At the same time that Milk was pushing for people to come out of the closet and publicly embrace their gay identities, there was subset of gay San Francisco Jews who were embracing their Jewish identities. A group known as the Lost Tribe formed in 1978, after fundamentalist Christian Anita Bryant’s crusade to enact anti-gay legislation came to California in the form of Proposition 6, known as the Briggs Initiative.
The Briggs Initiative, which Milk helped to roundly defeat, would have barred gay and lesbian teachers from teaching in the public school system. The Lost Tribe, comprising dozens of activist gay Jews, worked within the Jewish community to drum up opposition to the initiative.
“It was a powerful and bonding time, and people made relationships personally and politically that have continued to this day,” says Avi Rose, a former member of the Lost Tribe. Rose is now executive director of Jewish Family and Children’s Services of the East Bay. Rose, who also coedited the 1989 anthology “Twice Blessed: On Being Lesbian or Gay and Jewish,” which draws a direct connection between being Jewish and being gay. “As Jews, there are things we know about stigma and discrimination, and the importance of being visible,” he says. “I think for a lot of gay Jews, that translated from our Jewish experience to our gay experience. That’s what brought so many of us into the movement in prominent ways.”
Indeed, as with the feminist movement, Jews played leading roles in the early days of the gay rights movement. Milk’s campaign manager, Anne Kronenberg, was Jewish. And in New York, where the movement took shape following the Stonewall Riots of 1969, such leaders as Marty Robinson and Marc Rubin rose to prominence.
These days, Milk’s legacy continues with a new crop of gay Jewish political leaders. The first gay congressman to win election was Massachusetts Democrat Barney Frank. And last month, Mark Leno became the first openly gay male in the California State Senate. Leno, a member of Congregation Sha’ar Zahav, a San Francisco gay and lesbian synagogue, studied for two years at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion.