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Guest Opinion: Why Milk terminal at SFO is important

by Nick Large

A mural of Harvey Milk on the exterior of Milk's old camera shop in the Castro welcomes visitors to what is now the Human Rights Campaign Action Center and Store. Photo: Jane Philomen Cleland
A mural of Harvey Milk on the exterior of Milk's old camera shop in the Castro welcomes visitors to what is now the Human Rights Campaign Action Center and Store. Photo: Jane Philomen Cleland  

In 2011, I decided to pack my bags and move to San Francisco. I told my parents I wanted to venture off into the world on my own, studying psychology. I conveniently left out the part where I would also study gender and sexuality. I didn't actually know anyone in the city when I arrived. I only knew what it represented to me, but that was enough. In my mind, San Francisco was like a beacon of tolerance, pulsating messages of progressive politics through a larger public conversation. It was the city that made national news in 2004 when Gavin Newsom started issuing same-sex marriage licenses, and it's the city making news now suing President Donald Trump over the right to be a sanctuary city. To myself, and many others around the world, the city has a kind of intangible value that can often translate into tangible benefits. I know this because the symbolic value of the city dramatically altered the course of my life, and for that I am grateful. Now I want this city to move from tolerance, and into acceptance. Symbols and places can be powerful, and we're living during a time when it's vital to recognize that. We live in a new, more diverse era, it's time for our institutions and memorializations to reflect that, and to do so in a meaningful way.

As a current graduate student studying LGBT landmarks and working at Harvey Milk's former camera store, I see the power behind honoring our places. I've seen that memorialization can be a powerful institutional tool where we recognize the contributions of a diverse and reflective population. Through memorialization, we can acknowledge the wrongs of our past, and lay out a roadmap for our future. San Francisco International Airport can become more than a place, more than the sum of its materiality. It can become a symbol that brings us together and invites feelings of acceptance and belonging as people from all over the world fly in. Mixed in with the different shops and restaurants can be a set of San Francisco values, traveling between cities and nations like the people traveling within it. As an airport, SFO becomes the symbol of our city; they become intrinsically linked. Not only are we facilitating people through our terminals, but we are also facilitating ideas. Renaming a terminal after Milk can make sure that we always remember that LGBT civil rights was and is a struggle. To convey this however, we must do so with intention. After all, how many bridges do you drive over without knowing who it's named after.

In our memorialization for Milk, we must recognize that he drew connections between issues impacting multiple communities, connecting the dots to reveal a full picture. We must recognize that he fought through a coalition of alliances, and was not only supervisor for the gay community, but all communities in need. Milk not only worked supporting unions, but he also stood for community policing and spoke out against state and national issues negatively impacting women, racial minorities, and other marginalized communities. Our tribute to Milk needs to convey this, because movements are stronger when we work together. As a city, we're stronger when we fight together.

As someone who works in Milk's former camera store - now the Human Rights Campaign Action Center and Store - I see the power of Milk's story on people's lives whenever I'm there. Last week there was someone from Nebraska who came in. I could immediately tell why he had come by the way his eyes traveled around the store. He came to visit the location of Milk's old camera store. I saw him reading the sign on the door about Milk being dubbed the "Mayor of Castro Street," so I gave him the history tour. I walked him through Jose Sarria and the Imperial Court, the Compton's Cafeteria riots, and then to Milk. I told him about how he was a strong supporter of tenant protections, and spoke out against speculation. I showed him a photo of the bullhorn he received from working with the Teamsters, and explained how he passed the gay rights ordinance. Our Nebraskan visitor loved learning this history, and told me how powerful it was for him to have Milk's story memorialized.

Like this one visitor from Nebraska, people from all over the world tell me how meaningful Milk's story is to them. I've had someone walk into the store and just stand there in the middle, taking everything in. I've seen people literally break down and cry. The story of Milk is powerful to people, and through renaming Terminal 1, we can help amplify that story and keep it within public conversation. We can offer a beacon of hope for those who feel they have none, and that beacon of hope is something that has a kind of immeasurable power. A Harvey Milk terminal can allow people to see themselves reflected; see themselves as having value. We have the opportunity here to put our values on display for the world, and to educate the world about Milk's contributions. We need to take it.

Nick Large, who performs as Kristi Yummykochi with the Rice Rockettes, lives in San Francisco.

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