Three Questions for Mark Leno: A Critical Time to Preserve and Celebrate LGBTQ History

Photo: J. Alex Photography.

by Terry Beswick

Mark Leno has been a San Francisco resident since the mid-1970s. During his first two decades in the city, he was active as a small business owner and a fundraiser for AIDS organizations, the LGBT Community Center and Democratic candidates. He went on to serve on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors from 1998 to 2001, then was elected to two terms in the California State Assembly starting in 2002, followed by two terms in the California State Senate from 2008 through 2016.

Throughout his service as an elected official, Leno has been a forceful advocate for LGBTQ equality. Currently a candidate for mayor of San Francisco, Leno serves as a co-chair of the GLBT Historical Society’s National Advisory Council. In this exclusive interview, he responds to our questions about the significance of the queer past.

Why is representing diversity important in the context of LGBTQ history and the broader history of social justice in this country? 

Preserving LGBTQ history that honors the diversity of all communities presents a unique opportunity to foster equity and justice. So much of LGBTQ history — and the history of all marginalized communities — has been systematically and institutionally silenced, making the task of historical and cultural preservation as important as it is challenging. As the author of the Fair Accurate Inclusive and Respectful Education Act, which requires California K-12 schools to provide a history and social studies curriculum that includes the contributions of LGBTQ people and people with disabilities, I’ve seen firsthand the power of telling stories that recognize all voices. By ensuring a seat at the table for everyone, we can uphold a vision of history that honors all those who played a part in creating it.

Are we are doing enough to preserve our LGBTQ culture and history in the challenging economic environment of San Francisco today? 

The LGBTQ community has faced enormous threats, to both our communities and the spaces we hold dear, in the face of gentrification and displacement. We’ve seen the loss of LGBTQ-owned small businesses, displacement of our seniors and community-serving institutions, and rising costs of living and housing that force out countless residents. But as the challenges facing our community persist, like every struggle marking our history, there is a tireless fight to overcome them. From organizations like Openhouse working to keep our seniors housed, to out-of-the-box efforts like The Stud Co-op forming the nation’s first cooperatively owned nightlife venue and bar, historic queer spaces and vital LGBTQ services are being creatively and boldly fought for. It’s time our local and national policies reflect the same urgent need to protect and preserve. As a San Francisco supervisor, an assemblymember and a state senator, I remained committed to advancing such policies. If elected mayor, I’ll proudly continue those efforts.

Our strategy is to partner with the city and a developer to create space for a world-class queer public history center. As mayor, would you help lead this effort? 

If I have the privilege of serving San Francisco as mayor, I would be honored to lead efforts to make the creation of the New Museum of LGTBQ History and Culture possible. As we continue to resist the national assault on LGBTQ people, there’s never been a more critical time to preserve our history and create spaces that celebrate it. San Francisco deserves a museum that honors the beauty and diversity of our history despite efforts to erase it.


Terry Beswick is executive director of the GLBT Historical Society. 

Reprinted from the January 2018 issue of History Happens, the monthly newsletter of the GLBT Historical Society. To subscribe to the newsletter, click here.