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The secret gay history of the 2020 presidential race and Trump and Harris’ LGBT+ past

The secret gay history of the 2020 presidential race and Trump and Harris’ LGBT+ past

  • Years after their deaths, the shadows of two leading gay political operatives are guiding both Donald Trump and Kamala Harris.
Kamala Harris at San Francisco Pride in 2019.

With Donald Trump and Kamala Harris on the tickets, the 2020 election has become a battle royale between the political legacies of two of the most important figures in LGBT+ history.  

What many don’t realize is that, decades after their deaths, Roy Cohn and Harvey Milk are clashing one last, improbable time on this year’s ballots. Candidates with direct ties to them are now competing for the White House.

When Donald Trump was a young man, he turned for political advice to Roy Cohn – a gay man reviled by the LGBT+ community for his anti-gay record and his ties to far-right politicians. 

Roy Cohn.
Roy Cohn. Tris Reid-Smith

Democratic vice president candidate Kamala Harris has her own, very different, ties at the heart of 20th century LGBT+ history. 

Harris has roots among Harvey Milk’s political family and San Francisco’s Gay Freedom era. She is steeped in the community like no national politician before her. You can’t understand Kamala without understanding this background.

How Kamala Harris turned to a veteran LGBT+ campaigner

Kamala Harris first won office in 2003, when she was elected to be District Attorney of San Francisco. She took on an entrenched incumbent and promised modernization to a city always looking for the next big thing.

For campaign strategy in that race she turned to Jim Rivaldo, a historical giant in the LGBT+ community. 

Rivaldo was a natural choice. His campaign lit was genius. Over the years many black and gay candidates turned to him. More importantly, Rivaldo had been friends with Kamala for years and shared a special bond with Kamala’s mother, Shyamala Gopalan.

Helping Kamala win that race was Jim’s last campaign, but he will always be associated with one of his first clients – Harvey Milk. 

Rivaldo was the key behind-the-scenes strategist in Milk’s 1977 election as San Francisco Supervisor.

It resulted in Milk’s victory as the first out gay person to win a significant elected office in America. You can see him in the back of scenes in Harvey Milk’s Oscar-winning biopic Milk.

Rivaldo leaves us two epic pieces of American political art from his work. For Harvey Milk, it was the famous blue and white ‘Milk Supervisor/5’ sign from his 1977 race. Artistically, it’s perfect: a riot of emotions, a restrained but powerful color palette, and a sharp message. 

The second piece of art-as-history comes from the 1976 ‘No on Briggs’ initiative campaign, when Milk and Rivaldo beat back an effort to fire all of California’s LGBT teachers.

Rivaldo created an unforgettable ‘No on 6’ sign, dominated by a dramatic, flashy, swoopy, fire-engine-red 6.

The last person to speak with Harvey Milk

What would Harvey Milk think about the fight for equal rights today?
Harvey Milk was assassinated in 1978. WC

While Rivaldo and Milk were fighting for these teachers, Roy Cohn was back on the East Coast at the very same time saying, “homosexual teachers are a grave threat to our children.” 

Milk and Rivaldo won that fight – and Cohn lost.

Their euphoria over these first victories didn’t last long. 

Tragedy soon struck: Milk was assassinated at City Hall in 1978, with Rivaldo the last person to speak to him. 

San Francisco and the LGBT+ community went into mourning, and Rivaldo might have suffered hardest. He was a gentle soul who had put his heart into making history. Something in Rivaldo broke when Harvey Milk was murdered, and he mourned for the rest of his life.

Then tragedy struck San Francisco again, with Rivaldo once again in the center of it. 

Only 17 months after Milk was killed, the first report appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle about the disease that would become known as AIDS.

A whole generation of Rivaldo’s friends began to die before his eyes. The emotional highs of the 1970’s Gay Freedom movement crashed into the pandemic nightmare of the 1980’s AIDS tragedy.

Disco-fried hippies, inspired by the civil rights and feminist movements, suddenly found themselves on the front lines of a plague. Soon the first of more than 700,000 Americans died of the disease.

Fighting AIDS with the world’s first safe-sex brochure

‘Did you know I designed the first safe-sex brochure in the world?’ Rivaldo asked me one day. At the time, we were overlooking San Francisco’s Civic Center from the window of his office. It was the year 2000. He was my professional mentor as I was trying to break into politics.

‘I think it was 1982. No one knew what to say or do or think; people were dying everywhere. Dying in the streets,’ he continued. ‘You just can’t understand. We talked to some people at SF General Hospital and I made a brochure. It was wrong about a lot, but at least we were trying.’

He sighed the deepest, heaviest sigh I ever heard in my life.

‘Do you still have it?’ I asked. ‘Right here,’ he answered, patting his trusty Apple Mac. 

Rivaldo found more professional success in the 1990s, as the LGBT+ movement got stronger nationally and globally.  For a while, he was part of the only firm in the nation dedicated to LGBT+ candidates and causes. 

