Online Extra: Political Notes: Milk's message of 'hope' shines bright in SF
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Throughout his years in the 1970s as a gay activist and business owner in San Francisco's Castro district, then a burgeoning gay neighborhood, Harvey Milk routinely encouraged those overlooked by society, whether it be people of color, the elderly or LGBT individuals, to maintain their hope for a better day.
In the speech he gave on June 24, 1977 inside the San Francisco Gay Community Center at the kick-off for his third supervisor campaign, Milk said of LGBT youth in particular, "and you have to give them hope. Hope for a better world. Hope for a better tomorrow. Hope for a place to go if the pressures at home are too great. Hope that all will be alright." His address that day became known as "The Hope Speech."
Milk's message of hope has now became a permanent part of the neighborhood he called home due to the installation of a lighted art piece on the mantel of the commercial building overlooking the plaza that bears his name above the Castro Muni station. Spelled out in white neon lettering is Milk's message, "HOPE WILL NEVER BE SILENT."
Created by the firm Illuminate, which also designed the Bay Bridge light show, the public artwork was officially turned on the night of Wednesday, November 8, to commemorate the 40th anniversary of Milk's historic election as the first out gay supervisor in San Francisco and the first openly LGBT elected official in California.
"Hope is strong today. I can feel it this evening just like I felt it 40 years ago," said Gwenn Craig, a lesbian who helped elect Milk in the fall of 1977. "Hope will never die."
Craig, who would go on to lead the Harvey Milk LGBT Democratic Club and be the first LGBT person of color to serve on the city's police commission, recalled how in nearly every speech and public talk Milk gave, he mentioned the word "hope."
"How fitting then a permanent installation for Harvey Milk Plaza will be a message about hope lighting up the sky," she said.
Pointing to the results of last Tuesday's elections, which saw a number of transgender candidates make history by winning seats on their local school boards, city councils and state legislature, such as Palm Springs City Councilwoman-elect Lisa Middleton being the first transgender person to win a non-judicial election in California, as well as a number of people of color be the first elected mayors of their cities, Craig said she had woken up Wednesday morning filled with hope despite the divisiveness, bigotry, and anti-LGBT backlash brought on by Donald Trump's winning the presidency a year ago.
"In today's political climate, when hope can seem to be in short supply, and in the face of an authoritarian presidency that seems to want to take away all the progress we have made, we still do not lose our hold on hope," she told the crowd that had gathered on 17th Street at the corner of Castro and Market streets for the commemoration ceremony. "We can see hope in the protest marches that have filled the streets of cities throughout this nation. We can see hope in the people saying they are playing a role in politics for the first time in their lives."
Former Supervisor Carol Ruth Silver, who was also elected four decades ago to the board along with Milk and was touted in the press then as an "unwed mother," noted that the 1977 race also saw the election of a Chinese man and a black woman as supervisors. Although she noted that Trump had presided over "a little bit of a back up" for the country, Silver marveled at the progress that has been made on LGBT rights over the years.
"Never, never, never in my wildest dreams did I ever think we would be celebrating gay marriage, the protection of transgender military people, the incredible changes that we have seen, and we will continue to see," said Silver.
Also unveiled during the ceremony last week was a temporary public art installation called Harvey's Halo, also created by Illuminate. Consisting of rainbow-colored beams of light mounted on top of the SoulCycle building next to the plaza, it debuted to the song "We Are the Champions," released by British rock band Queen and sung by bisexual lead vocalist Freddie Mercury.
Illuminate founder and CEO Ben Davis said his feelings about the song, with such lyrics as, "We will keep on fighting to the end," had changed when he realized it had been released in October 1977 a month prior to Milk's election.
As Davis wrote in an op-ed about the art installation, "We will lead, as San Francisco always has, by example. We will champion equality for the world. In darkness, light finds it truest purpose."
The installation will be lighted for seven nights over two weekends, concluding November 18.
"Harvey is up there just smiling and saying, 'What the ...' He really didn't swear. I was the one who swore," said Anne Kronenberg, who was Milk's campaign manager and legislative aide at City Hall. "He was an absolutely wonderful person. On Election Day it was about us, it wasn't about Harvey. The victory was our victory."
Tragically, a year after being elected to the board's District 5 seat, which back then covered the Castro and the Haight, Milk was assassinated along with then-mayor George Moscone inside City Hall by disgruntled former supervisor Dan White the morning of November 27, 1978.
The Political Notes column will be on hiatus until Monday, December 4.
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Got a tip on LGBT politics? Call Matthew S. Bajko at (415) 829-8836 or e-mail email@example.com.