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Harvey Milk © YouTube
Harvey Milk © YouTube
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10 Incredible Civil Rights Activists from San Francisco

Picture of Will Howard
Updated: 18 November 2016
You’ve probably heard of Harvey Milk. But what about Madeleine Lim? Have you heard of her hilarious and cutting parody sketch, ‘Myth Beauty Contest’? Take a look at these ten inspiring San Franciscan activists.

Harvey Milk

“If you help elect to the central committee and other offices, more gay people, that gives a green light to all who feel disenfranchised, a green light to move forward. It means hope to a nation that has given up, because if a gay person makes it, the doors are open to everyone,” said Harvey Milk, who in 1977 went from community organizer and camera-store owner to being the first openly gay politician to hold a major office. He famously battled the Briggs Initiative, which would have made firing gay teachers and allies to the gay community mandatory. Though he was assassinated in 1978 by his former colleague, Daniel White, his memory lives on in the public consciousness. The City has named several locations after him, including the intersection of Market and Castro, dubbed Harvey Milk Plaza.

Adam Fortunate Eagle

Adam Fortunate Eagle led the 1969-1971 Occupation of Alcatraz, during which 89 Native Americans, calling themselves Indians of All Tribes, asserted their land right. Fortunate Eagle, who worked as a termite exterminator before becoming an activist, wrote the ‘Alcatraz Proclamation to the Great White Father and his People,’ which stated the IOAT’s goal of turning the island into a Native American cultural center. Though the US government put the movement to an end 19 months after it started, it marked the beginning of a policy of self-determination for Native Americans and began the ‘Red Power’ movement.

Yuji Ichioka

Yuji Ichioka was an Asian-American historian who revolutionized ethnic studies. His coining of the term ‘Asian American’ helped disparate Asian ethnic groups unify into a shared movement. As a child, he and his family were interned in Utah. In graduate school he researched prewar Japanese American experience, reshaping scholarship on the subject. Though he never actually finished his PhD, he eventually became associate director at UCLA’s Asian American Studies Center.

Nellie Wong

Nellie Wong is a Chinese-American poet and Socialist. The US-born daughter of Chinese immigrants, she grew up in Oakland where she worked at her parents’ Chinese restaurant, an experience about which she has written. She was a senior analyst in affirmative action at the University of California, San Francisco until she retired in 1998. She came to poetry later in life, taking classes at San Francisco State in her 30s where her feminist classmates encouraged her to keep writing angry poetry in spite of a male professor’s disparagement. She is a leader in both the Radical Women organization and the Freedom Socialist Party.

Ruth Brinker

Ruth Brinker was an AIDS activist who founded the nonprofit Project Open Hand. In 1985, she began providing meals for San Francisco AIDS patients who were too sick to shop for food or cook. After one of her friends who had AIDS died of malnutrition, she vowed not to let the same thing happen to thousands of others. Today, the organization serves almost 2,600 meals a day to seniors and people suffering from AIDS, breast cancer, and other diseases.

Ester Hernández

Ester Hernández is a Chicana artist who, in her own words, seeks to counteract ‘the stereotypes of Latina women as either passive victims or demonized creatures.’ She grew up in the San Joaquin Valley where she was influenced by her family’s involvement in the farmworkers’ movement. During her time as an undergraduate at the University of California, Berkeley, she joined Las Mujeres Muralistas, a group of women muralists based in the Mission District. She works in a variety of mediums, including pastels, paintings, and prints, with subjects ranging from ‘grandmothers to folk singers to truck drivers.’ Her artwork engages many of the same issues the Chicano Rights Movement has taken on, including anti-immigration and the mistreatment of farmworkers.

Madeleine Lim

Madeleine Lim is an award-winning filmmaker and LGBTQ activist. In 1984, when she was 20-years-old, she ran an underground lesbian feminist newsletter in her native country of Singapore for 2 years. In 1987, she co-wrote and directed a skit called the ‘Myth Pageant Beauty Contest,’ a spoof of the ‘Miss Pageant Beauty Contest,’ for which she was arrested. That year she moved to New York City and then to San Francisco where she eventually founded the Queer Women of Color Media Arts Project. Her films, which center on the hardship faced by the LGBTQ and Asian Pacific Islander community, have screened in sold-out theaters at international film festivals around the globe.

Julia Serano

Julia Serano is a transgender activist, writer, spoken-word poet, musician, and biologist. She has written two books, Whipping Girl and Excluded, both of which focus on feminism and queerness. She doesn’t shy away from hot-button issues. Lately, she has criticized people who attack ‘political correctness,’ saying they are simply defending the status quo. She has also written about the appropriation (both alleged and confirmed) of queer and trans* culture. She has spoken and performed at many universities, as well as at the National Queer Arts Festival, San Francisco Pride Dyke March, Lady Fest, and outCRY!

Yosimar Reyes

‘For colored boys who speak softly / I’ll remind the world that centuries ago / we were shamans and healers / gifted warriors,’ writes Yosimar Reyes, an undocumented two-spirit Mexican-American poet and activist who sees homophobia/transphobia and xenophobia as two sides of the same colonial coin. Born in Mexico and raised in East San José, he graduated from San Francisco State University in 2015 with a degree in creative writing. He previously served as Public Programs Coordinator at La Galería de la Raza, a non-profit community-based arts organization that fosters public awareness and appreciation of Chicano/Latino art. He is a co-founder of La Maricolectiva, a performance group of queer undocumented poets.

Van Jones

Van Jones is an author and attorney. He has cofounded several nonprofits, including Dream Corps, a ‘social enterprise and incubator for powerful ideas and innovations designed to uplift and empower the most vulnerable in our society,’ according to its website. He served as President Barack Obama’s Special Advisor for Green Jobs before being forced to resign after a smear campaign against him launched from the right and led by Glenn Beck, who, among other things, criticized Jones’ involvement in a ‘socialist collective’ called Standing Together to Organize a Revolutionary Movement that protested against police brutality.