From that perch he got to watch the rise of the modern, global LGBT community, when it seemed that Milk’s memories were at danger of being lost even as his ideas were spreading around the world.

It was a strange time. On the one hand we felt history was being forgotten. But on the other hand I could answer the phone and be greeted with, ‘This is Gilbert Baker. I invented the rainbow flag. Is Jim there?’

Gilbert Baker created Yhe Rainbow Flag which debuted at san Francisco Pride in 1978.
Gilbert Baker created the Rainbow Flag which debuted at San Francisco Pride in 1978. Gilbert Baker

‘She is one of us’

When Rivaldo took over Kamala Harris’ campaign in 2003, I didn’t know her. So one day I called him up and told him I wasn’t so sure about this new client of his. I didn’t know if I could trust her.

It was during the Iraq War protests, and I wanted a district attorney who wouldn’t prosecute the peace protestors who had been arrested – and in some cases assaulted – by the police. 

Rivaldo screamed down the phone at me: ‘You HAVE to vote for Kamala Harris. She grew up marching at civil rights protests. She is one of us. She will ALWAYS stand with the gay community, because she comes from it.’

It took me back. His tone was a big change for the kind, cardigan-and-slipper-clad man who had been described as the ‘Mr Rogers’ of the Gay Freedom movement. Here he was hollering at me

I threw my hands up and promised to vote for Kamala Harris in her first race for San Francisco District Attorney. 

The Brown-Burton machine

Rivaldo isn’t Kamala Harris’ only roots in the LGBT+ community of course. She went to law school in San Francisco in the summer of 1986, just as Cohn was dying of AIDS in New York. 

Her law school sits a stone throw from the Polk District, and a longer stone throw from the Castro district, the two neighborhoods that were ground zero of the AIDS crisis.

And as a member of the long-time political network called the ‘Brown-Burton machine,’ Kamala Harris’ closest political allies have for decades been the nation’s leaders on LGBT+ issues.

The co-founders of that urban machine, Wille Brown and Phil Burton, together passed the law decriminalized same-sex relations. They ran the first and most active campaigns for equal rights and against AIDS.

Brown and Burton were expert vote-counters. So they started campaigning in the gay community as early as the 1960 elections, in a fundraiser at the house of a gay couple. As far as I know, they were the first American politicians ever to do.

They no doubt noticed that drag queen Jose Sarris won thousands of votes as the first out person ever to run for office in the country, in 1961, for a spot on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. It was the same office which Milk finally won 16 years later.

All this all adds up to Kamala getting a unique cultural education from her years immersed in the city’s historic LGBT communities. No other major politician in this country has ever lived this kind of life.

‘I guess I’m her gay uncle’

I don’t recall the details of the event, but I vividly remember watching drag superstar RuPaul perform in a bright red dress at a community function back in the 1990s – and seeing Kamala Harris laughing in the background with friends, wearing her signature dark pantsuit and pearls. 

Amidst all that pomp and glory, all that cultural extravaganza, though, it was always Rivaldo who loved Kamala the most. Indeed, their family-friend relationship was always tender. ‘I guess I’m her gay uncle,’ he said one time, eyes twinkling. 

But it was a rough 25 years for Rivaldo, from Harvey Milk’s killing in 1978 to Kamala Harris’ election in 2003. He was tired from bearing the weight of history. His heart was still broken. After marshalling his energy to advise her on her first campaign, he began a long, painful decline due to liver disease.

Shyamala Gopalan, Kamala’s mother, stepped in to help Rivaldo as he struggled with his health. ‘She fights with my doctors and calls me every day,’ he said of her support. 

Rivaldo passed away in 2007 and was followed by his dear friend Shyamala just two years later.

I am not sure what happened to Rivaldo’s historical collection of papers after he died. Where are those original Harvey Milk campaign signs? That early Kamala Harris literature? The world’s first safe-sex brochure?

It is lost to time, like so many memories from those years, or somehow making its way to the Smithsonian? I can’t track them down.

Harris made the Supreme Court notice LGBT+ families

But I do know that Rivaldo’s prediction about Kamala’s devotion to the LGBT+ community came true. As part of her promise of modernization to the justice system, she put LGBT+ issues at the center of her work, as both DA and later as the Attorney General of California. 

Not long after first being elected DA, Harris called a national conference of reform-minded prosecutors and public defenders. It declared the end of the ‘gay/trans panic’ defense. She tossed into the dustbin of history the backward idea that the murder of a gay or trans person can be legally justified if someone panics from being in their proximity. 

As Democratic Party leaders remained opposed to same-sex marriage – and Vice President Mike Pence was going all drama queen by saying it would lead to ‘society collapse’ – Kamala was using her power as California AG to push the issue forward. 

By then, I was her press advisor. I recall sitting in a meeting as her host of lawyers debated legal theories to sway Supreme Court opinion. Kamala interrupted to lean in and asked: ‘What about the kids?’

