May 15, 2009
By David Valladolid
Official birthday celebrations for American icons are often an opportunity for a day off from work or school, and possibly a parade, but they are also what we call “teachable moments.” Dr. Martin Luther King’s birthday this past January coincided closely with the inauguration of our first African American president and provided the perfect platform for reviewing our nation’s difficult history and relationship with race. In March, the celebration of Cesar Chavez’s birthday reminded us of the struggle of mostly Latino and Filipino farm workers to achieve basic dignity in the fields of California and taught thousands of school children the meaning of “Si Se Puede.”
These celebrations, along with those for Presidents Lincoln and Washington, also remind us that while the road to a better America is often long and difficult, in the end we are a people that embrace justice and equality. But official recognition of these leaders does not mean that the work they started has been completed. Racism, both overt and subtle, continues to plague us as our nation grows even more diverse. Farm workers still often labor in hot fields without shade from the sun or clean water to drink. Cesar Chavez taught us by his words and actions that if we are committed to “social justice and civil rights” we must apply our struggle for everyone without exception. These celebrations speak to our better selves and ask us to re-dedicate our efforts to human dignity.
On May 22, we have yet another such opportunity when San Diegans committed to justice and equality observe the birthday of slain San Francisco Supervisor Harvey Milk. Milk was the first openly gay man elected to public office in California and then later became a martyr for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) rights. He was inspired by the everyday injustices he watched his community suffer and by his vision of a better America in which all could live their lives in freedom and dignity.
A Korean War veteran who was a diving instructor at San Diego’s 32nd Street Naval Station, a high school teacher and insurance salesman, and an early supporter of Republican Barry Goldwater, Milk was an unlikely candidate for the role of gay icon and martyr. The San Francisco in which he finally settled and opened a camera shop would hardly be recognized by us today. A person could be evicted from his apartment for having an intimate gay relationship in the privacy of his or her own home. The SFPD regularly raided the Castro District’s gay bars and beat patrons or arrested them on so-called morals charges. But the social upheaval of the sixties challenged many of the old ways of thinking and Milk was changed along with it. He decided it was time for the LGBT community to have a seat at the table of government.
A key element of Milk’s success was his forging of coalitions with unlikely partners. He brought the Teamsters and the Castro’s gay bars together in a fight against beer distributors, leading to more rights for truck drivers and expanding the number of gay truck drivers. He supported San Francisco Mayor George Moscone, who was assassinated at the same time as Milk, in appointing a new police chief who targeted racial insensitivity on the police force and also opened the department to additional gay police officers. He knew that no one changes history alone.
But Milk’s road to the Board of Supervisors was a long and bumpy one. He ran and lost several times. A national backlash against local ordinances mandating non-discrimination against gays and lesbians headlined by the famous Anita Bryant effort in Dade County, Florida was demoralizing. A statewide ballot measure in California attempted to ban gay and lesbian public school teachers, although it was ultimately defeated on Election Day. Milk received hate mail and death threats on a regular basis. For a very long time, the defeats outnumbered the successes.
Milk was finally elected and broke the barrier for openly LGBT candidates in California. Then, less than a year later, he was shot and killed. As the shock sank in, members of the LGBT community began to lose hope. But those who remembered Milk’s own words from his famous “Hope” stump speech continued to fight for equality. Speaking of gay and lesbian kids living far from San Francisco, Milk said,
The only thing they have to look forward to is hope. And you have to give them hope. Hope for a better world, hope for a better tomorrow, hope for a better place to come to if the pressures at home are too great. Hope that all will be all right. Without hope, not only gays, but the blacks, the seniors, the handicapped, the us’es will give up.
On May 22nd, San Diegans who believe in hope will come together at a breakfast to honor Harvey Milk. The event will be at the Holiday Inn Embarcadero (1335 No. Harbor Dr., San Diego, CA 92101) from 7:30 am to 9 am. We will not be just gay and lesbian activists, but also Latino and African-American activists, members of the labor movement and the business community, Republicans and Democrats, people of every faith, and many others dedicated to justice and equality. Milk would approve of our partnership.
We will gather at a time when a slim majority of California voters has taken away equal marriage rights for gay and lesbian couples and the state Supreme Court seems poised to uphold that vote. But, at the same time, Iowans in America’s heartland have established equal marriage rights and even unbending New Englanders in Vermont have taken a stand for marriage equality. A “Civil Marriage is a Civil Right!” Love is a universal quality that we must all promote and pursue. To place limits on it is a contradiction of the worst kind. The road is still long and bumpy, but remembering Harvey Milk can be one of those teachable moments for us all. He didn’t give up. King and Chavez didn’t give up. Neither did Washington and Lincoln. And today we honor them for helping us reach across the divide of fear, intolerance and discrimination toward freedom, and equality. Please join us to stand for dignity and justice for all.