Political Notebook: In addition to hope, Milk's other mantra was, 'You've gotta vote!'

  • by Matthew S. Bajko, Assistant Editor
  • Wednesday May 15, 2024
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A lithograph featuring Harvey Milk and the USNS Harvey Milk, commissioned by the company that built the naval ship, hangs in Captain J. James White's office aboard the vessel. Photo: Matthew S. Bajko
A lithograph featuring Harvey Milk and the USNS Harvey Milk, commissioned by the company that built the naval ship, hangs in Captain J. James White's office aboard the vessel. Photo: Matthew S. Bajko

Over the decades the late gay San Francisco supervisor Harvey Milk has become well known for his line, "You've gotta give 'em hope." Less famously, Milk's other mantra was, "You've gotta vote!"

It was a frequent topic of his in the Milk Forum columns he wrote for the Bay Area Reporter during the mid-1970s. As the Political Notebook first noted in 2021, Milk wasn't shy about lambasting his gay readers for their lack of involvement in politics or failure to vote on Election Day.

"If we are ever to see the end of repression and discrimination, we have to start to use our votes for the rights of Gay people and not for the personal gains of a few individuals and their organizations," wrote Milk, who used gay as a catchall term since back then the LGBTQ acronym was not in use, in his July 22, 1976 column.

Two years earlier, in his October 2, 1974 column, Milk zeroed in on that fall's reelection bid by then-Attorney General Evelle J. Younger, warning readers the Republican would prosecute people for smoking marijuana and "having sex with a consenting adult." Milk noted he had invited city election workers to come to his Castro Camera shop to register voters.

"If you don't register, you can't vote. If you don't vote, a friend of yours' might just get caught and go to jail. It will be too late to complain then," wrote Milk a month prior to seeing Younger win his last term as the state's top prosecutor. (He lost his bid for governor in 1978 to Democrat Jerry Brown.)

As Californians, and the LGBTQ community the world over, celebrate Harvey Milk Day on May 22, what would have been the civil rights leader's 94th birthday, those who worked with and knew Milk are pointing to his clarion call for people to head to the voting booth. They're doing so with an eye toward this year's presidential election on November 5, in which Democratic President Joe Biden is aiming to keep his predecessor, Donald Trump, from returning to the White House, and control of Congress will once again be up for grabs.

"He was about hope and he was about voting and that's what we have to keep, the hope," said Congressmember Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco), who was the northern chair of the California Democratic Party in 1977 when Milk won his seat to represent the Castro, Noe Valley, and Haight-Ashbury neighborhoods at City Hall. "When people say where is hope? We say it is where it has always been, sitting there between faith and goodness of others that we can get something done."

Anne Kronenberg, center, a former aide to Harvey Milk, stood next to Rear Admiral Richard W. Meyer of the U.S. Third Fleet aboard the USNS Harvey Milk March 29 in San Francisco. Photo: Matthew S. Bajko  

Pelosi was one of the speakers who pointed out Milk's emphasis about voting in their remarks at the March 29 welcome ceremony for the USNS Harvey Milk marking the naval fleet replenishment oiler's maiden voyage to San Francisco. Former Milk campaign manager Anne Kronenberg recalled how he used to remind people to exercise their right to vote back in the 1970s.

At the time Milk was rising in power from a business owner and community leader in the then-burgeoning LGBTQ Castro neighborhood. His supervisorial election in 1977 marked the first time an openly gay person won elected office in the city and state.

"The other thing he harped on constantly was you have to vote, because that is how you empower yourself," said Kronenberg during her remarks at the naval event. "That is how you gain that power."

It is particularly important that people vote this year, she said.

"With everything going on in the world today, and how much disarray we are in, we need that hope and we need to be able to vote and make a difference, and we can do that as individuals," said Kronenberg, who after working on Milk's successful third bid for supervisor joined him as one of his aides at City Hall in 1978.

