On the surface, the new tenant at the storefront where Harvey Milk waged his historic political campaign would seem like the last organization to anger people in the gay community.
The Human Rights Campaign, the United States’ largest gay rights lobbying group, wants to open up an information center and a gift shop in the building that would pay tribute to the slain gay rights leader.
But Milk’s friends and admirers are so incensed at the group taking over the slain San Francisco supervisor’s stomping grounds that they would rather see a Starbucks there, underscoring the tensions that exist within the various factions of the gay rights movement.
The organization is a frequent target of criticism from gay rights activists who consider its mainstream, “inside the Beltway” style ineffective. They believe the organization’s philosophy of incremental progress in the gay rights movement runs completely counter to the uncompromising message of gay pride championed by Milk.
“It’s spitting in the face of Harvey’s memory,” said AIDS Memorial Quilt founder Cleve Jones, who received his political education at Milk’s side in the 1970s.
“What’s next? Removing the Mona Lisa’s face and replacing it with the Wal-Mart smiley face?” asked Bil Browning, the founder of a popular gay issues blog.
The Washington-based nonprofit organization announced last week that it was moving its San Francisco Action Center and gift store into the site of Milk’s old Castro Camera.
It’s a historic site in the gay rights community. A sidewalk plaque outside that marks the spot’s historical significance and encases some of Milk’s ashes is a popular stop for visitors making pilgrimages to San Francisco gay landmarks.
In the 32 years since Milk was assassinated at City Hall along with Mayor George Moscone, the building has housed a clothing store, a beauty supply shop, and most recently, a housewares emporium.
HRC President Joe Solmonese said the new location will stock items bearing Milk’s words and image, with a portion of the proceeds going to a local elementary school named in Milk’s honor and the GLBT Historical Society. The organization also plans to preserve a Milk mural the previous tenants installed, Solmonese said.
“People are rightly protective of the legacy of Harvey Milk, and we intend to do our part to honor that legacy,” Human Rights Campaign spokesman Michael Cole-Schwartz said. “Bringing an LGBT civil rights presence to the space that has previously been several for-profit retail outlets is a worthwhile goal.”
Not according to activists like Jones and Dustin Lance Black, the screenwriter who won an Oscar for “Milk” – the 2008 Sean Penn movie about the first openly gay man elected to a major elected office in the U.S.
During his life, Milk railed against well-heeled gay leaders he regarded as assimilationists and elitists. Black devoted two scenes in “Milk” to the subject. Some of the leading activists he crossed swords with went on to launch the Human Rights Campaign, which sometimes is criticized for focusing on lavish fundraisers and political access at the expense of results, Jones said.
“He was not an ‘A-Gay’ and had no desire to be an A-Gay. He despised those people and they despised him,” he said. “That, to me, is the crowd HRC represents. Don’t try to wrap yourself up in Harvey Milk’s mantle and pretend you are one of us.”
The Human Rights Campaign has been struggling to regain its credibility with gay activists who favor a more grassroots approach since at least early 2008, when the group agreed to endorse a federal bill that included job protections for gays and lesbians, but not transgender people.
The disillusionment grew later that year with the passage of a same-sex marriage ban in California. Although HRC donated $3.4 million to fight Proposition 8, the devastating loss provoked young gay activists to take to the streets and to question the organizing and messaging abilities of established gay rights groups.
Since then, HRC has been accused of taking too soft an approach with President Barack Obama and the Congress that until last month’s election was controlled by Democrats. To some, the group’s failings were epitomized by the U.S. Senate failure last week, for the second time this year, to repeal the ban on gays serving openly in the U.S. military.
Black said HRC’s failure to talk to anyone close to Milk before it leased the Castro Street storefront demonstrates that it is out of touch. He and Jones think the space would be put to better use as a drop-in center for gay and lesbian youth, or if HRC partnered with another local nonprofit to ensure its sales benefit San Francisco.
“If any LGBTQ political organization is to move into Harvey’s old shop, there is a higher standard to be met, because such a move begs comparisons,” Black said. “Because it has become a tourist destination, whoever moves in that’s a political organization is in some way adopting Harvey as their own.”
HRC creative director Don Kiser understands the concerns and says he is open to suggestions, but thinks the criticism is overstated. The group obtains about one-third of the new names on its mailing lists from visitors to its retail stores in San Francisco, Provincetown, Massachusetts, and Washington. Each tourist who goes in to buy a Harvey Milk T-shirt or an HRC tote bag is a potential activist, Kiser says.
“They live in small towns in Texas and flyover states. Those are the people we need to help find the spirit that Harvey Milk had,” he said. “If they can go back and take a little of the spirit the Castro has, we will see sea changes.”