Fresh off her election as America’s new Vice-President, Kamala Harris has already made history. Throughout her meteoric career, she’s been the first woman, the first Indian-American and the first Black person to accomplish much of what she’s done.
But one important part of her story has been overlooked: Kamala Harris has roots deep in the LGBTQ community, with direct ties back to the early Gay Freedom era and to Harvey Milk, the first out person elected to office.
These “rainbow roots” are an important part of Harris’ identity, and will inform how she sees the issues she deals with as Vice-President–including the growing demand to recognize LGBTQ rights in countries around the world.
Like so much else, this story of Kamala Harris begins with her mother, Shymala Gopalan. She was born in 1938 in Tamil Nadu, before moving to California in 1958 to study at the University of California. It was there–in Berkeley, and near San Francisco and Oakland–Gopalan found herself steeped in the cultural upheavals of 1960s America.
Over the course of her time in California, Shymala Gopalan became dear friends with Jim Rivaldo, a historical giant in the LGBTQ community. As a result, Kamala Harris turned to Jim Rivaldo for campaigning advice in her very first race, in 2003, when she was elected to be District Attorney of San Francisco.
Harris took on an entrenched incumbent and won by promising modernization to a City always looking for the next big thing. 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, which made him 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 designed all of Harvey Milk’s graphics, helped work through the data on what voters to target, and helped create the narrative for his clients that told the stories on why they were running.
When Milk was elected in 1977, it was a euphoric moment, it was a historic moment. Homophobia was violent and deadly, and Rivaldo and his crew were ecstatic to strike such a historic blow. People were dancing in the streets of San Francisco’s main LGBTQ neighborhood, the Castro–just as they were dancing 43 years later when Harris and Joe Biden beat Donald Trump.
But tragedy struck soon after Milk’s 1977 election. Milk was shot to death at City Hall in 1978. Rivaldo was the last person to speak to him.
San Francisco and the LGBT+ community went into mourning, and Rivaldo might have mourned hardest.
But then tragedy struck San Francisco again–with Rivaldo once again in the center of it.
Just thirty-one short 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, as the first of more than 700,000 Americans died of the disease.
“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.”
“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. Through his work he helped build the modern, global LGBT community, just as 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. While we felt history was being forgotten–it was also the kind of place, I could answer the phone and be greeted with, “This is Gilbert Baker. I invented the rainbow flag. Is Jim there?”
When Rivaldo took over Kamala Harris’ campaign in 2003, I didn’t know her and 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 DA 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.
Rivaldo isn’t Kamala Harris’ only roots in the LGBT community of course. Her voter base is the San Francisco political establishment that for decades was the nation’s leaders on LGBT issues. Allies of hers like Wille Brown and Phil Burton, together passed the law decriminalized same-sex relations, and were the first and most active campaigns for equal rights and against AIDS.
Brown and Burton were expert vote-counters, and 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 Sarria 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, 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. It’s the kind of place I 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, and 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 brouchure? 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.
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 to declare 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 soon as she was elected California’s Attorney General, Harris set to work pushing the issue of marriage equality. 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.
Kamala Harris’ ties to the LGBTQ community are clearest on the issue of transgender rights, the new LGBTQ battleground in the United States.
As California’s lawyer of record, Kamala Harris had to defend the California Department of Corrections in a lawsuit over whether they could be forced to provide full healthcare to trans people. Harris won the lawsuit, as a court found that the prison system was not legally required to provide this care.
But Harris’ role as an LGBT champion showed with what she did next; she worked to change the policy that she had defended as legal, because she also knew it was unfair and outdated.
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 Emmhoff.
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, South Asian 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.
That is who Kamala Harris is–and that is how she will view the world stage on which she now walks.
I’ve never talked to Harris about issues in other countries, so I can only guess what she would think about controversies like the Section 377 debate.
But we know who she is, because we have seen what she does–so it’s an informed guess. The fight against Section 377 is the fight for basic human rights, a fight that both she and her Mother have dedicated themselves to for decades.
It’s impossible to know what this will mean in reality, and what effect it will have on her relationship with her ancestral homeland of India.
But Jim Rivaldo was right. Kamala Harris grew up fighting for the LGBTQ community and he will NEVER let us down–either in the United States, or anywhere else.
- Kamala Harris: America’s new Vice President and her LGBTQ roots - November 17, 2020