Many LGBTQ leaders and advocates are concerned the myriad gains the community has achieved during Biden's first term will be wiped away during a second Trump administration, should the Republican win reelection in November. They also worry Trump would appoint even more conservative justices to the U.S. Supreme Court who could rule to end marriage rights for same-sex couples.

Such a fear is so great in California that LGBTQ lawmakers pushed to add to the fall ballot an amendment aimed at excising language defining marriage as between a man and a woman that was added to the state constitution after the passage of Proposition 8 in 2008. They did so despite federal court rulings declaring the anti-LGBTQ ballot measure was unconstitutional, which paved the way for same-sex couples to again wed in the Golden State during Pride Month in 2013.

"You must stay engaged. Because we have marriage equality doesn't mean the fight ends," stressed Stuart Milk, the gay nephew of Milk, in his remarks during the Milk ship event.

He noted that his uncle routinely talked about the need for people to be publicly engaged.

"It is very important to note that where we are today is, as my uncle would say, is a pivotal moment," said Stuart Milk, who now heads the Harvey Milk Foundation to keep his relative's legacy alive. "There is a great video of his last recorded TV interview where he said, 'Everyone must be engaged.'"

Milk Day events
Milk's life and political career were tragically cut short the morning of November 27, 1978 when disgruntled former supervisor Dan White gunned down Milk and then-mayor George Moscone in City Hall. Yet, in death, Milk would become a global LGBTQ icon.

California legislators in 2009 declared his birthday a day of special significance to annually be observed. Since then an increasing number of jurisdictions across the Golden State mark the occasion with various events.

In San Francisco, Castro leaders and LGBTQ advocates will be marking Harvey Milk Day early since it falls on a Wednesday this year. The annual community celebration will be held from 1 to 5 p.m. Sunday, May 19.

Attendees are invited to gather at 573 Castro Street, a city landmark due to it once housing Milk's business, campaign HQ, and upstairs residence, at 1 p.m. for a processional march to Jane Warner Plaza at 17th and Castro streets led by the San Francisco Lesbian/Gay Freedom Band, the city's official band. (Back in 1978 it had made "a splash" by marching up Market Street with Milk's convertible in the San Francisco Gay Freedom Day Parade, as the band notes on its website.)

At the public plaza in front of the historic Twin Peaks gay bar will be speeches, music, and other goings-on that afternoon. Also taking place from noon to 5 p.m. that Sunday will be the neighborhood's art-focused Castro Stroll event along the sidewalks of Castro Street from Market to 19th and 18th Street from Collingwood to Noe.

"May 19th is going to be an extra special exciting day in the Castro as we also celebrate Harvey Milk's birthday. The LGBTQ Freedom Band will play in front of Harvey's Camera Shop (573 Castro) starting at 1 p.m. and then will march up Castro to Jane Warner Plaza," noted Castro Merchants Association President Terry Asten Bennett, a straight ally whose family has long owned Cliff's Variety on the 400 block of Castro Street. "The theme of this year's event is coalition building. This is a fun-filled way to learn about Harvey Milk's legacy and carry it forward."

LGBTQ SF mayoral forum
The Harvey Milk LGBTQ Democratic Club is hosting an LGBTQ Mayoral Town Hall May 21 with all five of the top Democratic candidates seeking to become San Francisco's next mayor on the November 5 ballot. The event next Tuesday will take place from 6:30 to 9:10 p.m. at the First Unitarian Universalist Church located at 1167 Franklin Street.

Those wishing to attend in person can RSVP online here. To register to watch the forum remotely click here.

Web Extra: For more queer political news, be sure to check http://www.ebar.com Monday mornings for Political Notes, the notebook's online companion. This week's column reported on the gay candidate running in November to be mayor of Tracy, California.

Keep abreast of the latest LGBTQ political news by following the Political Notebook on Threads @ https://www.threads.net/@matthewbajko.

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

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