Issue:  Vol. 48 / No. 11 / 15 March 2018

Political Notebook: Week of events will commemorate Milk


A scene from the candlelight vigil that was shot for the Milk movie earlier this year. Photo: Jane Philomen Cleland
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A host of events next week will commemorate the life and legacy of gay pioneer Harvey Milk, likely catapulting the gay rights leader into the national consciousness at a time when the LGBT community has taken to the streets to demand equal treatment under the law.

Thirty years ago next Thursday, November 27, Milk's life was brutally cut short by an assassin's bullet. Former board colleague Dan White killed Milk, the first out gay man to be elected to public office in a major U.S. city, and Mayor George Moscone in their offices inside San Francisco's ornate City Hall.

The murders stunned a city still reeling from the mass forced suicide at cult leader Jim Jones's jungle compound in Guyana and the killings of Congressman Leo Ryan and four others at a nearby airstrip by followers of the Peoples Temple leader.

Milk's death stunned the LGBT community into mourning and kicked off a dark decade for the Castro; the AIDS epidemic would devastate the gay neighborhood in the ensuing years. Today, a new generation of LGBT people can barely recall Milk and those troubling times.

The release next week of a new biopic about Milk's life will re-introduce the gay rights hero's life and struggle to win public office to a national audience. Starring Sean Penn in the title role, the movie Milk opens in theaters Wednesday, November 26.

The movie's release coincides with the national uproar over the passage of Proposition 8, the anti-gay marriage constitutional amendment approved by California voters November 4.

"I have a wide range of feelings. I am so enthused about Milk. It will have a huge impact, particularly in light of the passage of Prop 8," said openly gay Supervisor Bevan Dufty. "I think Harvey's legacy and lesson are 100 percent relevant to our current struggles. I am hopeful his life will inform the strategy we need going forward to secure not just marriage equality but other rights as well."

The movie already is garnering Oscar buzz and praise for its historical accuracy. During the scenes where Milk is shown tape-recording the message to be played should he be assassinated, Penn is seated at the kitchen table that Milk owned and is now part of the GLBT Historical Society's archive collection.

"The film is wonderful and I think it will help empower the community. It is a classic example of history empowering our community," said Paul Boneberg, the society's executive director.

Boneberg was living in San Jose during the late 1970s and recalls hearing several of Milk's speeches he gave back then. Watching the movie, he said he was struck to hear those lines repeated in the film, especially Milk's opening line of "I am hear to recruit you" for many of his public speeches.

"For the script to adopt those is remarkable," said Boneberg.

Its message and retelling of Milk's successful campaign against Prop 6, the Briggs initiative that would have banned gay teachers from the state's public schools, is prescient, said Boneberg.

"I also think it is good timing for the community. We are in this struggle around Prop 8 and marriage. It is wonderful for us to remember the campaign that Harvey ran and that he won," he said.

The same day as the movie premieres a new historical exhibit will have a soft opening in the heart of the Castro and feature the suit Milk wore the day he was shot. Also on display will be the pen Moscone used 30 years ago to sign into law San Francisco's gay rights ordinance.

"It is a prominent scene in the film," noted Boneberg. "Harvey's suit will be displayed with respect. It will not be on a mannequin" as it was during an earlier exhibit on Milk's life.

Boneberg said the society overruled any macabre reservations about including the suit in the show, titled "Passionate Struggle: A Century of GLBT History."

"The belief was Harvey so clearly knew he was going to be assassinated and had a message to people if he was assassinated around coming out of the closet. We felt it should be shown as a continuation in the context of that message," said Boneberg.

Two days after the movie and museum openings, Milk's family, friends, and admirers will gather for the annual candlelight march commemorating his life. It was pushed back to Friday, November 28 due to the anniversary of the assassinations falling on Thanksgiving Day this year.

The start of the march has also been relocated from the Castro to City Hall this year, for it also coincides with the 30th anniversary of the first performance by the Gay Men's Chorus. The chorus had been practicing for months prior to the killings and made its public debut on the steps of City Hall the night of November 27, 1978 at the candlelight vigil honoring Milk and Moscone.

The chorus will reprise its performance of Mendelssohn's "Thou, Lord, Our Refuge" from that night this year. Milk's gay nephew Stuart is expected to speak and Moscone's family has also been invited to this year's commemoration, which will begin at 4 p.m. next Friday.

Also performing will be members of the Lesbian/Gay Chorus of San Francisco, the San Francisco Lesbian/Gay Freedom Band, and GLAM Youth Choir. Holly Near will sing her song "For Our Lives," which she composed in reaction to learning of Milk's assassination.

Following the City Hall performances and speeches will be a candlelight march to the site of Milk's old camera shop and campaign office in the Castro.

"I think it is important we always remember what happened that day. Like with most things in our history, we can either forget or the facts change," said Kathleen McGuire, the chorus's artistic director and conductor. "There is a lot of transient population in San Francisco, so for those of us who have been around for a while it is important we tell these stories and commemorate it so it doesn't happen again."

Organizers are expecting several hundred people this year for the annual march.

"There are still a lot of important things Milk stands for and signifies in our memory and history. There are always going to be the challenges of coming out, that is never not going to be a challenge. In a lot of ways that was what he was about," said Rafael Mandelman , president of the Harvey Milk LGBT Democratic Club, which helps coordinate the annual event. "I think it is an important part of history. I hope people getting re-engaged in politics and activism will come out and participate."

The weeklong series of events recalling Milk's contributions to the fight for LGBT rights begins Tuesday with the dedication of the Treasure Island Job Corps Center Administration and Health and Wellness Building as the Harvey Milk Administration Building. It is the first federal building to be named for an openly gay person.

Stuart Milk works for the company that operates the center, which is home to nearly 800 at-risk youth. He will be joined by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) at the ceremony to unveil a bust of Milk. In an interview this summer Stuart Milk told the Bay Area Reporter that he had wanted to place a copy of the bust of his uncle that was installed in City Hall at the jobs center since it works with many LGBT youth.

"I think it would be pretty exciting to have Harvey on U.S. Department of Labor land ... to inspire the youth there," Milk had said at the time.

The dedication ceremony will take place at 1:30 p.m. Tuesday, November 25 at the center, located in Building 442 at 655 H Avenue on Treasure Island.

The Castro museum space is located at 499 Castro Street at the corner of 18th Street. It will be open from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. seven days a week except for holidays. Admission costs $3.

Web Extra: For more queer political news, be sure to check Monday mornings around 10 a.m. for Political Notes, the notebook's online companion. This week's column reports on death threats a No on Prop 8 supporter in San Jose received.

Keep abreast of the latest LGBT political news by following the Political Notebook on Twitter @

Got a tip on LGBT politics? Call Matthew S. Bajko at (415) 861-5019 or e-mail mailto:.

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