A memorial and celebration of the life of former San Francisco Ethics Commissioner Joe Lynn
will be held Saturday, February 20 at the SF LGBT Center.
February 10, 2010
Who: Former San Francisco Ethics Commissioner Joe Lynn
What: Celebration and memorial: dance; drums; food; friends; words; drink and smoke followed by march to Ethics Commission, 25 Van Ness.
Where: The San Francisco LGBT Center, 1800 Market Street
When: Saturday, February 20th, 2010, 3-5:30 pm.
Joseph Michael Lynn died at 5:45 pm on Wednesday, December 9, following a six-month fight against acute leukemia against the backdrop of a longer struggle with HIV, in the care of his boys at Maitri hospice in San Francisco. Joe is best known in San Francisco for his later life’s work at the San Francisco Ethics Commission, first as the Campaign Finance Officer from 1998 to 2003, and then as an Ethics Commissioner from 2003 to 2006.
Deeply committed to the values of democracy, Joe fought unflinchingly for open government, campaign finance disclosure, public campaign financing, and the public’s right to know what interests were spending money to influence the outcomes of the public process. Always ready to help any member of the political community or public, be them highly-paid advisers to the powerful development and tourism lobbies, or grassroots activists seeking to know who was funding a particular campaign, he took his charge as a public servant seriously and fought consciously against the stereotype of the unhelpful, disinterested bureaucrat. Indeed, the vigor with which he served the public brought him into conflict with his superiors, who in their roles managing the government agency charged with fostering public trust all too often found themselves persuaded by private interests to drop complaints, rewrite rules, and hide “smoking guns” in window-office desk drawers. When, for example, Joe discovered an illegal, $800 thousand campaign contribution made by PG&E, his superiors ordered him to suppress the discovery. Unswayed by the potential for reprisal, Joe released the information and initiated a process that would result in the largest fine ever levied by the Ethics Commission. For this and other exemplary service as a staff member, he was honored by the Society of Professional Journalists, then-president of the Board of Supervisors Matt Gonzalez, then-Supervisor Gavin Newsom, and other local media.
Despite his excellent professional reputation, the work environment became increasingly hostile, and Joe left his position on staff when then-District Attorney Terrence Hallinan appointed him to become a Commissioner in 2003. After serving three productive years in which he helped to usher in mayoral public financing, expand supervisorial public financing, and strengthen the Campaign Finance Reform Act, he resigned in order to take a job as a Consumer Rights Advocate for the HIV Health Services Planning Council. There, he was charged with making a vast and often-difficult bureaucracy of social service providers work for marginalized people living with HIV and AIDS. He performed with the same passion for public service and rejoiced in the many meaningful victories he won. And, freed from the priestly abstinence from politics required by his work at the Ethics Commission, Joe was able to embrace more fully the activist in him.
The fundamental belief in the ability of ordinary folks to govern themselves, the commitment to treating everyone with dignity and grace, and the impassioned pursuit of progressive causes embodied a hard-won wisdom for a man now so easily regarded as a sage. Born to a mother who did not much like being one and a father who abandoned the family when Joe was four, Joe often moved from one house to another, carried through places of relative privilege upon the strength of his mother’s charms. Always regarded as brilliant scholastically, he won a scholarship to the University of Redlands in southern California, where he gained the start of the classical education that would later allow him to hold forth with a quotation from the Bible, translate the works of the Roman poet Catellus from the original Latin, and answer a pressing question from a friend by telling a long story about the ancient Greeks. He was drafted into the military during the Vietnam War, but was spared the battlefront and served as a medic in San Francisco while also earning his law degree from Hastings. At the same time, his youth was marked by an internalized shame and hatred for his homosexuality. He married Martha Drexler, whom he loved, but the marriage ended amicably after seven years as Joe eventually came to favorable terms with his sexuality and came out in 1978, at the age of 32.
