Howard Wallace, LGBT icon, dies at 76

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Howard Wallace, a longtime organizer who played a key role in bringing the LGBT movement and labor together in San Francisco, died Nov. 14. He was 76 and had been struggling with Alzhiemer’s disease.

Wallace grew up in Denver, and according to a biography by Andrej Koymasky, was forced to drop out of college when his father saw some United World Federalist literatature he’d brought home and told him to drop of of “commie” politics:

"He put a couple of checks on the dining-room table - the checks for next year's tuition - and said, 'Get out [of activism] and you can have those checks.' I tore them up in his face, and that was the end of my college education." 

Instead, he began a series of blue-collar jobs that brought him into labor organizing.

By the early 1970s he was in San Francisco, part of a generation of activists that included the late Hank Wilson and Assemblymember Tom Ammiano, who together helped form a group called Bay Area Gay Liberation.

“He made bridges,” Ammiano told me. “He came to BAGL and told us we had to support Cesar Chavez, and some of us were reluctant -- you know, it was the Catholic Church, homophobia, all of that. But he convinced us to go on that march, and we were all glad we did.”

Wallace was a founder of the Lesbian-Gay Labor Alliance and later Pride at Work, and he was instrumental in bringing LGBT workers into the labor movement -- and also bringing labor support to LGBT causes.

In 1974, Wallace worked with members of the Teamsters Union -- not a group always known in those days known for enlightened attitudes towards gay people -- on a boycott of Coors beer.  The teamsters were fighting bad labor practices at Coors, including a mandate that all employees take a lie-detector test that incuded the question “are you a homosexual?”

Working with both sides, Wallace got the LGBT community to sign on to the boycott, got Coors out of many of the bars in the Castro -- and made lasting connections between local labor leaders and the LGBT community.

“He’s the one who brought Harvey Milk into the Coors boycott,” Ammiano recalled. “And he was never afraid to call out labor leaders when they were being homophobic.”

Like all great organizers, he could be persistent to the point where he was sometimes infuriating -- but always, always pure of heart. “He was a character,” Ammiano said. “I never knew what color his hair would be, but I always knew what color his politics would be.”

Tommi Avicolli Mecca, a longtime activist and writer on LGBT history, said Wallace was “a giant among us. He was always there, for the rights of union members, the poor and working class, antiwar activists ... you could always count on Howard to be there.”

Mecca noted that Wallace “saw the connections between the LBGT movement and disenfranchised people everywhere. He saw the queer struggle as part of a larger struggle for social and economic justice.”

He will be sorely missed, but as Mecca said, “we will always have his legacy; future generations can look back and understand what our movement was about.”

Said Ammiano: “I hope he and Hank Wilson are up there tipping a few back and talking about Lenin vs. Trotsky.”
 
A memorial is pending, and I’ll keep you posted as updates are available.

UPDATE NUMBER 1: State Sen. Mark Leno told me that Wallace "was not only a dear friend but a teacher. His values were strongly intact." Leno recalled chairing the fundraising drive for the LGBT Center, a huge undertaking, and accepting a check from Coors for $5,000. "I though I had done due diligence, I knew the boycott was over, but Howard came to our board meeting and convinced us that the LGBT Center had to be above reproach." 

(I'm sure Howard Wallace didn't use those exact words).

"It was after that that we became good friends," Leno said.

UPDATE NUMBER 2: From Gabriel Haaland, Pride at Work co-vice-president (SEIU< SF): I don't know if most progressives know how much Howard gave to us all. I know there are so many who considered him a mentor and an inspiration. For those of you who don’t know him, Howard had a way of connecting the dots across so many issues. A legend and a hero for sure. A fearless warrior for justice, Howard was both passionate and gentle in his own way... He gave so much of himself and taught me so much in the rashness of my younger years. Even in death, he continues to inspire me to be better than I was before, more in integrity. I honor those who took such good care of him in the last year, like Kathy Lipscomb, Carl Finamore, Tab Buckner, Eileen Hansen, and Susan
Englander. I will miss him.