MILKING IT | Activists make the most of first Harvey Milk Day

Lisa Neff, Staff writer

‘Get Milk” read the T-shirt slogan that curved over a black-on-red image of Harvey Milk.

“I made it myself,” 17-year-old Logan Pierce boasted. “In art class.”

In a business class, the high school student picked up a few tips on how to sell the T-shirts at the first annual Harvey Milk Festival, held May 22 in the Rosemary District of downtown Sarasota, Fla.

“Harvey, he was a cool dude,” the young, gay entrepreneur said.

Nearby, mom Maggie Pierce looked on. “Logan said he wanted to come out here and be involved,” said mom. “I think it’s good, wholesome.”

Wholesome could describe the Harvey Milk Festival and many other commemorative events held nationwide May 22, on what would have been Milk’s 80th birthday.

Milk never turned 49.

His prophesy of a bullet entering his brain came true Nov. 27, 1978. Milk, who had served just 10 months as a San Francisco supervisor, and San Francisco Mayor George Moscone were gunned down at city hall by Supervisor Dan White.

Life and legend

In life, Milk was an activist and an agitator, and he was among the first openly gay candidates elected to office in the United States and the first openly gay candidate elected in California. But not until later in life – he was 22 years older than Logan Pierce when he became active in civic politics and gay rights.

Milk was born on Long Island, N.Y., May 22, 1930, and went through school hiding his homosexuality. He served in the U.S. Navy during the Korean War and, upon his discharge in 1955, went to work as a school teacher, then as an insurance actuary and later a Wall Street researcher.

Milk is said to have found himself and his purpose in San Francisco in the early 1970s. There the counter-culture fed the gay liberation movement and flower-power melted Milk’s conservatism. He and a boyfriend arrived on the West Coast with the traveling company of the musical “Hair” in 1969 and, after some drifting years, Milk permanently settled in San Francisco in the early 1970s.

By 1973, he and boyfriend Scott Smith were the proprietors of a camera shop on Castro Street and Milk was taking an interest in local, state and federal politics. He ran that year for supervisor and lost. He ran again for supervisor in 1975 and lost. He ran for the California Assembly in 1976 and lost.

And then came 1977, the year of Anita Bryant’s anti-gay Save Our Children crusade in Florida and of the anti-gay Briggs Initiative in California. Milk was at the front of a five-mile protest march against the Christian fundamentalist crusade, and he also was ahead in the race to represent the Castro on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors.

In November that year, Milk defeated 16 other candidates for the seat and, after his swearing-in, entered city hall with his current boyfriend.

“You can stand around and throw bricks at Silly Hall or you can take it over. Well, here we are,” Milk said, according to biographer Randy Shilts.

Ten months after he was sworn in, Milk was shot twice in the head and killed, along with Moscone. Dianne Feinstein, today a U.S. senator, became acting mayor. She announced, from the steps of city hall, “Today San Francisco has experienced a double tragedy of immense proportions. As president of the board of supervisors, it is my duty to inform you that both Mayor Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk have been shot and killed … and the suspect is Supervisor Dan White.”

In death, Milk became an icon.

“He gave his life so that others could live openly and freely,” said California Assemblymember Tom Ammiano, D-San Francisco. “He hoped for a time when all people, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity, could be equal.”

Harvey  Milk Day poster

Honoring Milk

For several years, activists and lawmakers campaigned in California to establish Harvey Milk Day. Last year, Milk got his day when Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed the legislation into law. Also in 2009:

  • “Milk,” the biopic starring Sean Penn, earned Oscars.
  • Schwarzenegger inducted Milk into the California Hall of Fame.
  • Barack Obama awarded Milk a posthumous Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Harvey Milk Day, provided for in legislation promoted by Equality California and authored by California Sen. Mark Leno, D-San Francisco, is a State Day of Recognition and was proposed as a day for California public schools to focus on “remembering the life of Harvey Milk, recognizing his accomplishments and familiarizing pupils with the contributions he made to this state.”

“This special day provides us with the unique opportunity to educate Californians about a true American hero who believed that all men and women are created equal and who lived and died by those convictions,” Leno said.

But Harvey Milk Day fell on a Saturday this year, and much more activity took place outside the classrooms.

In California, more than 1,000 volunteers knocked on doors to build support for the freedom to marry. Dustin Lance Black, who wrote the “Milk” screenplay, was among those who canvassed.

“Everything I know about Harvey Milk tells me that he would want us to be on our feet fighting for our equality,” Black said.

In Sacramento, Calif., there was a “Milk and Cookies” panel discussion on Milk and the movement, as well as a rally at the state Capitol. A community picnic took place in Fresno. In Los Angeles, Sharon and Kelly Osbourne hosted a private Harvey Milk Day reception and, in West Hollywood, volunteers turned out for a day of community service. Meanwhile, in Palm Springs, celebrants joined in a happy hour at a Hamburger Mary’s.

On the other side of the country, at the White House, Milk Day demonstrators joined in color-coded protest, wearing red for HIV/AIDS awareness, orange for the freedom to marry, green for lifting the military ban, gray for immigration rights, white to represent people of faith and black to represent the lack of diversity in the LGBT movement.

Elsewhere on the holiday, LGBT groups hosted screenings of “Milk,” organized concerts and festivals and sponsored picnics and protests. A number of events were coordinated through Equality Across America (EAA), which said activities took place in 20 states.

The Sarasota festival, one of the EAA events, was a nine-hour celebration of music, visual and performance art, food and drink, commerce and politics. Many in the crowd were young – in their teens and 20s – and had learned about Milk from the 2008 movie.

“He was like the first gay icon who wasn’t a celebrity,” said Jill McKay.

Pierce said, “He really shook things up. That’s what it takes to change the world.”

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