Political Notebook: Slain gay leader Milk's legacy continues to echo

  • by Matthew S. Bajko, Assistant Editor
  • Monday November 20, 2023
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Contra Costa County Supervisor Ken Carlson, left, joined Meg Honey in unveiling a plaque honoring Harvey Milk at Northgate High School in Walnut Creek, the site of one of Milk's last public appearances in September 1978. Photo: Courtesy Supervisor Carlson's office
Contra Costa County Supervisor Ken Carlson, left, joined Meg Honey in unveiling a plaque honoring Harvey Milk at Northgate High School in Walnut Creek, the site of one of Milk's last public appearances in September 1978. Photo: Courtesy Supervisor Carlson's office

In the third episode of the new television miniseries "Fellow Travelers," clearly visible on the wall of the San Francisco apartment where one of the main characters, Tim Laughlin, played by out actor Jonathan Bailey, resides is a campaign poster. It declares "Milk for Supervisor."

It is just one example of how the legacy of gay civil rights leader Harvey Milk continues to echo in the culture, 45 years after his life and political career were cut short by an assassin's bullet. The killings of Milk, the first LGBTQ person elected a San Francisco supervisor, and then-mayor George Moscone by disgruntled former San Francisco supervisor Dan White received prominent attention this fall due to the passing of the late Democratic U.S. senator Dianne Feinstein.

Back in 1978 she was president of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors and announced on November 27 to a shocked citizenry the deaths of her political colleagues. Footage from that day was prominently featured in news coverage of Feinstein's death in September at the age of 90.

Milk's election to his supervisor seat in 1977 was a watershed moment for the city's LGBTQ community, as well as throughout California. It marked the first time an out candidate had won election in the Golden State.

He used the bully pulpit that came with being an elected official to his advantage the following year during the successful campaign to defeat Proposition 6, a statewide ballot initiative on the November 1978 ballot that would have banned LGBTQIA+ people and their supporters from working in California's public schools. Milk, who had graduated from the New York State College for Teachers in 1951, was a prominent presence in the media countering the homophobia being spewed by the backers of Prop 6.

In particular, Milk participated in a televised debate on September 15, 1978 with the initiative's author, then-state senator John Briggs. It was held in the gymnasium of Northgate High School in Walnut Creek, California, roughly 30 miles east of San Francisco.

To mark their now historic matchup, officials and teachers with the Mt. Diablo Unified School District, which the high school is a part of, unveiled a plaque in October to commemorate what would turn out to be one of Milk's last public appearances. It features a newspaper photo of Milk at the debate table and recognizes his "courageous leadership."

"I am so proud to be part of a school community that uplifts the experiences and contributions of marginalized groups," said U.S. history and ethnic studies teacher Meg Honey, who organized the plaque dedication event at the high school. "Harvey Milk helped protect the human rights of school employees, and it is time that his courageous leadership during the debate at Northgate High is honored."

In attendance at the October 16 ceremony was gay Contra Costa County Supervisor Ken Carlson. His election last November to his board's District 4 seat marked the first time an out candidate had won a supervisor race in the East Bay county.

"It is important to celebrate this historic event in our community and ensure that Harvey Milk's legacy continues to inspire future generations," noted Carlson.

Milk's life story and lasting legacy elicited a completely opposite reaction earlier in the year from conservative school leaders in a Southern California city. Members of the Temecula Valley Unified School District Board of Education attacked Milk, with board President Joseph Komrosky, Ph.D., calling him a pedophile.

A majority on the board voted to ban instructional materials that mentioned Milk, leading Governor Gavin Newsom, a former San Francisco supervisor and mayor, to threaten the school district with a $1.5 million fine. It prompted the board to reverse course, and also resulted in the five living gay men who succeeded Milk in representing the Castro at City Hall to condemn the Temecula school leaders in early June during Pride Month.