Joe was fortunate to come out as a gay man at a moment that was unique both for San Francisco and for gay men nationwide, and he was determined to make up for lost time, as so many have. In 1980 he met the first of his male loves, Dana, whose strikingly beautiful body would form the basis of comparison for 30 years of trysts. They stayed together until 1983 and Dana died in 1997 of HIV/AIDS. But the last real love of his life was Bruce, a hospital architect with a thick Alabaman accent who called Joe “sweeeeetie”, whom he met in 1988 and remained with until Bruce’s death from HIV/AIDS in 1991. Right around the same time, the number of Joe’s acquaintances who died of HIV/AIDS reached 500, and he decided to stop counting. Distraught, Joe turned to more and more crystal methamphetamine to fill the void, again like so many other gay men have and do. Quite the tweaker party animal in the early 1990s, as Joe’s taste for decadent epicurean indulgence rose along with his newly seroconverted viral load, his attention to his legal practice declined, culminating in his disbarment in 1997 for abandoning a client while on a speed binge.
By 1997, Joe had lost almost everything and was sharing space with a growing pile of rat feces while living in a drug house with splintered wooden floors. Tired of the monotony of his life and shamed by the waste of his privileges, he turned his enormous will towards the redemptive second act of life so often spoken of in America. As part of his recovery, Joe was referred to the San Francisco Ethics Commission, where an appointment as an intern turned into a job and an outlet for his passion to give something to a world from which he felt he had mostly taken. Joe had learned something of compassion, and he would live the rest of his life nurturing his capacity to care for others.
Possessing a remarkable eye for talent, he befriended and mentored a cadre of younger men who would form his latter day family. With them he shared his rare accumulation of knowledge, interests, and talents, inviting them to dine luxuriously with food exquisitely prepared on a prohibited 2-burner stove in his tiny SRO, reading them poetry, playing them pieces of classical music that made him cry, visiting the SF Opera or SF-MOMA, indulging in the varied cuisine of the City’s restaurants and his innovative chef friends, seeking thoughts on the newest film from Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami, listening to ideas of his own filmmaking and artist friends, or strategizing about the latest turn in Ethics happenings and SF politics. Thus, it was befitting that, in the last week of life, he said goodbye with Strauss’s (Richard, certainly not Johann) Four Last Songs, a meal of Dungeness crab cracked with his own teeth, and the company of his beloved boys.
Death was an unpredictably late visitor, as Joe was, in this case, an uncharacteristically unwelcoming host. Two years ago, Joe survived anal cancer. This time around, he wrung several more months than expected from the leukemia. And, predating all this, Joe had lived with HIV for well over a decade, outliving most of his peers, becoming a poster-boy for meds, and inventing a spirited way of life for an older gay man. Emotionally, he found nurturing relationships as a wizened elder, older brother, and surrogate father. Physically, he trained his body into the best shape of his life. Politically, he battled the current fixation on same-sex marriage, seeing the drive to “be like the straights” as a negation of the benefits of being a gay male, a repudiation of distinguished gay male history, a perpetuation of self-hate, and a loss of a set of values that challenge those of the consumeristic, patriarchal, and inequitable mainstream. He did not want to see his culture subsumed.
Thus gifted with exceptional talents and a rather lucky star, yet having lived such widely shared stories, Joe learned the talents of the shaman. He would travel through time to harvest lessons from sources long forgotten, as the botanist seeks to recapture older strains of maize to fit changing growing conditions. He would bend reality to reveal doors through walls that, to normal eyes, had none. He would walk the streets of the City and see ghosts in buildings no longer standing and alleys filled with stories unwritten. And, he would treat the wounds of our all-too-mortal souls with incantations of a sacred, Franciscan gentleness.
Joe was survived by Eileen Hansen, Ethics Commissioner, and his boys, Kevin De Liban, j.d, mentee, currently of Cochabamba, Bolivia, Oliver Luby, j.d. former colleague at the Ethics Commission, David Waggoner, attorney at law, Tae-Wol Stanley, Nurse Practitioner, Dr. Bill Hsu, professor of Computer Science at SFSU, Joe Graham, filmmaker, Larry Bush, HUD spokesperson, Ben Rosenfeld, attorney at law, Marc Powell, chef, and Marc Salomon and George Aluska, Joe’s prophet and the prophet’s husband, respectively.
Much of Joe’s Ethics advocacy, sadly, remains undone, although over the past few years, he helped us find a path towards success. The best memorial we might offer for Joe is to organize to bring Joe’s ideas to bear on public policy instead of allowing business as usual to continue.
In addition to your company, you are welcome to share your various libations respectfully, along with those provided.
Friends of Joe Lynn will meet the day before the celebration to prepare gastronomic delights. Please contact Marc Salomon marc [at] cybre [dot] net for more information.