Issue:  Vol. 48 / No. 8 / 22 February 2018

Milk foundation plans SF events


Stuart Milk. Photo: Rick Gerharter
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Stuart Milk, the openly gay nephew of the late San Francisco Supervisor Harvey Milk, a pioneering gay politician and LGBT rights leader, found himself face to face with the Reverend Desmond Tutu at a White House ceremony last August.

President Barack Obama was honoring Tutu, a leader in the fight to end apartheid in South Africa, and Harvey Milk posthumously with the presidential Medal of Freedom. Attending in honor of his famous uncle, who was assassinated along with then-Mayor George Moscone inside San Francisco City Hall in November 1978, Stuart Milk found the work he has done to keep Milk's memory alive challenged by Tutu and other dignitaries at the ceremony.

"I have spent the last two decades going to events and speaking and volunteering in memory of Harvey. Desmond Tutu looked me in the eyes and said, 'You need to do more,'" recalled Milk, who lives in Florida but travels the globe speaking about Harvey Milk's legacy in places such as Turkey, Syria, and Panama.

Chita Rivera, a Hispanic entertainer also given an award by Obama, echoed Tutu's advice that day, said Milk.

"Chita Rivera turned to me in the White House and she said, "You got to do a big event. You got to think big,'" said Milk. "All of the families who have talked to me who lost their communities' martyr, who also have been their family member, all said don't start small."

Sparked by the advice from such luminaries, Milk created the Harvey B. Milk Foundation last fall with the help of Anne Kronenberg, a San Francisco health official who ran Milk's successful 1977 campaign for supervisor. He brought on board as the foundation's executive director Michael Colby, a Boston economic development official who once led the LGBT-focused National Stonewall Democrats.

Working with local event producer Audrey Joseph, the foundation plans to host its inaugural awards show May 21 on the eve of California's first official Harvey Milk Day, which under state law will annually be declared May 22 on Milk's birthday. In conjunction with local LGBT leaders, the foundation also has plans to hold a diversity breakfast May 22 and a street festival that afternoon in the Castro modeled after the gayborhood's annual fall street fair, which Milk helped launch in the 1970s.

"Harvey Milk Day is really exciting. It is the first time a gay individual has been honored with a day named after them anywhere in the world," said Joseph, who likened the awards event to "mimicking the Kennedy Center Honors," which are named after another assassinated American politician, President John F. Kennedy.

Stuart Milk added that, "We really do think this could eventually be a weeklong focal event that brings people from around the world to San Francisco to celebrate Harvey Milk week." 

Events honoring Milk are planned throughout the state, from Sacramento to San Diego, where a diversity breakfast in honor of Milk, the first openly gay person elected to office in a major American city, drew 1,200 people last year.

Ceremonies are also being planned in New York City and on Long Island, where Milk grew up. An organization in Tallahassee, Florida contacted Stuart Milk about attending an event there the night of May 22.

And Harvey Milk Day could go international. Stuart Milk said he has been in touch with several European lawmakers who also want to honor Milk with his own holiday. But he declined to reveal which ones so not to tip off detractors to the plans.

"I am fairly confident there will be a Harvey Milk Day in a European country," he said.

Openly gay state Senator Mark Leno (D-San Francisco), who pushed through the bill creating Harvey Milk Day, said he was "heartened" to see the response his legislation has received.

"This has been in the making for quite a while," said Leno, noting that the Oscar-winning film Milk and the induction of the lawmaker into California's Hall of Fame last December have added to the interest in Milk's achievements. "This is the explosive expression of that accumulative and appropriate recognition of Harvey's life."

City leaders have been meeting with Milk and Colby since December to map out the various celebrations planned for Milk Day. While the Masonic Auditorium has donated its space for the awards show, which will be followed by a dance, it is estimated the planning committee needs to raise at least $100,000 in sponsorships to pay for the weekend's worth of events.

"I would say it is a daunting year to create a new event but I think there is genuine enthusiasm about the first official Milk holiday," said out Supervisor Bevan Dufty, who holds the seat Milk once served in at City Hall. "I think Harvey's legacy is intertwined with San Francisco ... so Stuart wants to create an annual event that is centered in San Francisco."

Foundation takes international approach

According to the Milk foundation, it is guided by "Harvey Milk's dream for a better tomorrow filled with the hope for equality and a world without hate." Its mission is to work with governments around the world in order to enact LGBT rights for their citizens.

"We want to build bridges with those who see us as their enemies," said Milk, who noted that the foundation, so far, is all volunteer run. "Having a global perspective on equality for our community is a huge goal."

To that end, Milk and Colby are in talks with LGBT activists in numerous countries who have asked for his help in publicizing their fights for equal rights. They are flying to Mexico this weekend to help jumpstart a national LGBT movement by using the arts.

"There is no uniformed LGBT movement there," said Milk. "They feel they will get a lot of press with my presence there."

The foundation is also in talks with counterparts in Italy and Russia who have invited Milk to their countries to help set up meetings between LGBT activists and government officials. Colby is trying to set up a meeting with Italy's president and parliament members.

"Italy is one of the largest countries in the European Union but it has yet to adopt"  many of the EU's pro-gay laws, said Colby. "Stuart can help in moving those issues forward."

Milk said he is planning a trip in late May to Moscow, whose mayor is a vocal opponent of gay rights and police have attacked LGBT activists for attempting to hold Pride marches.

"This is some of the activism that makes a huge difference in the world," said Milk, who understands he is sought after for the symbolism he represents and that, through him, people feel a connection to his uncle. "It is not me, it is Harvey. What other families of martyrs have said is I have a role to play."

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