Housing takes center stage at Milk-Moscone vigil

  • by David-Elijah Nahmod
  • Wednesday December 4, 2013
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Two events in San Francisco marking the 35th anniversary of the murders of Supervisor Harvey Milk and Mayor George Moscone were attended by hundreds of people, many of whom urged leaders to address the city's skyrocketing rents and upswing in evictions.

Milk, who represented the Castro, and Moscone were gunned down in their City Hall offices by ex-supervisor Dan White. The November 27, 1978 killings shook the city.

Members of the Harvey Milk LGBT Democratic Club were joined in the Castro by supporters and others who used this year's candlelight vigil to call for action on housing.

Meanwhile, civic leaders held a remembrance ceremony on the steps of City Hall a few hours earlier.

During the march to City Hall, housing advocates carried a banner that read Eviction=Death.

"The message this year is housing, housing, housing," said Brian Basinger, director of the AIDS Housing Alliance/San Francisco. "The housing crisis is critical. It's the only conversation in town. The soul of the city is at stake. In light of the fact that nearly one-third of our homeless people are LGBTQ, we feel a moral responsibility to remain focused on what really matters: that every person in San Francisco have a roof over their head.

"End LGBTQ homelessness now. Stop evictions now. Affordable housing now," he added.

At Harvey Milk Plaza, an enlarged photo of Milk was on display, surrounded by flowers and candles. Several attendees could be seen wiping away tears. Longtime activist Cleve Jones, a personal friend of Milk's, took to the stage and addressed the homeless issue. Jones shared the story of Jonathan Klein, the openly gay former owner of Now Voyager Travel. Klein committed suicide in April.

Klein's business partner, Peter Greene, previously told the Bay Area Reporter that Klein had battled depression. He also took a buyout after being threatened with an Ellis Act eviction. The state law allows landlords to evict tenants if they take the property off the rental market.

"He told me that there was no place for him in San Francisco," Jones told the crowd. "The next day he jumped off the Golden Gate Bridge."

Several speakers had critical words for gay District 8 Supervisor Scott Wiener.

"I don't want to bash anyone, but I have to say that the current supervisor in this district did a disservice to the memory of Harvey Milk by passing that legislation which criminalizes poor people by closing the parks," said Tony Robles of Manilatown Heritage Foundation, speaking from the podium. "Supervisor Wiener, you were no Harvey Milk when you did that."

About a week before the vigil, a petition appeared at Change.org asking Wiener to stay away from the event. The petition, which claimed that Wiener supports conservative ideas, and is "the anti-Harvey," received 174 signatures. Many of the signatures were from out of state, while a few were from overseas.

Affordable housing and the rising number of evictions was the theme for this year's November 27 vigil commemorating the 35th anniversary of the killing of Supervisor Harvey Milk and Mayor George Moscone.

(Photo: Rick Gerharter)

Wiener attended both events, although politicians did not speak at the activists' vigil.

"I've attended the Milk-Moscone vigil for the past 10 years, including the years when it got quite small," Wiener told the Bay Area Reporter beforehand. "It's not for one part of the community, or one political clique, to the exclusion of others. I'll be attending the vigil, as I have for years, to remember Harvey Milk and George Moscone, and to recommit myself to continue to work for our community."

The Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence led the crowd in a chant of remembrance for past community members, "our weird kooks, writers, performers, and dreamers. They could never have afforded this neighborhood today," the Sisters said.

Not everyone was pleased with the politicizing of the vigil, feeling that it should have been solely about Milk's legacy.

"The chorus has been intimately connected to this horrific event as the candlelight vigil 35 years ago was the chorus' first public performance," said Timothy Seelig, artistic director of the San Francisco Gay Men's Chorus. "It was our understanding that the event at Harvey Milk Plaza was to be a remembrance of Harvey Milk's life, not a political rally. Had we known, it would have affected our participation. Not because we are not deeply concerned about the issues raised, but because of our policy regarding participation in partisan events."

Another person declined to march down Market Street to City Hall.

"Rather than talking about Harvey and his legacy, the event became a forum for people to foist their own agenda on the captive audience," said Keith Folger. "I made my decision to not march down Market Street when one of the speakers decided to use his time at the mic to lambast Scott Wiener. I am disgusted that a vigil to remember the assassination of Harvey Milk and George Moscone was used to foist the anti-Wiener agenda on us."

Others simply wanted to move beyond the speeches.

"The substance and tenor of what was said won't get us any closer to the solution to the problem of high cost housing in San Francisco," said Crispin Hollings, who lives up the street from Milk Plaza. "If we're really going to get serious about tackling housing, we must stop marginalizing those whose ideas are not our own. Let's move beyond the rhetoric of Wednesday night and get serious about working together on housing."

A large crowd turned out in the Castro Wednesday, November 27 to honor the late Supervisor Harvey Milk and Mayor George Moscone, who were gunned down in their City Hall offices 35 years ago.(Photo: Rick Gerharter)

Still others pointed out that reducing homelessness among LGBTs is of critical importance.

"Housing is one of the most important issues in San Francisco right now," said longtime housing activist Tommi Avicolli Mecca. "Right now, so many people are losing their apartments to greedy speculators, so many people are homeless and need housing, so many people, especially seniors, are living in fear of their place being sold to someone who will evict them.

"It's a crisis, and we as a community need to address it by helping to fight the evictions, demand more protections against speculators and investors, and reduce LGBT homelessness. It's what Harvey would have done. No doubt about it."


City Hall ceremony

A few hours before the activists' vigil, political leaders gathered on the steps of City Hall to remember Milk and Moscone.

Those on hand included Mayor Ed Lee, out state Senator Mark Leno (D-San Francisco), past and present members of the Board of Supervisors, and Stuart Milk, Harvey Milk's gay nephew. They were joined by the Gay Men's Chorus.

Leno told of a 17-year-old girl who had never heard of Milk.

"The only gay person she knew was her heroin-addicted mother," Leno said. "She thought this was her only option. When told the story of Harvey Milk, she realized she didn't have to be like her mother. That's giving up hope."

Former supervisor Carol Ruth Silver served alongside Milk on the board.

"We are observing, not celebrating," said Silver. She recalled how Milk reached across communities. "The little old ladies, the janitors, and the shopkeepers voted for Harvey because he was out there in their shops."

Lee praised Milk and Moscone's leadership.

"I don't think I would be standing here as mayor were it not for the leadership of Harvey Milk and George Moscone," said Lee, the first Asian American mayor in the city's history. He recalled Milk's support for people beyond the LGBT sphere.

Both the mayor and gay Supervisor David Campos addressed the need to provide more homeless services, pointing out that 29 percent of the city's homeless are LGBT. The need to slow the rising tide of Ellis Act evictions was also addressed.

One person booed when Wiener was introduced. Several attendees asked the heckler to be silent.

"This is meaningful for me as a gay man and a longtime Castro resident," Wiener said. "I'm proud to represent Harvey Milk's district."

Stuart Milk said people's minds need to be changed.

"We have to do more than change laws, we need to change minds," said Stuart Milk. "We do that by teaching and remembering our history. I was 17 when my uncle died. He and I talked about my feeling different. He told me that my difference was a gift I needed to hold onto even if the world doesn't know it was a gift."

The Gay Men's Chorus sang "Give 'em Hope" by Joseph M. Martin, which refers to one of Milk's best remembered quotes.