At Milk-Moscone vigil, activists plead with youth

  • by John Ferrannini, Assistant Editor
  • Wednesday November 29, 2023
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People marched during the annual Milk-Moscone vigil Monday, November 27, in the Castro neighborhood. Photo: John Ferrannini
People marched during the annual Milk-Moscone vigil Monday, November 27, in the Castro neighborhood. Photo: John Ferrannini

Longtime activists who worked with the late San Francisco supervisor Harvey Milk and mayor George Moscone urged young people to embody the legacy of the slain heroes as America faces another divisive presidential election year during the annual vigil to remember the anniversary of their assassinations.

Hundreds came out to the city's Castro neighborhood Monday, November 27, for the candlelight vigil, 45 years to the day the two were gunned down inside City Hall. The vigil is put on annually by the Harvey Milk LGBTQ Democratic Club and commenced at Harvey Milk Plaza.

"For 45 years, we have stood in the rain and cold — regardless if it was on Thanksgiving — because 45 years ago someone who led the LGBT community, the first openly gay public official in California, was taken from our midst," gay Milk club President Jeffrey Kwong said. "For any one of us who was afraid to hold a partner's hand in public, or come out to our parents ... Harvey Milk was there to forge the way."

Milk, a former Navy lieutenant and Goldwater Republican, became a progressive Democrat and was elected in 1977 to represent the Castro and surrounding neighborhoods on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. His victory was a milestone of the growing strength of the LGBTQ community in general and the Castro in particular. He was fatally shot the following year by disgruntled former supervisor Dan White, shortly after White killed Moscone after the mayor refused to reappoint White to the supervisor's seat from which he had resigned on November 10.

White served only five of a seven-year sentence for his crimes, after which he killed himself on October 21, 1985.

The former police officer had been convicted of manslaughter instead of murder, which prompted riots and fires in the Civic Center Plaza — as well as police reprisals in the Castro in what was known as the White Night riots.

Moscone's death led to then-board president Dianne Feinstein assuming the mayoralty, which she held until 1988. Feinstein, who was elected a U.S. senator from California in 1992, served on that body until her death September 29 at the age of 90.

Former supervisor Carol Ruth Silver, a colleague of Milk's on the board, was at the vigil and fondly recalled the good times before the assassinations.

"We used to take the trolley to the Castro or Church Street to have Chinese food after the meetings because the salaries we had at the time did not indicate we could eat anywhere else," she said. "George Moscone didn't have that problem — he was the mayor and rose through the Democratic Party ... he would have been governor of California if he had not been shot down. He might've been president of the United States."

Moscone, also a Navy veteran, hailed from the Marina neighborhood, then an Italian American enclave. A noted progressive and former majority leader in the state Senate, he was known as the "People's Mayor" for seeking to include San Francisco's diverse communities — including gays, Blacks, and Asian Americans — in city government. In April 1978, Moscone signed an ordinance introduced by Milk banning discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation in the city.

Moscone's widow, Gina, died last year, as the B.A.R. reported. Jonathan Moscone, one of their four children, came out as gay at the 1998 vigil for his father and Milk.

Relatives of Milk and Moscone were invited to speak if they were in attendance but neither had family members who personally addressed the crowd.

Miriam Richter, education director and counsel for the Harvey Milk Foundation, traveled to the vigil from Florida to represent Milk's family. She said that Harvey Milk's nephew, Stuart Milk, a gay man, is undergoing cancer treatment that prevented him from traveling and that his sister-in-law, Audrey, is 93 and has physical limitations.

"Harvey Milk lives," Richter intoned. "Those words were written on the walls of a building spray painted in huge letters, right here in the Castro, the day after the White Night riots. Harvey lives, in every one of us who is here tonight and the millions of others, around the world, who have been inspired by his life. Inspired by his relentless pursuit of equality. Inspired by his courage, by his conviction. By his hope."

Richter said that Milk's story has served as an inspiration in countries where homosexuality is illegal and LGBTQ people are oppressed, mentioning Africa, the Caribbean, and Eastern Europe.

