44 years after his death, Milk continues to make waves

  • by Matthew S. Bajko, Assistant Editor
  • Thursday November 17, 2022
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A photographer from the Associated Press in 1977 captured this iconic image of Supervisor Harvey Milk, left, and Mayor George Moscone inside San Francisco City Hall. Photo: Courtesy of Holt-Atherton Special Collections, University of the Pacific Library
A photographer from the Associated Press in 1977 captured this iconic image of Supervisor Harvey Milk, left, and Mayor George Moscone inside San Francisco City Hall. Photo: Courtesy of Holt-Atherton Special Collections, University of the Pacific Library

His life may have been cut short 44 years ago, but the late gay civil rights leader Harvey Milk continues to make waves. Honoring his memory stirs passionate debate not just in San Francisco but also across the country.

In June, during Pride Month, the local library in rural Logan, Iowa, displayed Rob Sanders' 2018 picture book "Pride: The Story of Harvey Milk and the Rainbow Flag." Soon after library and city officials began receiving homophobic letters and demands that books about LGBTQ people be pulled from the shelves. They were followed by calls for a ban on drag queen story hours, even though the public library hadn't scheduled such events.

"It has been in our collection since 2018, with no noted objection until it was displayed for Pride Month," library director Kate Simmons told ABC affiliate KETV based in Omaha.

Marshall University, a public research university in Huntington, West Virginia, which proudly proclaims that it "does not ban books" on its website, noted in an August post that the Murray City School District in Utah this year suspended its Equity Book Bundle Program and Equity Council, which included Sanders' book, in February due to parent complaints about another book that addressed transgender issues and was not part of the program.

It included a quote from Murray City District 1 Councilmember Kat Martinez, who said the decision "sends a terrible message to the LGBTQ+ community to pause this council for an incident that has nothing to do with them."

Milk, who after several failed prior attempts to win elective office became San Francisco's first elected out supervisor in 1977 at the age of 47, was a vocal advocate against government officials meddling in the personal lives of individuals and for elected leaders to respect the rights and humanity of all people.

In a September 10, 1973 address he gave to the Joint International Longshoremen and Warehousemen's Union of San Francisco, a copy of which the San Francisco Public Library digitized and posted on its website, Milk railed against political leaders "trying to legislate morality."

"The Constitution calls for the separation of the church and the state ... and, yet we find that our legislators end up spending millions of dollars and years of their lives legislating morality ... that money, that time, that energy should be spent in making the city a place for all people," said Milk, according to the archival document that includes spelling mistakes and handwritten edits to the speech.

Tragically, disgruntled former San Francisco supervisor Dan White assassinated Milk and then-mayor George Moscone inside City Hall on November 27, 1978. Since then Milk has become a global inspiration for the LGBTQ community, honored by cities around the world.

In the Castro neighborhood Milk called home, owned a camera store in and represented at City Hall, discussions over how to appropriately memorialize the gay icon's memory and achievements have stirred passionate arguments for years. More recently, a group of residents and community leaders have been pushing to revamp the public plaza above the Castro Muni Station entrance named in honor of Milk so that it is a true tribute to him and becomes a must-see stop for overseas tourists and other visitors to the city.

But an equally ardent group, which includes the gay man who designed the plaza and subway station at the intersection of Castro and Market streets, opposes any major demolition of the structure and wants to see it become a city landmark. They have argued changes can be made to the current plaza for far less money that would provide a stronger celebration of Milk's life and legacy.

What the two sides do agree on is that the existing photomontage hung on a fence and the nearby bronze plaque honoring Milk are lacking and not enough of a tourist draw as should be found at the site.

"Anyone familiar with what exists there today and what is called Harvey Milk Plaza can agree it doesn't represent what Harvey Milk was and what he stood for. It doesn't significantly represent his impact to the city and world," Brian Springfield, a gay man who leads the Friends of Harvey Milk Plaza group, told the city's Historic Preservation Commission at its November 16 meeting. "For over two decades there have been conversations about doing something at this site so Harvey Milk is celebrated as he should be."

Milk and Moscone will be remembered and honored at the plaza during the 2022 Milk-Moscone Vigil organized by the Harvey Milk LGBTQ Democratic Club. The annual observance of their murders will begin at 7 p.m. Sunday, November 27, followed by a candlelight procession to the location of Milk's former campaign headquarters and business at 575 Castro Street.

"Harvey Milk and George Moscone were victims of political violence, anti-LGBTQ hate, and the politics of weaponized grievance that is as deeply rooted in our life today as it was then," Milk club president Edward Wright told the Bay Area Reporter. "Dan White snuck into City Hall through a window. The insurrectionists on January 6th entered the Capitol through the front door, at the invitation of the president. We gather every year in remembrance of Milk and Moscone's lives and legacy, but also in commitment to continue their fight.

"It's critical, here and now, for us to come together and stand united against the forces of hate and division, and for our rights to privacy, equality, and collective liberation," added Wright, a gay man who has led the progressive political group since 2021.

For more information about this year's march, visit its Facebook event page.

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