"The most shameful aspect of this vicious attack on Harvey's memory is the use of children in this assault. Two of us are parents, all of us are uncles, and we can attest to the impact of homophobia and transphobia on the mental health of vulnerable children in California and across the country," wrote state Senator Scott Wiener, former senator Mark Leno, Supervisor Rafael Mandelman, and former supervisors Bevan Dufty and Jeff Sheehy in their statement.

A former New Yorker who grew up on Long Island, Milk moved to San Francisco in 1972 and opened up a camera store in the Castro district that he would use as his headquarters for his various bids for public office. He became a prominent leader within the burgeoning LGBTQ neighborhood.

Milk echoes in current Middle East strife

Milk was also the first of a long line of gay Jewish male politicians in the city. His religious identity is also echoing today, as it has been invoked amid the debate over Israel's war with Hamas, the terrorist organization that controls Gaza and brutally attacked Israeli towns and military bases last month, killing an estimated 1,200 people.

In response, Israel has mounted a counteroffensive against Hamas and has sent troops into the Palestinian territory. It has faced international condemnation for cutting off power and water to Gaza, and for the mounting death toll that has surpassed 11,000 people, according to reports.

At an event held in support of Israel, Jewish Community Relations Council Chief Executive Officer Tyler Gregory, a gay man, spoke about Milk, whom he called a personal hero. He noted how Milk today is best known for his gay advocacy.

"Yet, what some LGBTQ+ Americans seem to forget was that his fight for LGBTQ+ rights was rooted in his understanding of Jewish liberation and the push to restore Jewish statehood in our indigenous homeland of Israel. In other words, his activism was rooted in Zionism. And so is mine," said Gregory at the Bay Area United rally held in late October at the Yerba Buena Gardens in downtown San Francisco. "Harvey Milk, like us, was a Zionist. He understood that Jewish and LGBTQ+ activism and liberation were and remain intersectional. In recent years, we have seen LGBTQ+ Americans turn their back on Israel and the Jewish community — and trample on Harvey's values and legacy."

Calling on rally attendees to educate others about the need to return the hundreds of people taken hostage by Hamas, Gregory repurposed Milk's most famous line.

"The weeks and months ahead are going to require all of us," he said. "So, let's all channel Harvey as we move forward: 'We gotta give 'em hope.'"

Meanwhile, the Harvey Milk LGBTQ Democratic Club of San Francisco has called on President Joe Biden to press Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu "for an immediate ceasefire to end the violence, to send and facilitate humanitarian aid into Gaza, and to exercise our country's diplomatic power to save lives." The progressive political group issued its statement in early November ahead of Biden coming to the Bay Area to attend a meeting for leaders of Pacific Rim countries.

"We condemn the Hamas massacre of civilians in Israel on October 7th and the kidnapping of more than 240 hostages. We condemn the Israeli military action in Gaza resulting in staggering numbers of civilians killed, maimed, and injured," stated the club. "All actions targeting civilians, regardless of their creed or origin, is a violation of international humanitarian law and the mass killing and forced displacement of a captive, stateless population shakes our common humanity."

The club will be hosting the annual Milk-Moscone candlelight vigil at 7 p.m. Monday, November 27, at Harvey Milk Plaza above the Castro Muni station at the corner of Castro and Market streets. The San Francisco Gay Men's Chorus and the Lesbian/Gay Freedom Band of San Francisco are scheduled to perform.

The event will also commemorate the anniversary of the Colorado Springs Club Q shooting that occurred last November 19-20. Five people were killed, and another 19 were injured, by the mass shooting at the Colorado LGBTQ nightclub.

"We encourage all members of the community to join us as we pay homage to the enduring spirit of Harvey Milk and Mayor George Moscone," stated Milk club President Jeffrey Kwong. "Their advocacy and courage continue to inspire us in our ongoing pursuit of equality and justice for all."

Political Notes, the notebook's online companion, will return Monday, December 4.

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Got a tip on LGBTQ politics? Call Matthew S. Bajko at (415) 829-8836 or email [email protected]

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