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Proposed Harvey Milk Day creates quite a stir

The proposal to honor the slain gay rights pioneer passes the Legislature. Conservatives are calling on Gov. Schwarzenegger to veto it.

September 04, 2009|Eric Bailey

SACRAMENTO — The legacy of Harvey Milk has had a very good year.

Three decades after California's first openly gay elected leader was gunned down in San Francisco City Hall, Milk has been celebrated by an Oscar-winning film, named to the state Hall of Fame and lauded by President Obama.

But despite those posthumous accolades, a legislative push to create a day of recognition for Milk became one of the most contentious issues in the Capitol this year. The proposal, which passed the Legislature on Thursday, is among more than a dozen gay rights bills offered in the aftermath of Proposition 8, last November's ballot initiative that outlawed same-sex marriage in California.

Also on Thursday, the Assembly passed a bill that steps back onto Proposition 8 turf: It would require California to recognize same-sex marriages performed in other states before the initiative passed. The Senate passed another bill that would expand protections for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender prison inmates. And lawmakers had already approved a resolution calling on Congress to repeal the decade-old Defense of Marriage Act.

One proposal before the Legislature would let transgender Californians alter their birth certificates to reflect a new identity. Others address property rights, employment issues and AIDS.

But the issue of a Harvey Milk Day -- a strictly symbolic gesture -- caused by far the largest public outpouring.

Waves of phone calls, e-mails and faxes have been arriving in the Capitol for weeks from gay rights advocates and conservative Christians. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's office created a special phone line to handle the volume.

"There are days of special significance for John Muir, for the California poppy," said the proposal's author, Sen. Mark Leno (D-San Francisco). "Why would we not have such a day for this unique California hero?"

Conservatives are pushing hard for Schwarzenegger to veto Leno's legislation, which would proclaim Milk's May 22 birthday a day of recognition and encourage schools to consider commemorating his life.

Opponents say that singling out Milk would send the wrong message to children by endorsing homosexuality and lionizing a man with a controversial personal history. Some raise the specter of schools holding mock gay weddings and gay pride parades on campus.

"Harvey Milk is and was a terrible role model for kids," Randy Thomasson, president of SaveCalifornia.com, said before a Thursday news conference outside the Capitol.

Thomasson calls Milk a "public liar" because Milk twisted the truth while running for office about his military career, and a "sexual anarchist" who had multiple boyfriends, one as young as 16.

Flanked by supporters, Thomasson waved a copy of "The Mayor of Castro Street: The Life and Times of Harvey Milk," a book by Randy Shilts, a journalist who chronicled the gay-rights movement through the 1980s before dying of AIDS. Thomasson used Shilts' 1982 biography as his chief reference for a barrage of e-mails and press releases to fuel opposition to Leno's measure.

Kimberly Kennedy-Woods, an Elk Grove mother of two young sons and one of several parents who joined Thomasson on Thursday, vowed to pull her sons from public school if a Harvey Milk Day becomes a reality.

"I do not send my children to school to be sexually indoctrinated," she said.

Nearby, Alice Kessler of Equality California, a gay rights organization that fought Proposition 8, watched silently.

As Thomasson lambasted Milk, Kessler said, shaking her head: "I think it's nonsense and it's inflammatory. When we honor civil rights leaders, we honor them for their public service, not for their personal lives. This is just a red herring."

Milk, she said, never had a chance to live beyond the 1970s, and his lifestyle reflects that more formative era in the gay rights movement. Those were the days before AIDS, before the push for gay marriage and the commitment that act represents to same-sex couples.

"I think Harvey Milk's life has to be put in context to his times," she said.

The intensity of the debate -- more than 100,000 e-mails, calls and letters to the governor's office -- has put Schwarzenegger in a sticky political position.

Republican lawmakers are eager to see the governor wield his veto pen, as Schwarzenegger did last year when a virtually identical Harvey Milk Day bill reached his desk. At that time, the governor reasoned that celebrations of Milk's life should remain a local matter.

But in the months since, Milk's profile has risen even higher.

A few weeks ago, Schwarzenegger and his wife, Maria Shriver, announced that Milk would be one of a dozen men and women -- including pilot Chuck Yeager, entertainer Carol Burnett and "Star Wars" filmmaker George Lucas -- inducted into the California Hall of Fame this year.

In July, Obama awarded Milk a posthumous Medal of Freedom. And in February, Sean Penn won a best actor Oscar for the title role in the critically acclaimed film "Milk."

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