San Diego —
Robert Lynn, a civil rights attorney who founded key business and political organizations in support of San Diego’s LGBTQ communities, died Sept. 14. He was 82.
Starting in the 1970s, Lynn forged relationships with organizations representing minorities and women, helping establish the LGBTQ community as a political force in the city, his colleagues and family members said.
In 1975, Lynn served as founding president of the San Diego Democrats for Equality, an influential LGBTQ organization originally known as the San Diego Democratic Club. And in 1979, he launched the San Diego Equality Business Association, which was then called the Greater San Diego Business Association, to support LGBTQ businesses.
“If there is one person I would credit for the clout the LGBTQ community has today, it is Bob Lynn,” said Doug Case, a former president of the San Diego Democratic Club.
Various gay and lesbian elected leaders — including San Diego Mayor Todd Gloria, State Senate President Toni Atkins, and former State Sen. Christine Kehoe — have benefitted from the political platform Lynn created, said Nicole Murray Ramirez, San Diego City Human Relations Commissioner and a longtime activist.
“These all rode on the shoulders of Bob Lynn,” Murray Ramirez said.
Lynn was born in Oklahoma City in 1938. He graduated from the University of Kansas in 1960 and entered the Navy as an officer, where he served in Vietnam. He left the Navy after nearly a decade of service and earned a law degree from California Western School of Law in San Diego, his husband, Kleon Howe, said.
In 1975, the year California decriminalized same-sex relationships, Lynn founded what was then the San Diego Democratic Club, colleagues said.
“Up until 1975, it was a felony in California for people of the same sex to engage in sexual relations,” Case said. “Bob had the foresight to say that the community needed to create some clout.”
Lynn chose the innocuous name for the group, without reference to sexual identity, to forestall opposition as the organization established itself, Howe and Case said. Meanwhile he built bridges with other groups representing women and minorities, recognizing their common need to gain representation.
“He would go out and meet with Latino groups, African American groups, Asian business groups, and women’s groups,” Howe said. “He would create coalitions, so the gay community would support measures that would give more freedoms for these other groups and also support people running for office in these other groups.”
Lynn and other activists lobbied to change laws affecting gays and lesbians and began running candidates for local and state office, Howe said.
Murray Ramirez, a long time gay and Latino activist, said Lynn tutored activists on how to speak to city councils and how to apply for commission seats.
“I learned a lot from Bob, because he was so informed, so bright and so seasoned and knowledgeable about the political process,” said Murray Ramirez.
Lynn braved personal and professional risk, including potential arrest or disbarment, and he received death threats.
“I asked him many times over the years, why did you do all that? You could lose your law license,” Howe said. “He said ‘I always looked at things that needed to be done, and if they did, I did it. I knew that if I had the capacity to change things, I wanted to be a part of that.’”
Along with his real estate and business practice, Lynn also practiced civil rights law, serving as president of the San Diego chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union during the 1980s, when the organization was mostly volunteer lawyers working pro bono.
In 1982 he was part of a team of lawyers who brought a case before the U.S. Supreme Court challenging the ability of police to demand identification and information from people in public spaces.
They represented Edward Lawson, a Black business consultant from San Francisco who was detained by police 15 times while walking on public streets in San Diego and Chula Vista during business trips.
Lynn and his colleagues argued successfully in Kolender v. Lawson that the expectation that people in public must provide identification to police and explain their purpose was unconstitutionally vague and threatens their personal security, mobility and privacy.
Later that year, Lynn left law and political organizing to embark on an 11-year voyage with Howe. The couple sailed the South Pacific, the Mediterranean and the Caribbean, visiting 36 countries on their boat, the Rhiannon.
Lynn connected with local gay communities at each point of anchor, starting with hair salons, Howe said.
“He would look to see if there was what he thought would be a gay person or lesbian at the salon,” Howe said. “Then he would get his hair cut, and we would be invited to homes and parties among the gay, lesbian and transgender communities. It just added a whole new dimension to sailing around the world. That was Bob. He always understood how people worked.”
The couple wed in 2008 during a brief window when gay marriage was legal in California, before it was banned under Proposition 8, which was reversed by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2015.
“I remember that just after we were married, we looked at each other and Bob looked at me and said, ‘I didn’t think it would feel this important,’” Howe said.
Lynn died at home in his husband’s arms of complications from frontotemporal dementia after several years of illness, Howe said.
“When we knew he was dying, we talked together about what he wanted in the end,” Howe said. “He looked at me and held my hand and said, ‘no regrets.’”
Lynn is survived by his husband and numerous nieces and nephews.