Milk airport idea faces turbulence
by Matthew S. Bajko
Renaming SFO as Harvey Milk San Francisco International Airport would be historic, but the idea has a rocky flight path to becoming reality.
First, six supervisors would need to vote to place the proposal on the November ballot. The legislation, so far, has five co-sponsors. Then a majority of San Francisco voters would need to back the idea.
Neither is a foregone conclusion.
Naming anything in San Francisco to honor a civic leader, whether they are LGBT or straight, isn't easy. And something as high profile as the city's airport is sure to have competing interests vying to bestow such recognition on any number of local politicians or community activists.
Past ideas to posthumously rename SFO on behalf of Congressman Tom Lantos (D-San Mateo), heralded for his work on international human rights, or former Mayor Joseph Alioto, who occupied Room 200 at City Hall from 1968 to 1976, never got off the ground.
"There are definitely many people who would deserve this recognition as well. The fact I want to name it after Harvey doesn't take anything away from them," said gay District 9 Supervisor David Campos , who on Tuesday introduced a charter amendment to rename San Francisco International after the slain LGBT rights leader.
The first gay man to win elective office in San Francisco, when he won a seat on the Board of Supervisors in November 1977, Milk became a nationally recognized leader for LGBT rights. Less than a year later, however, former Supervisor Dan White assassinated Milk and then-Mayor George Moscone inside City Hall the morning of November 27, 1978.
Campos said his proposal is a chance to educate the more than 40 million people who fly out of SFO each year about Milk's legacy and send a powerful message about civil rights.
"Harvey was all about giving people a message of hope," said Campos. "What a great opportunity to send this message of hope to people all over the world."
San Francisco also has a unique opportunity to be the first city in the world to name its airport after an LGBT leader, noted Campos.
Yet public reaction to his idea has been mixed.
While many LGBT leaders and community members, unsurprisingly, have expressed support, others have floated the names of a variety of people as alternative choices. The suggestions include the late lesbian astronaut Sally Ride, the late gay black civil rights leader Bayard Rustin, lesbian pioneers Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon, murdered transgender teenager Gwen Araujo, or the late disco star Sylvester.
Backers of any number of the city's political leaders, such as former Mayor Willie Brown, Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) and Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein , would likely love to rename SFO on their behalf and could work to squash the Milk naming proposal.
It also remains to be seen if the Milk idea will fly with the city's Asian community, whose voting bloc is significant and increasingly a force citywide. SFO bills itself as "the gateway to the Pacific," and the names of several Chinese leaders have already been put forward as naming choices.
Those in favor of renaming SFO on behalf of Milk acknowledge the proposal will likely encounter strong head winds against it.
"I am supportive of the idea, but people need to understand this isn't necessarily a slam dunk," said Cleve Jones , who was an aide and close confidante of Milk. "Powerful forces, I suspect, will attempt to derail this."
Gay District 8 Supervisor Scott Wiener , who is co-sponsoring Campos's proposal along with Supervisors John Avalos (D11), Eric Mar (D1), and Jane Kim (D6), told the Bay Area Reporter he has already heard from people with other ideas for the airport's name.
"The airport is probably the biggest possible naming opportunity in the city, so I am sure there are a lot of different opinions about whether it should be named for someone and whom it should be named for," said Wiener, adding that one person sent along a list of 40 possible people deserving of the honor. "Certainly, there are many worthy leaders who are no longer with us who would qualify. I am sure we will have a robust debate about this and that is a good thing."
Stuart Milk, Milk's gay nephew and a co-founder of the Harvey Milk Foundation, has endorsed the proposal and offered to help privately raise the money that would be needed for the name change.
"For San Francisco to be the first to name an airport after someone LGBT, I think, sends a huge message," Milk told the B.A.R. "I will do whatever I can do that would be useful to let people see why, and talk to people about why, this would be an important step."
Steven Moore, executive director of the National Gay Pilots Association, told the B.A.R. "it would be a great gesture to name SFO airport after someone who did something so monumental with regard to GLBT rights in this country. What better place to name the airport after him than where it all began?"
Jewelle Gomez, a lesbian who is president of the city's library commission, suggested naming SFO after both Milk and Moscone.
"From what I understand, it was a moment in our civic history when a gay politician and a straight politician were trying to accomplish something together in governance," she said. "This is a chance for people coming in to San Francisco to have to think about who were Milk and Moscone and have to learn a story that no other city can tell."
Allen Jones, a gay city resident, argued a better choice would be to name SFO after Oliver W. Sipple, a gay man credited with saving President Gerald R. Ford from an assassination attempt outside the St. Francis Hotel at Union Square in 1975. In an email to the B.A.R. Jones faulted Milk for outing Sipple to a reporter at the time and said it is time for the city to name something in honor of Sipple.
"Harvey Milk has received more than enough respect for what he has done for civil rights. However, if Campos is serious about honoring a homosexual, Sipple is the man," wrote Jones.
Web Extra: For more queer political news, be sure to check http://www.ebar.com Monday mornings at noon for Political Notes, the notebook's online companion. This week's column profiled Sacto's first out school board member.
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Got a tip on LGBT politics? Call Matthew S. Bajko at (415) 861-5019 or e-mail mailto:.