"Although we have come a long way since that dark day 45 years ago, we still have long way to go, there are still over 70 nations that outlaw LGBTQ people — and that list grew this year," she said. "There are now over a dozen countries that have the death penalty for just being LGBTQ, some of which carry it out. We have more work to do!"

Members of the San Francisco Gay Men's Chorus performed at the annual Milk-Moscone vigil November 27. Photo: John Ferrannini  

'Out of the closet and into the voting booth'
Cleve Jones, a gay activist and Castro community leader who got his start with Milk, said he often is asked what Milk would think about any number of issues.

"I don't know," Jones said he replies. "It's a very different world."

But Jones said he does know Milk would urge young LGBTQ people not to take their civil rights, or what societal acceptance there is, for granted.

"We wanted you to take it for granted that you are valued. We are not there," he said. "Everything that has happened to move us forward over 45 years could be swept away in the blink of an eye. If you take it for granted, they will take it away."

Doubts about LGBTQ rights have become more salient in Republican circles since Democrat Joe Biden became president in 2021, with several conservative states banning gender-affirming care for transgender minors and U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas indicating the court should revisit its 2015 ruling finding same-sex marriage is a constitutional right.

Gallup found this year that the percent of U.S. adults who found homosexuality "morally acceptable" dropped eight points from last year, from 71% to 64%. Only two-in-five Republicans agreed that homosexuality is morally acceptable, which is down 15% from 2022, according to Gallup.

Nicole Murray Ramirez, a gay Latino San Diego community leader known as the Queen Mother I of the Americas and Nicole the Great, was at the vigil. Speaking in full drag regalia she said, "Read my silicone, Botox lips — we are never going back into those closets."

Murray Ramirez is the titular head of the Imperial Court System, the philanthropic drag organization that began in San Francisco in 1965.

"In 2024, it will be out of the closet and into the voting booth," Murray Ramirez said, calling for the "LGBTQA renaissance Harvey Milk would want us to have," and urging vigilgoers to stand against antisemitism and Islamophobia, and with labor, women, and immigrants.

Murray Ramirez recalled meeting Milk in the early 1970s at the long-shuttered Polk Street haunt Kimo's. They'd been introduced by José Julio Sarria, Empress Jose I, and founder of the Imperial Court System. Sarria, a gay Latino veteran, was the first openly gay candidate for public office in the United States, losing a San Francisco supervisor bid in 1961. Sarria, who died in 2013, was posthumously inducted into the California Hall of Fame in August.

"I, a pre-op transsexual in go-go boots, had the nerve to tell him [Milk] that he needed to cut his hair if he was going to win," Murray Ramirez said.

The two bonded over their Republican pasts, voting for Arizona senator Barry Goldwater over President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1964.

"Yes, I did a lot of LSD in the 1960s," Murray Ramirez joked.

Gwenn Craig, a lesbian and former San Francisco police commissioner, recalled co-coordinating the San Francisco campaign against Proposition 6, which would have banned gays and lesbians from teaching in public schools. The statewide proposition lost, ending a string of gay rights defeats at the ballot box.

Craig said Milk was jubilant during their last one-on-one conversation — excited at all the political experience San Francisco's LGBTQ community was getting, and that No on 6 veterans would be able to launch their own careers. She and others were depressed for months after Milk was gunned down.

But then Craig said, they realized that the fight was now theirs to continue.

"We realized that we were Harvey's legacy," Craig said. "I wanted to come here to ask you to become Harvey's legacy — to be Harvey's legacy in this city and in this troubled nation of ours."

After the speakers, attendees marched to the beat of drums from Harvey Milk Plaza up Castro Street to 575 Castro Street, where Milk once owned his famed camera store, and dispersed after the San Francisco Lesbian/Gay Freedom Band played "I Left My Heart in San Francisco."

Clarification, 12/4/23: This article has been updated to include comments made at the vigil by Miriam Richter, a board member of the Harvey Milk Foundation who traveled from Florida to attend the vigil and speak on behalf of Milk's family, who could not attend due to health or physical limitations.

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