By ALBERT H. FULCHER | Gay San Diego
A San Diego native, long-time LGBT activist Jeri Dilno was born in 1936 and graduated from Point Loma High School and then attended San Diego State University. She left SDSU in 1958 and joined the Air Force. She received an undesirable discharge in 1961, part of an investigation targeting individuals suspected of being gay. Dilno was the only person that fought the accusations and requested a hearing. Her discharge was later changed to honorable.
Dilno’s experience impelled her into a lifetime commitment to the advancement of LGBTQ people. She helped found and organize the first San Diego Pride march in 1975. She became the first female executive director of The Center, (then called The Gay Center) from 1975-77. In 1977, she attended the International Conference of Women as the only lesbian delegate. She chaired The Center’s board of directors from 1977-80 and campaigned against the horrible Briggs Initiative, which would have allowed gay and lesbian teachers and allies to be fired. Dilno served as president of the San Diego Democratic Club from 1987-91, co-chaired the LGBT State Democratic Caucus from 1987-91 and was a delegate at the National Democratic Convention in 1998, 1992 and 2000.
On Sept. 21, on her 83rd birthday, Council member Chris Ward presented Dilno with an honorary street title Jeri Dilno Way on the corner of Park Boulevard and Howard Avenue. Ceremonies began with a performance by the San Diego Women’s Chorus, followed by community leaders there to recognize Dilno’s lifetime of activism and achievements.
“We are here to honor a trailblazer of the LGBT community, Jeri Dilno,” Ward said. “Today’s location at North Park Seniors, San Diego’s only, so far, LGBTQ+ affirmative senior community is especially meaningful. I want to thank the wonderful relationship we have with Community Housing Works and the San Diego LGBT Community Center for making this quality of life possible.”
Ward said he has had the distinct pleasure of providing two honorary street titles to individuals who have performed exemplary acts or achievements of lasting acts of community betterment to the city of San Diego.
“Today is a day that I get to recognize another city icon,” Ward continued. “Her impact is significant to San Diego’s LGBTQ community and her work in the Democratic Party cannot be understated. This timing of this recognition is significant as this year we have incorporated the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots and San Diego Pride is celebrating its 45th anniversary. Her resume reflects the long-time dedication to democratic values and civil rights with her relationships with so many in the community reflecting her spirit, kindness of heart.”
San Diego LGBT Community Center Chief Public Affairs and Civic Engagement Officer Rebekah J. Hook-Held said that very few people are more worthy of an honorary street naming than Dilno.
“She’s a respected leader in the San Diego LGBT community with a long history of activism. The list of Jeri’s accomplishments and major contributions to our LGBT community is long and impressive,” Hook-Held said. “Leader, pioneer, activist, you have paved the way, not just for your generation, but the generations to follow and we are so grateful for everything that you have done.”
San Diego LGBT Pride Education & Advocacy Manager Jen Labarbera said although she has only lived in San Diego for five years, she was fortunate to begin her career at Lambda Archives, the keepers of the LGBT history of the San Diego region.
“I heard so many stories about Jeri Dilno before I had the pleasure of meeting her,” Labarbera said. “So, while Jeri grew up here, she built a lot of those organizing skills on the East County in Philadelphia, learning from and working with the likes of incredible LGBT leaders like the lesbian legend Barbara Gittings. In Philly, she organized its first Pride march in 1992 and then when she moved back to San Diego, she brought that expertise back with her; she helped organize the second official gay Pride march and with the knowledge she gained was able to help them get their first-ever permit.”
Labarbera said that Pride march in 1975 was a pivotal point in San Diego Pride history.
“Four hundred people came out, proud and defiantly proclaiming their right to exist,” Labarbera said. “From that 400-person march in 1975 to this year where we saw 350,000 people at the parade and 50,000 at the festival, Jeri has always been an integral part of it and continues to be so. She’s not only watched our community when our gay men underwent lobotomies at Atascadero, and we had to fight things like the Briggs Initiative, to today when LGBTQ officials make up one-third of our City Council. San Diego has the most LGBT elected officials per capita in all of California. She has not only been witness to this but has been active part of that the entire way.”
