Issue:  Vol. 48 / No. 7 / 15 February 2018

Celeste Newbrough, who fought Briggs initiative, dies


Celeste Newbrough, right with raised fist, rode with Paula Lichtenberg in the San Francisco Pride parade June 25. Photo: Rick Gerharter
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Celeste Newbrough, a lesbian and early feminist who helped organize against the anti-gay Briggs initiative, died August 4. She was 77.

Ms. Newbrough battled cancer for several years, and died from a sudden hemorrhage at Kaiser Hospital in Oakland.

According to historian and friend Glenne McElhinney, Ms. Newbrough chaired two "very important" meetings in San Francisco that helped form the local, mid-1970s LGBT rights movement: one at the old Gay Community Center at 330 Grove Street and another in late gay labor activist Howard Wallace's backyard.

"Many credit those meetings and her leadership and vision with helping generate a very productive group of activists and newly formed organizations," McElhinney said.

She subsequently was elected in 1978 as the co-chair of what was then known as the Gay Freedom Day Committee, where she served with co-chair Chris Perry.

"Her excellent guidance and foresight shown through as she and the GFDC were able to pay off all debts of the 1977 parade, work with newly elected Supervisor Harvey Milk, oversee and fund the creation of the rainbow and artist flags, support Jon Sims and the formation of the Gay Freedom Day Marching Band, and produce a parade and celebration that was very successful," McElhinney said.

Speaking to the Bay Area Reporter June 25 while seated in a convertible waiting for this year's San Francisco Pride parade to kick off, Ms. Newbrough marveled at how far the LGBT community had come since 1978.

"There were so many new things that year, a lot of things we now take for granted," said Ms. Newbrough. "I don't think I have ever seen as many creative people in the parade as that year."

Ms. Newbrough chaired the first meeting of the Coalition for Human Rights that formed in 1977 in response to the threats to the LGBT community being made by Anita Bryant. More than 2,000 people packed into the city's LGBT community center, located not too far from San Francisco City Hall.

"It was huge. People were hanging from the rafters," she recalled.

One of the bigger arguments at the meeting was whether the group's name should say gay rights instead of human rights.

"I think that was interesting. There was still a large amount of homophobia back then. People felt it was the most diplomatic alternative to use human rights," recalled Ms. Newbrough. "I would have been fine with gay rights."

She herself came out as a lesbian feminist in 1977 and became active in the LGBT community "to ensure the leadership was co-sexual. I also wanted to influence the gays. They had their experience with liberation and women had theirs. There was a kind of emerging that came out of it and a tremendous melding of men and women. It was wonderful to be a part of that."

McElhinney said that Ms. Newbrough was a "mentor, friend, and wonderful leader."

"Those of us who worked with Celeste on the 1978 Gay Freedom Day Committee were in full sight of her many skills and ways of gathering people and bringing them together," she said. "There was a lot going on in 1977 and 1978, she led and navigated several important campaigns in those years."

Ms. Newbrough's longtime partner, Ilona Pivar, Ph.D., said that she was a very sincere person. Pivar said that it was through the Coalition for Human Rights that she met Ms. Newbrough.

"She wouldn't have had the ability to organize people without her sincerity," Pivar said.

The couple were together for 40 years – they celebrated that anniversary the weekend before Ms. Newbrough's passing – and Pivar said they had a wonderful time together.

"She was a joy," Pivar, a retired clinical psychologist, said in a brief phone interview. "I called her the light of my life."

"I lucked out," she added.

The couple were married in 2014; both disliked the term "wife," and preferred partner or spouse, Pivar said.

Ms. Newbrough was also instrumental with the Bay Area Committee Against the Briggs Initiative, which formed to defeat the Briggs initiative in November 1978. Proposition 6, as it was known, would have banned gays and lesbians from working in California public schools.

The Briggs initiative was defeated just a few weeks before Milk and San Francisco Mayor George Moscone were assassinated by disgruntled ex-supervisor Dan White.

Paula Lichtenberg, a longtime friend of Ms. Newbrough's, got to know her during the Bryant-Briggs years, she said in an email.

"I think Celeste would have been happy to stick with her writing and exploring spirituality, but she, too, saw that she was needed to take part in the battle," wrote Lichtenberg.

She said that after then-state lawmaker John Briggs' initiative made the ballot, the Coalition for Human Rights "morphed" into the Bay Area Committee Against the Briggs Initiative, one of the grassroots groups battling it. Lichtenberg was co-chair and said that Ms. Newbrough, as chair of the parade committee, was helpful and encouraged BACABI to promote their cause.

"We passed out thousands of signs, which almost all the contingents in the parade carried," Lichtenberg recalled. "It was the largest and most political gay pride parade ever, helped by Celeste's leadership."

George Ridgely, executive director of the San Francisco LGBT Pride Celebration Committee, as the organization is now known, said he was grateful that Ms. Newbrough was able to participate in this year's parade.

"Celeste Newbrough was a pioneer of our movement and we owe a tremendous amount of respect and gratitude for her vision and leadership," Ridgely said in an email. "One of the highlights of the 2017 SF Pride parade was our ability to recognize the organizers of the 1977-78 San Francisco Gay Freedom Day parade, and have them march together in the event they were so instrumental in creating."

He added that organizers like Ms. Newbrough "paved the way for the LGBTQ movement today."


Early life

Ms. Newbrough was born October 17, 1939 in New Orleans and graduated with a bachelor's degree from Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge.

She was the founding president of New Orleans' National Organization for Women and chaired the 1971 Southern Regional Conference for Women. She came out publicly as a lesbian in New Orleans, when she spoke at a City Council meeting in the summer of 1973 shortly after the deadly arson fire at the UpStairs Lounge, a gay bar.

She campaigned for Ernest Nathan "Dutch" Morial, who became the first African-American mayor of New Orleans.

Ms. Newbrough also was a Vista coordinator in Arizona managing Vista volunteers working with Apache Native American tribes.

For several years Ms. Newbrough taught women's and feminist studies at City College of San Francisco and UC Berkeley. She was director of Academic Index Services, working with many educational institutions and presses composing over 300 scholarly indexes for their journals, articles, and books.

She was a published author, starting with "Pagan Palms" (1982) and her last book, "Angel of Polk Street" (2017). She wrote in many journals and edited and wrote articles on feminism, women's history, adoption, and reproductive rights. Up until her death she was still writing and editing several journals and websites.

Pivar said that Ms. Newbrough was diagnosed with cancer for a second time in 2016, yet remained a writer and artist.

In addition to Pivar, Ms. Newbrough is survived by a daughter, Pamela; son-in-law Louis; nephew Halsey and niece-in-law Jenny; several grandchildren, grandnieces, and grandnephews; and her beloved Tibetan Terrier Sara.

Memorial services are pending.

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