When Letha Dawson Scanzoni and Virginia Ramey Mollenkott Met Harvey Milk

A ViewPoint by Anne Linstatter

A photo compilation of Letha Dawson Scanzoni, Harvey Milk, Virginia Mollenkott circa 1978

Letha Dawson Scanzoni, Harvey Milk, and Virginia Ramey Mollenkott in the 1970s. Photos of Letha and Virginia courtesy Letha Dawson Scanzoni, used by permission. Photo of Harvey Milk at San Jose Pride in 1978 by Ted Sahl, Kat Fitzgerald, Patrick Phonsakwa, Lawrence McCrorey, Darryl Pelletier, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

A ViewPoint by Anne Linstatter

Dramatic scenes from Senator Dianne Feinstein’s life appeared in the news when her death was announced on September 29, 2023. I remembered her succession as the first female mayor of San Francisco, her election as the first female senator from California, and key moments from her 30 years of service in the Senate.

Among the clips replayed by the media was video from 1978 showing her informing the nation that San Francisco’s Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk had been murdered in City Hall.

Those of us who went through the shock of that 1978 tragedy remember clearly just how much discrimination lesbians and gay people faced at that time. The first legal protections for LGBTQ people at the state or national level would not be enacted until 1982. In 1978, intolerant crusaders like Anita Briant were speaking at rallies across the nation, whipping up anti-gay sentiment and opposition to the Equal Rights Amendment.

But much has changed. I was delighted that Laphonza Butler, an out lesbian and president of EMILYs List, was appointed to take Feinstein’s senate seat—a marker of 45 years of change.

In this piece, I want to tell you the story of how two Christian feminist leaders, my friends Letha Dawson Scanzoni and Virginia Ramey Mollenkott, co-authors of Is the Homosexual My Neighbor: Another Christian View, met and shook hands with Harvey Milk, the first out gay man elected to public office in California.

Letha recently shared her reflections with me.

“Just seven months after her husband’s death, Feinstein heard gunshots, found the body of Harvey Milk, and was trying to find his pulse,” Letha remembered. She and I marveled at Feinstein’s courage and leadership as she became the new mayor of San Francisco.

“And Harvey came to your book-release that HarperSanFrancisco put on,” I added.

“Yes, at the St. Francis Hotel.” Letha explained that Mayor George Moscone, members of the Board of Supervisors, religious leaders, and key members of the LGBT community had been invited to the luncheon, courtesy of HarperSanFrancisco, a division of Harper & Row. “They wanted to bring the gay and religious communities together to talk with each other.”

“What was it like to shake his hand?” I asked.

“We were in a hallway outside an elegant ballroom, before the program began. I didn’t know that much about him. He had become a supervisor just five months earlier.”

“Oh, he wasn’t that well-known yet,” I mused. “He’d begun leading local protests of anti-gay rallies, but he wasn’t the icon that he is now, especially to you and Virginia on the East coast.”

“We exchanged a few words with him, and he apologized that he couldn’t stay for the whole luncheon but promised that some of his staff would. He had too much on his plate.”

I paused, hearing the sadness in her voice. None of them that day knew that five months later he would be murdered for being gay.

“A photographer took photos of us, and he rushed off,” she added.

What did each think of the other? Letha said Harvey Milk probably saw her as a smiling young housewife who had written a book on issues important to him. Virginia is no longer here to tell us what perceptions were exchanged in the firm handshake between her and Harvey.

In fact, all three were innovative, perceptive leaders whose work changed the lives of thousands.

“Virginia and I each spoke at the luncheon, and our emphasis was on the command ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself,’” said Letha. “Years afterward when I watched the film Milk, I noticed that he used those words later that summer.”

I looked it up. Five days after the book launch, Supervisor Milk spoke at a rally on the ninth anniversary of the Stonewall arrests in New York City. He challenged President Jimmy Carter to come out against the Briggs initiative on the ballot in California in the November 7 election.

“You talk a lot about the Bible, but when are you going to talk about that most important part: ‘Love thy neighbor’?” Milk asked. In a nod to women at the rally, he added “After all, she may be gay.”

Although San Francisco was becoming known as a city where gay people were welcome, it also had a strong middle-class Catholic community, some of whom opposed gay rights. Feelings in California were being stirred by the Briggs initiative, which would have banned LGBT people from teaching in public schools.

Milk’s pressure worked. President Carter came out against the proposed ban on gay teachers, and so did Governor Ronald Reagan, former governor Jerry Brown, and former president Gerald Ford.

At any rate, the need for “Another Christian View” on homosexuality was great. Scanzoni and Mollenkott were entering a dangerously heated arena when they flew to California in June of 1978.

To add to the drama, Virginia was still in the closet. As a professor, writer, and single mother, she did not yet feel safe to reveal her sexual orientation.

During the Q & A at the book launch in San Francisco, Virginia walked a fine line trying to stay closeted but still be truthful, while also being careful not to offend those present who were open about their orientation.

At one point, she whispered to Letha, “I think some of these people suspect I’m gay.”

Safety in the most basic sense was a worry.

“At that time, our lives were in danger,” Virginia wrote later. It was only nine years after police had raided the Stonewall Inn in New York City. In San Francisco, too, there were police officers who were hostile to the increased presence of gays, and a few months later it was a former police officer and supervisor who shot Mayor Moscone and Harvey Milk.

Feinstein’s life, and her death in September 2023, call us to ponder the day when Letha’s and Virginia’s lives intersected with that of Harvey Milk—all because they had the courage and perseverance to write the first book advocating gay equality from a biblical basis.

 

CFT 50th Anniversary logo (CFT regular logo in gold)In honor of CFT’s 50th anniversary, CFT is publishing some important historical reflections, articles, reviews, and other pieces. See more from this series here.

Anne Linstatter
Anne Linstatter was present at the founding of the Evangelical Women’s Caucus (now Christian Feminism Today) and attended most of the organization’s conferences. She looks forward to celebrating fifty years of CFT in 2024. A long-time Californian, she taught “Women & Religion” among other courses at California State University, Northridge, and is working on a memoir, Off Track: Confessions of a Feminist Christian.

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