Political Notebook: Penn lends star power to Harvey Milk holiday bill
by Matthew S. Bajko
It may not get as brutal as his action sequences in The Terminator movies, but Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger finds himself caught up in a good old-fashioned Hollywood showdown.
Sean Penn, who recently won an Oscar for his portrayal of slain gay rights leader Harvey Milk in Milk, has joined the effort to convince the Republican movie-star-cum-politician to declare May 22, Milk's birthday, an unpaid holiday in the state of California.
Last year the governor vetoed a similar measure introduced by openly gay state Senator Mark Leno (D-San Francisco), reasoning efforts to honor Milk were better handled at the local level.
After Penn's Academy Award-winning performance in the film, Leno reached out to the Bay Area-based actor to lend some star power to his decision to once again seek the governor's support for the bill, known as SB572. It would designate Milk's birthday each year as a "day of special significance" and encourage schools to teach students about Milk's life and achievements.
The mere presence of Penn at the news conference held at famed Tosca Cafe in North Beach Tuesday, March 3 to tout the bill did the trick to ratchet up the pressure on the governor to change his mind. The publicity move brought out a pack of 30 print, radio, and television journalists and netted nationwide coverage.
"I trust Governor Schwarzenegger is certainly a reasonable man. He understands passing on prejudice is poisonous to future generations," Penn told the media scrum packed into the back area of the bar. "I believe Governor Schwarzenegger will sign and support this bill. I would never assume such ignorance of the governor that he would not want to revise his opinion."
In researching Milk's life for the movie, Penn said he learned that part of Milk's legacy is being an advocate for volunteering and helping out in society.
"There is a need for volunteerism in this state, country, and world," said Penn, who sees a Milk holiday as being a mechanism to instill similar values in students. "For that reason, it is not just important but essential we honor him in this way."
Stuart Milk, Milk's gay nephew, was also on hand to press the governor to support the bill. He revealed that in Penn's tuxedo pocket the night of the Oscars was a letter Harvey Milk had written to his brother two years prior to his death in which he wrote that "he wanted to be remembered as someone who made a difference in people's lives," said Stuart Milk.
"This bill allows us to teach tolerance, inclusion, and acceptance not just for gays and lesbians but for all people who are marginalized," said Stuart Milk, who has yet to speak directly with the governor about the legislation but hopes to do so this year. "This is a bill that teaches and educates at a time when fear is on the rise."
There is precedent for the governor honoring deceased politicians with their own special day on their birthdays. On February 6, Schwarzenegger signed a proclamation declaring that Friday "Ronald Reagan Day" after the deceased governor and president.
Rachel Cameron, a spokeswoman for the governor, told the Bay Area Reporter that he had not yet taken a position on the Milk holiday bill this year, as it had yet to reach his desk. She demurred when asked if Penn's support for the legislation would have an impact on the governor's decision.
"The governor does review each piece of legislation on its own merits," said Cameron.
Leno said this week he is confident he has the votes to get the bill back to the governor's desk by August. He said it is appropriate for Milk to be honored statewide in such a manner.
"It is important because too many people don't know what Harvey's life really meant. Clearly, the governor didn't know that when he vetoed our bill last year," said Leno, who held the event at the bar since it is named after Milk's favorite opera and is Penn's preferred watering hole in town.
During Milk's short time in the state, before an assassin's bullet killed him, the former New Yorker not only made history in San Francisco by becoming the first out person to serve on the Board of Supervisors, but Milk also helped to defeat Prop 6, a statewide anti-gay initiative that would have barred gay people from being teachers.
And his legacy was not solely based on fighting for LGBT rights, noted Leno.
"He fought for neighborhoods. He fought for labor. He fought for mass transit needs," said Leno. "He fought for all things good and fair."
There were some lighter moments to the press conference.
Openly gay state Assemblyman Tom Ammiano (D-San Francisco), who had a bit part in the movie and was friends with Milk, joked that the day the governor asks for the envelope with the bill in it to sign into law would be "the closest he ever comes to an Oscar." As for Penn, Ammiano joked that "Sean Penn helped me put the grass back in grassroots," a reference to his bill seeking to make marijuana a legal, taxable commodity.
