestic partnerships in California and defeat an antigay ballot measure in Oregon, has died
at age 66, the Los Angeles Times reports.
Harris was found dead at her Palm Springs, Calif., home June 25 by her partner, Denise Penn. Harris had several serious health problems, but an autopsy has been ordered to determine the cause of death.
Harris was known as “the lesbian Al Sharpton” for her flamboyant and confrontational style. “She could be a pain,” California Democratic Party chair John Burton told the Times. “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.”
A native of California’s Orange County, Harris became instrumental in San Francisco politics, helping elect two lesbians to the city’s Board of Supervisors and a gay man to the school board in 1990. She also served as chief of staff to Supervisor Harry Britt, who succeeded Harvey Milk after his 1978 assassination.
In 1996 she became the founding director of Basic Rights Oregon, that state’s largest gay rights group. The organization was key to the defeat of a 2000 ballot initiative that would have prohibited discussions of homosexuality in Oregon public schools.
Returning to California, she was named executive director of the Alliance for Pride and Equality, now Equality California. In 2001 she worked with state Assembly member Carole Migden to pass legislation establishing domestic partnerships for gay couples. She later worked on Howard Dean’s presidential campaign and as a staffer for leaders of the California legislature.