Dianne Feinstein once stood at the center of a pivotal moment in LGBTQ+ history. Decades later, in death, she’s being lauded by LGBTQ+ leaders as a longtime ally who, if she didn’t always initially do the right thing, was able to learn and evolve.
Feinstein was president of the San Francisco County Board of Supervisors when she stood behind reporters’ microphones in November 1978 and grimly announced: “Both Mayor Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk have been shot and killed. The suspect is Supervisor Dan White.”
George Moscone was the liberal mayor of San Francisco; Milk was California’s first openly gay elected official. White was a disgruntled former fellow county supervisor who was the board’s sole vote against a gay anti-discrimination ordinance. And Feinstein, at age 45, found herself at the helm of a global center of gay life that, already roiled by the violence, was about to be further upended by AIDS.
She rose to the challenge and then some, advocates said after Feinstein, the nation’s oldest sitting U.S. senator, died Thursday at age 90.
“Senator Feinstein stood with our community back when few others did, fighting for funding and action to combat the AIDS crisis when most elected officials chose to look away,” the advocacy group Equality California said in a news release Friday.
Feinstein had a tense relationship with Milk but later championed his legacy, Stuart Milk, the assassinated supervisor’s nephew and a family spokesperson, said in an interview.
“She had become a consistent supporter of LGBTQ inclusion after a harder road for her to get there,” Milk said, noting that she was a sponsor of the Navy ship named for his uncle.
The Human Rights Campaign, a large LGBTQ+ advocacy group, cited Feinstein’s “sterling record of support for the LGBTQ+ community.”
Feinstein, a Democrat, voted against the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act, which banned federal recognition of same sex marriage, and the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy that required LGBTQ+ military service members to stay in the closet.
“It makes no sense to ask our gay and lesbian soldiers to put their lives on the line, while at the same time asking them to live in the shadows,” Feinstein said in a 2010 statement when “don’t ask, don’t tell” was being repealed.
The Human Rights Campaign pointed out she was also a sponsor of the Respect for Marriage Act, which President Joe Biden signed in 2022 to solidify the right to same-sex marriage.
But Feinstein could be polarizing, especially on her home turf.
She drew the ire of Gavin Newsom, the San Francisco mayor and future California governor, by saying that his issuance of marriage licenses to same-sex couples in 2004, in violation of state law, was an action that was “too much, too fast, too soon” and motivated conservative voters who gave Republican President George W. Bush a second term.
And, in the 1980s, her mayoral administration caused an outcry in some quarters for closing gay bathhouses to help stem the spread of HIV/AIDS.
But at the same time, “she dedicated huge amounts of city resources and funding, more so than the federal government was doing at that time, to try to stem the spread of this disease that was killing gay men in the city,” said Matthew S. Bajko, an editor and political columnist for the Bay Area Reporter, an influential LGBTQ+ newspaper.
Feinstein visited an AIDS hospice in Los Angeles in 1990 during her unsuccessful campaign for governor, telling patients, “I was there at the beginning and I hope I’m there at the end,” the Los Angeles Times reported at the time.
“No one could ever say she was, you know, the biggest champion of LGBTQ issues and people when she started her journey,” said Kierra Johnson, executive director of the National LGBTQ Task Force. “What I think is so powerful about who she is, is that we saw her evolve over time.”
Feinstein was the one who had found the bullet-riddled body of her colleague Milk, who was later celebrated in the book “The Mayor of Castro Street” by journalist Randy Shilts, the Academy Award-winning documentary “The Times of Harvey Milk,” and the Hollywood biopic “Milk,” starring Sean Penn.
“I remember it, actually, as if it was yesterday. And it was one of the hardest moments, if not the hardest moment, of my life,” Feinstein told the San Francisco Chronicle in 2008. “It was a devastating moment. For San Francisco, it was a day of infamy.”
She told the newspaper she believed White, who was convicted of manslaughter and died by suicide in 1985 after his release, was motivated by feelings of personal and political betrayal, not homophobia.
Still, she said, the assassinations “helped form who I am and what I believe.”