Deirdre “Dede” W. Alpert, former state senator thanked Dilno for her service to the nation and for standing up for her rights while other women and men chose to serve their country under a horrible and unfair atmosphere of discrimination.
“We are talking of a period of nearly 50 years in being a leader in the LGBT community,” Alpert said. “In 1990, I ran for the Assembly in a district that was overwhelmingly Republican and nobody in fact was interested that I was running. But the San Diego Democratic Club endorsed me. We had a little group of six people that would volunteer to make calls in the district. Jeri was one of those six. When nobody cared that I was running, and no one thought I had any chance of winning, they came up each week and stuffed envelopes, licked stamps and made calls. I never forgot their kindness, what they taught me about the community, making me much better understand. I hope that I have always been a very good representative for the community, and I attribute that to how she taught me and the friendship she showed me.”
State Assembly member Todd Gloria met Dilno in 1992 as a high school student volunteering at the Democratic party headquarters trying to get Bill Clinton and Al Gore into the White House.
“Jeri Dilno and her team that were there were practically engaged, making the phone calls, welcoming the volunteers, helping us identifying voters in this county many, many years ago,” Gloria said. “You’ve heard about how Jeri helped Alpert in getting elected. That resulted in Christine Kehoe getting elected and Toni Atkins getting elected, then Chris Ward and Jennifer Campbell. I recognize that seed that was planted by Jeri.”
Gloria said that today’s times are not perfect, but we have come very far.
“We still have a lot of challenges,” Gloria continued. “Here in San Diego and California, we have it pretty good. That’s because of Jeri and many other trailblazers, many of who would qualify for a street naming. This is a moment to show faith and appreciation to a generation that knocked down doors, shattered glass ceilings and did the heavy lifting so those of us can serve and to be exactly who we are. We cannot stop here, because as we have gotten stronger as a community, we feel safer in almost every corner of this county — but we must never, ever forget where this movement began. I want us to leave a mark, to make sure we enjoy the responsibilities that we have earned so that the community will always know where we came from. Because a community who forgets where they come from is doomed to failure in the future.”
Christine Kehoe, former state Senator, said when she came to San Diego in 1978, Dilno was already a long-time activist in the San Diego community and that it was a different world then.
“You can’t imagine now, unless you were there, the community was tiny, not visible as it is now,” Kehoe said. “We had to seek out each other. This was not my experience. You often hear that we are standing on the shoulders of those that have gone before us. That this person or that person is a pillar of the community. These are truths, but this morning I know it as an absolute fact. Jeri Dilno’s contributions to the LGBT community predate the LGBT community. She chaired to put lesbian into the name of The Gay Center. She was the go-to lesbian when gay men in the community wanted to get women more engaged in events. You’ve heard the resume. She’s been a tireless activist, unconditional, full equality for the entire years I’ve known her.”
Jeri Dilno said she is now in what is called the Stonewall Generation.
“But I would not have been here if not for the true Stonewall Generation,” Dilno said. “People like Frank Kameny, who led picketing at the White House while I was in high school. And, organizations like the Daughters of Bilitis and The Mattachine Society, which were founded in the ’50s. Stonewall was a catalyst that energized and united our struggle. It created an energy of synergy that brought the struggles to the streets. Most of you today are not a part of my generation. You are our post-Stonewall generation. There is still a lot of work to be done. Much of it, to resist the forces that want to take away our born rights.”
Dilno said she had a great deal of support to get where she is today. Her early introduction to activism was in Philadelphia, by Barbara Gittings, who taught her how to keep her balance.
“When I returned to San Diego in 1975, I was offered the job of [executive director] of The Center, at a whopping salary of $500 a month,” Dilno said. “If it was not for the generosity of my great friend and partner, who was willing to be the major bread winner, I would not have been able to take the job which gave me the foundations to be an activist and begin my work with San Diego Pride. Working at The Center led me to political activism with the San Diego Democratic Club (San Diego Democrats for Equality).
“When I was often in the public eye, my mother … she told me she was glad we had different last names,” Dilno continued. “I wonder if she would say the same today.”
— Albert H. Fulcher is the editor of Gay San Diego. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.