Gay Supervisor Harry Britt Dead at 82; Appointed After Harvey Milk's Assassination

Former San Francisco Supervisor, Harry Britt, speaking to a group at San Jose State University on AIDS awareness in 1988. (Ted Sahl Collection/San José State University Special Collections & Archives.)

Harry Britt, a soft-spoken openly gay Methodist preacher who was thrust into politics when then-Mayor Dianne Feinstein appointed him to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors after Supervisor Harvey Milk and Mayor George Moscone were assassinated in 1978, died Tuesday night. He was 82.

Britt, a natural introvert who didn't seek the spotlight, was one of four people Milk named as his preferred successors in the event of his death.

"Harry was progressive before the word became vogue," said Feinstein, now California's senior U.S. Senator. "He was a powerful advocate for the gay community who never took no for an answer. Strong, passionate advocates like Harry have done so much for San Francisco and the country, and I’m glad to have known him. He’ll be missed.”

Britt was born in Port Arthur, Texas in 1938 and eventually made his way to San Francisco as the gay rights movement was gaining momentum. Although he was not a natural politician, Britt was tapped to fulfill the vision of a slain gay icon, Harvey Milk.

"He didn't like the limelight. He didn't care for it --  for any of that," said Tom Ammiano, another openly gay politician who later served on the Board of Supervisors. "In a way, I hate to say it this way, but, you know, he did us a favor by saying, yes [to Feinstein], he sacrificed a lot. But I think he realized it was bigger than him because we who knew him and Harvey knew that we could trust him."

As a supervisor, Britt championed domestic partners legislation, an early form of legal recognition for same-sex couples. But when the legislation landed on Mayor Feinstein's desk in 1982,  she vetoed it.

"He was really hurt deeply by that," said Sharon Johnson, who worked in City Hall for Britt during his years as supervisor.

And yet when Britt gave remarks last year at the Board of Supervisors where he received a commendation 40 years after taking office, he tearfully thanked Feinstein for appointing him.

"She saw something good in me," Britt said. "Without Dianne I know my life would never have taken the course it took."

Johnson, who remained close to Britt until he died, said he always felt unworthy of following Milk on the Board of Supervisors.

"He was truly an introvert," Johnson said. "I always said that Harry lived in his head but made decisions from his heart. And that's how I found him to be."

Sponsored

Johnson recalled that Britt, who attended Duke University, was a big  basketball fan and also enjoyed spending time at the horse racing track where he would place bets.

"He came into the office one day and said, 'Sharon, there's a horse named Jennifer Ray. And I'm going to bet on this horse because it's named after your daughter, Jennifer Ray. But the horse isn't going to win because it's running on mud and not the the hard ground that it's accustomed to. But I want you to know I'm gonna bet on it.'"

Indeed, Johnson said, the horse lost.

Besides LGBTQ rights, Britt continued Milk's alliance with organized labor and working people in general. He also left his mark on police reform, helping to create the San Francisco Office of Citizens Complaints, which investigated allegations of police misuse or abuse of power. He also helped enact the city's rent control law.

"Social justice, economic justice and equality for all humankind — that was his deep passion," Johnson said. "Equality in the truest sense of equality and really all social justice issues were important to him."

Although not a natural politician himself, Britt nudged others to enter public service, said Tim Wolfred, a longtime friend of Britt's.

"He was always out there encouraging other people to get involved, take on roles. I mean, he's the one who said, 'Tim, you have to run for Community College Board,'" which Wolfred was elected to. "Over the years he did that with other people too."

related coverage

In 1987, Britt was one of at least a dozen candidates running for the congressional seat left open by the death of Sala Burton. Nancy Pelosi eventually won the seat, but Britt gave her a run for her money, presenting his candidacy as a chance to send an openly gay man to Congress.

While the loss to Pelosi was bitter at the time, Johnson said Britt recognized that the best person won.

"What she brought to the office was something he could never bring," Johnson said, "and the way he simply put it is, 'She raises more money by her first cup of coffee than I can in a year and a half.'"

At the ceremony in his honor at City Hall last year, Britt recalled Harvey Milk as "a prophet and a dreamer."

"I would not be me without him and our city would not be our city without him," Britt said. "I love the history that I have been a part of."

Britt was living at the Laguna Honda skilled nursing facility when he died. His friends say they're waiting for the COVID-19 pandemic to subside before planning an in-person tribute to Britt's life.