Eyewitness to history – Senator Diane Feinstein – Interview
Sen. Dianne Feinstein recalls Milk’s death and reflects on the current state of gay politics
Few can forget the hastily organized press conference at San Francisco City Hall on November 27, 1978. The city’s beloved mayor, George Moscone, and openly gay supervisor Harvey Milk had been assassinated by disgruntled antigay supervisor Dan White. In a halting voice Dianne Feinstein, then president of the board of supervisors and a political ally of Moscone and Milk, announced to the world that the mayor and Milk were dead and that White was the chief suspect in the killings.
Moments earlier, when the first shots rang out at San Francisco City Hall, Feinstein had raced to Milk’s office, where he lay covered in blood. “There was a bullet hole through Harvey,” Feinstein recalls today. “I put my finger on his wrist to try to get a pulse. I knew he was dead. It was a terrible, terrible moment. Then I found out that the mayor also had been killed. When I became mayor I tried very hard to put the bricks of the city back together again.”
The composure that Feinstein showed that day endeared her to the city’s gay community and contributed to her rise to national prominence. After serving out the year remaining in Moscone’s term, she was reelected to two four-year terms as mayor. She won a special election to the U.S. Senate in 1992 and was reelected two years later. “Her work on our behalf in the Senate has been unmatched by anyone,” says Winnie Stachelberg, political director of the Human Rights Campaign. Feinstein is a sponsor of federal legislation to ban antigay job bias and has been the leading defender of gay philanthropist James Hormel’s nomination as ambassador to Luxembourg.
In an interview with The Advocate, Feinstein, 65, spoke about the assassinations, Milk’s legacy, and gay and lesbian politics in Washington, D.C. For Feinstein, the memories of that day are still painful and difficult to talk about.
The city nearly imploded in the aftermath of the assassinations. How did everyone manage to stay together?
You make it through because you have to make it through. What made it even harder was that it followed the Jonestown event [in which followers of Jim Jones, a cult leader from San Francisco, committed mass suicide]. It was my first day back at work. I had been gone in Nepal for the preceding three weeks. I had met the man who was to be my husband, and we went to the Everest area to visit the Dalai Lama. I had been looking for Dan [White] to try to keep him from taking his seat that day. And then all of this unwound. It was just a terrible day in San Francisco’s history. Then a long litany of events unfolded: the verdict and the White Night Riots, the incarceration of Dan White and his suicide.
Did you feel a responsibility to carry on Moscone and Milk’s legacy?
I don’t believe that the government should change as a product of assassination. I’m more to the center of the political spectrum than either of them were. But I did try, finishing George’s last term as mayor, to retain all of his people. That was very important to me personally.
What was your personal relationship with Harvey Milk?
It’s fair to say it was mixed. [Laughs] Harvey could be pretty difficult–he would give you fits from time to time. I certainly knew what his contributions were, and I made him head of the transportation committee, which is what he most wanted.
What did you learn from him about gay politics?
In those days gay politics was very different. It was much more acute, much more confrontational. There was a lot of street activism. The gay community really hadn’t come together like it has since. In those days gay activists were almost always on the Left. They have gradually spread the political spectrum, and I see that as sign of maturity.
Then along came AIDS.
You have to remember that shortly after the assassination and riots, when I was mayor, that’s when we discovered AIDS. So it was a doubly difficult time. There were those who wanted to practice a kind of reprisal. It was all wrapped up–the conservative movement, Deal White–and some people were blaming gays for spreading the disease. In retrospect, keeping these things in perspective and overcoming them was the beginning of the maturation of the movement.
This summer Senate majority leader Trent Lott compared gay men and lesbians to kleptomaniacs, and religious right groups took out ads calling on gays to repent.
What happens back here [in Washington, D.C.] is that everything becomes politicized and removed from the reality of human beings’ simply struggling for equal opportunity. It’s incomprehensible to me that Congress wouldn’t take action to end [antigay] discrimination in employment and housing–two things fundamental to the ability to survive. I moved that legislation in 1971, when I was president of the [San Francisco] board of supervisors.
But the religious right is much better organized in Washington.
One of the tragedies of this debate is the putting of labels on everything. People get a mind picture or something that isn’t the reality, like all gays are X or Y. Gays are as broad and diverse as any other community. I often believe that as people have experiences that put them into contact with gay people, these things will change with time. Back here, however, it’s the politics of polarization. In my day, gay activists didn’t always agree with me. But at least they would say I was fair, that I cared.
You were one of only 14 senators to vote against the Defense of Marriage Act. Years ago in San Francisco, you held a commitment ceremony reception for a same-sex couple
It must have been 30 years ago. These were good friends, and we held a reception at my home in San Francisco. It was about a statement of their commitment to one other.
Should same-sex couples have a legal right to marry?
I don’t want to get into all of this now. This is commemorative of Harvey Milk. [The marriage issue] is for another time.
But what better way to commemorate Milk? Isn’t that what Harvey would have wanted?
One of the things I’ve learned in Washington–you don’t answer hypotheticals.
Is there any chance that the Senate will hold a vote on James Hormel’s nomination?
No. I don’t think it will make it through the Senate. It just won’t come up for a vote. I’ve tried and tried and tried. All we’ve asked for is, Let the body vote. Anybody has the right to come to the floor and argue for or against, but let’s allow democracy to work.
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