She kept that focus throughout the conversation: how is this impacting the millions of kids in households with LGBT+ people.

Kamala’s work as a prosecutor always focused on child victims, and in this case she saw kids victimized by conservative crusading against them. Kamala saw what was happening because she knew those kids. She knew my kids. She knew the kids of all her other staff, and of her lesbian, gay, and trans friends and neighbors. 

So when she submitted her brief to the Supreme Court, it advocated specifically for the well-being of these kids.

When the Supreme Court ruled the right to same-sex marriage, Justice Anthony Kennedy took care to address this issue in his opinion. I will always believe Kamala Harris is to thank for this.

Harris’ record as a prosecutor

The stark contrast between Roy Cohn and Harvey Milk – and their proxies Donald Trump and Kamala Harris – is clearest on the issue of transgender rights, the new LGBT+ battleground.

Trump has loudly politicized the issue of transgender healthcare. He has rolled back Obama-era protections guaranteeing equal access. Trump attacks transgender people hoping he can further divide the nation and win votes for himself.

Kamala Harris had her own controversy over transgender healthcare, over her representation of the California Department of Corrections in a lawsuit when she was AG.

Harris won the lawsuit, as a court found that the prison system was not required to provide full healthcare to inmates who are transgender.

But Harris’ role as an LGBT+ champion showed with what she did next. She worked behind the scenes to change the policy that she had defended as legal, because she also knew it was unfair and outdated.

An intense debate has sprung up lately about Kamala Harris’ record as a prosecutor and criminal justice reformer. Some folks on the left dismiss her as a cop while some on the right say she wants to defund the police.

Researchers are digging into the tens of thousands of cases she worked on to find a thread to support their arguments. 

Let those debates rage. It’s the American way.

A unique political coalition

But you can’t debate Kamala’s deep ties to the LGBT community. No national candidate has ever had anything like her ties to decades of its history – even though, of course, she is straight and married to Los Angeles lawyer Douglas Emhoff. 

Of course politics is a two-way street. Kamala’s loyalty to that community has been paid back many times over.

From her first race, she has built an unshakable base of support that always included LGBT voters along with black voters and women. It’s a powerful and unique political coalition.

That affection from the community continues to this day. I’ve ridden in her car at Pride Parades in Los Angeles and San Francisco, and it is an overwhelming experience. The crowds roar for her like she is gay royalty – like she’s Lady Gaga or Ricky Martin. Like she is Sylvester.

Kamala Harris at Pride
Kamala Harris at Pride. InSapphoWeTrust / Flickr

Trump’s political mentor

Trump gets none of that same love, even with his personal ties to Roy Cohn.

Cohn has a central role in Angels in America, the Pulitzer-Prize winning play about AIDS in America – he’s the villain. 

Cohn helped Senator Joe McCarthy execute a political witch-hunt against the early LGBT+ community. And Cohn was also a close ally of J Edgar Hoover, another closeted gay man, who used his role as head of the FBI to undermine American democracy at every turn and, of course, enforce legal homophobia.  

Even Cohn’s 1986 death of AIDS wins him little sympathy in the LGBT+ community. Cohn was a close ally of President Reagan at the time and was taking advantage of the best medical resources, while ignoring all the other people dying of AIDS.

When he first hooked up with Trump back in 1973, Cohn was a semi-closeted gay man brought in to play the role of legal pitbull fighting off – what else? – a charge of discriminating against black tenants.

The relationship between Cohn and Trump was a fruitful one that often included  their mutual friend Roger Stone. 

By 1986, as Cohn lay dying, he was also on the verge of being disbarred as a lawyer. Donald Trump wrote the New York Bar on Cohn’s behalf, saying he had always ‘been extremely loyal and extremely honest’.

To this day, Trump misses him. ‘Where’s my Roy Cohn,’ he plaintively asked during the Russia investigation. It was a question so plaintive and pathetic that it inspired a documentary of the same name.

Donald Trump bizarrely held a rainbow flag upside down
Donald Trump bizarrely held a rainbow flag upside down. WC

The political legacies of Milk and Cohn

It’s no surprise that Kamala Harris ended up on a presidential ticket. It’s seemed like her destiny ever since that first campaign of hers back in 2003 with Jim Rivaldo.

San Francisco is a town full of political heavyweights but not one of them can match the nuclear-level charisma that Kamala enjoys.

But that Kamala would run on a ticket against Donald Trump of all people?  In a historic battle that will decide the future of our democracy?

And that their race would turn into a proxy battle between the political legacies of Harvey Milk and Roy Cohn – in one last, great LGBT battle royale for the ages?

Well, no one could have predicted that.

That’s a wild freaking tale, and the secret gay history at the heart of the 2020 Presidential race.

About the author

Shum Preston is a former senior aide to both Kamala Harris, when she was California Attorney General, and to Jim Rivaldo. He now lives in Central America with his husband and writes about the politics of the State Attorney General. Follow him on Twitter.