And asked about running for office himself, Penn responded that his "closet is brimming with skeletons."
Other gay bills introduced
While the Milk bill has received the most press attention, it is not the only LGBT-related legislation introduced i
Equality California, the statewide LGBT advocacy organization, is sponsoring various measures that would be a boost to the gay community.
It has teamed up with Assemblyman Ted Lieu (D-Torrance) on the Equal ID Act, AB 1185, which would increase legal rights and recognition for transgender people. The bill would make it easier for transgender people born in California to obtain a new birth certificate reflecting their correct gender as well as any accompanying name change.
Openly gay Assemblyman John A. Perez (D-Los Angeles) introduced AB 1003, which is aimed at expanding access for LGBT service providers to a state fund within the California Emergency Management Agency that supports LGBT-specific domestic violence programs across the state. A $23 fee on new domestic partner registrations subsidizes the fund, which was created in 2006.
The bill eliminates the requirement that agencies such as LGBT centers have to provide shelter services in order to qualify for funding. According to EQCA, studies have shown that most LGBT domestic violence survivors are unlikely to seek services through shelters.
"This bill would help support innovative program models that are proven most effective in serving LGBT survivors of violence, such as those being pioneered by LGBT centers and organizations across the state," said Perez.
Ammiano is the lead author on AB382, the LGBT Prisoner Safety Act. It would add sexual orientation and gender identity to the current list of factors that should be considered when classifying and housing prisoners.
The bill is aimed at curbing abuse and assault against LGBT people in the prison system. It was developed to address concerns raised during a state Senate Public Safety Committee meeting held in San Francisco last December.
"All people deserve basic protections – including those serving time in our state prisons," said Ammiano. "No prisoner should fear for his or her life or be the target of abuse because of his or her sexual orientation or gender identity."
According to a recent study from the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, 67 percent of LGBT inmates report being sexually assaulted by another inmate, a rate 15 times higher than the overall prison population.
"All Californians deserve protection from violence," said Geoff Kors, EQCA executive director. "This bill seeks to end abuse and assault against LGBT prisoners, ensuring they receive equal and fair protection under the law."
Assemblyman Kevin de Leon (D-Los Angeles), chair of the Assembly Appropriations Committee, is the lead backer of AB103, which would allow two people, including same-sex couples who are not registered domestic partners, who co-own a home together to avoid an unfair property tax increase upon the death of one of the co-owners.
To qualify for the exemption, the bill will require that co-tenants have lived together in the home for at least one year. The bill is nearly identical to an EQCA-sponsored measure pushed by former state Senator Carole Migden (D-San Francisco) that passed the Legislature last year but was vetoed by Schwarzenegger.
"This is an important step to protect unmarried individuals when they are most vulnerable, after a loved one dies," stated de Leon.
Under existing law, whenever there is a change in home ownership the home is reassessed at its current market-price value, and the new owner must pay property taxes based on that value. Individuals are excluded from this law if they are the spouse, domestic partner, or relative of the deceased.
However, this exclusion does not protect co-tenants who are unmarried or unrelated, making same-sex couples particularly vulnerable to losing their homes when a partner dies, according to EQCA.
"Without this legislation, surviving partners are subject to unfair property tax reassessments that could force them out of the home they have lived in for years, if not decades," said Kors. "This situation is especially tragic for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender seniors who may not have retirement plans or supportive family members to rely on in times of need. This difficult economy and the high foreclosure rate make matters even worse."
Web Extra: For more queer political news, be sure to check http://www.ebar.com Monday mornings around 10 a.m. for Political Notes, the notebook's online companion. This week's column checks in on the District 8 supervisor race in 2010.
Keep abreast of the latest LGBT political news by following the Political Notebook on Twitter @ http://twitter.com/politicalnotes.
Got a tip on LGBT politics? Call Matthew S. Bajko at (415) 861-5019 or e-mail mailto:.