November 27, 2018 at 2:00 pm PST | by Diane Abbitt
Diane Abbitt remembers MECLA and Harvey Milk

Attorney Diane Abbitt helped found and has served on the boards of several LGBT organizations, including MECLA, APLA and HRC.

It does not seem possible that the LGBT community is commemorating the 40th anniversary of the death of Harvey Milk on this day, Nov. 27, 2018. So much has changed, so many rights won and yet so many challenges remain. As time passes, fewer and fewer people are left who remember the beginning of the movement as we know it today—the scrappy grassroots Gay Liberation Front organizing social services and eradicate-shame consciousness-raising at the Gay Community Services Center and a group of successful lawyers and business leaders raising money and forming the first gay political action committee to elect pro-gay officials in Los Angeles; and in San Francisco, their spirited political activism included businessman Harvey Milk, who made history winning a seat on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors in 1978. Few remain who remember what that meant to a fledgling community—but Harvey’s assignation still reverberates past the shock of that day. 

I came out in 1973. Imagine a time when there was no internet, no social media, no television shows that had a gay or lesbian character, no gay Pride parades, no Human Rights Campaign, no Equality California, no Victory Fund, no WEHO, no Williams Institute, no celebrity-filled black-tie fundraisers, no books or courses on the LBGTQ community. Magazines and newsletters were mailed in non-descript brown covers so no one would know its contents. There was no way, except by word of mouth or in bars, for lesbians or gay men to connect, to find community. 

My first discovery of community was through radical lesbian separatist feminists who thought that men had no place in the movement and that lesbians with male children should give them away. Since I had two very young beautiful sons that I was fighting to keep in my care and custody, this philosophy did not work for me. Then a friend told me that LA NOW (National Organization for Women) was having a Lesbian Mothers meeting. That changed the course of my life and I soon became the first co-chair of LA NOW’s Lesbian and Sexuality Task Force.  

Meanwhile, gay men were also searching for community. Some discovered it at the Los Angeles Gay Community Services Center, founded in 1969 and headquartered in an old Victorian building on Wilshire Boulevard. They offered social services and held men’s consciousness raising groups offering gay men an alternative to the bathhouse and bar scene. 

There was also another group called Orion. They were seven gay men led by lawyers Peter Scott and Stephen Lachs, who would become the nation’s first out gay judge. There were all smart, successful and closeted in the outside world. But as their sense of shame dissipated and self-acceptance grew, they wanted to give back to the community and to make it easier and safer for other gay people to live their truth.  After much debate, in 1977, they formed the first PAC whose mission was legal protections and full equality, including a seat at the legislative table, for gay people. The goal seemed large and daunting!  Even choosing a name was challenging.  It had to be non-descript, something an accountant who didn’t know the contributor was gay would not question, and so MECLA (Municipal Elections Committee of Los Angeles) was born.  

But finding people to contribute was hard! The MECLA board expanded to 11 and the men began the tedious task of raising money to fund the PAC. Therapist Rob Eichberg had raised money for the Jewish community and the men adopted that model—asking friends to a roundtable luncheon, locking the doors (figuratively speaking), then going around the table asking/telling each person how much they were giving. Eventually Peter realized lesbians should be included and I, along with other non-board members, raised what today we would think of as a small budget. I got so good at raising money, I was elected MECLA’s first female board co-chair.  

The first year, two candidates to whom MECLA contributed returned the money when they realized the source of the funds would have to be reported in their campaign filing report.  As MECLA’s success grew, it became the model for HRC and other political action committees throughout California. 

At the same time MECLA was getting off the ground, San Francisco was going through its own coming out process. Harvey Milk had moved to San Francisco from New York in 1972 and opened a camera shop in the Castro. The shop became the center of gay political activism as Harvey campaigned three times for a seat on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, in 1973, in 1975, and finally in 1977, when he won. During those four years, he developed his political acumen, built relationships and coalitions and started describing himself as “The Mayor of Castro Street” at a time when the gay vote was starting to be recognized as powerful.

Peter Scott, David Mixner and I, among many others in Los Angeles, worked with Supervisor Harvey Milk to defeat Prop 6, the Briggs Initiative, on Nov. 7, 1978—a spectacular success! Twenty days later, Harvey was assassinated. It’s still shocking to remember. But Harvey’s humor and often too-loud leadership brought an awareness of injustices being suffered by the gay community not only in San Francisco but beyond. His hopeful campaign for LGBTQ people to come out still inspires people around the world.

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