In what some grassroots gay activists are calling an "insult," the Human Rights Campaign is about to move into the location of Harvey Milk's old camera store at 575 Castro Street. It will be the new San Francisco "action center" providing information on the work of the HRC and a store offering HRC merchandise.
In a press release, the organization is painting the move as a marriage of two greats in the gay civil rights fight: "We are the beneficiaries of [Milk's] groundbreaking activism and are honored to be part of the future he envisioned," said HRC president Joe Solomonese.
But some gay advocates say that's a bit of a lofty declaration. Let's remember that Milk was actually effective in rousing San
Francisco's gay civil rights movement in the 1970s. As for the HRC,
many accuse the country's biggest gay civil rights organization of
"I can definitely tell you the grassroots community is very frustrated and feels it's an insult for the HRC to be in that space," says Robin McGehee, the director of GetEQUAL, a gay rights org that stages direct protests. "I hope by being that space every day they're reminded by the direct actions and protests that Harvey Milk and Cleve Jones spurred out of that spot and never compromise equality."
After Prop. 8 passed, pundits lined up blasting the campaign (of which HRC
was one of the main organizers) for failing to reach out to communities
of color, launching TV commercials that didn't even have gay couples in them, failing to get clergy on their side, and so forth. Gay
progressives have attacked HRC for being too patient waiting for change on Don't Ask Don't Tell (DADT) and the Defense of Marriage Act.
"In our opinion," McGehee says, "the HRC as a body is way too close to the White House and the president in particular and that compromised relationship means that you're put in a position where there's not an unequivocal stance demanding equality." McGehee predicts that DADT won't pass during this Congressional session. "This group that has millions of dollars and the access they have with the White House and Congress should be able to get federal legislation passed and not leaving us sitting less than equal."
Back in 2008, queer activists protested the HRC's banquet in Boston back ater the HRC failed to lobby to include protections for gender identity in the federal Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA).
Locally, San Francisco Human Rights Commission president and transgender activist Theresa Sparks returned an Equality Award from the HRC in 2008 after the perceived slight. Yet Sparks tells SF Weekly she has a better view of HRC as it now advocates for including transgender people in the ENDA bill, and supported last year's hate crimes bill which included transgender people.
"They started representing us and more aggressively supporting transgender people," Sparks says. "They're the largest LGBT advocacy organization in the country and it's appropriate for them to be there [in Milk's shop]."
The Harvey Milk connections don't end with just the location: The HRC will be preserving a mural dedicated to Milk from the previous tenants, and will be creating a new photo mural of Milk inside the store. While the store is set for a soft opening in January, the grand opening will be on none other than Harvey Milk Day in May.
In addition to the HRC's own merchandise,
they'll be selling stuff with the "words and images of Harvey Milk,"
which will be donated to local organizations like the Harvey Milk Civil
Rights Academy and the GLBT Historical Society. McGehee says she's been disappointed by the amount of space allotted to organizing vs. merchandise at HRC's current location down the block. "I do believe there is often an effort on HRC's behalf to capitalize on equality, and I hope they're not capitalizing on the name of Harvey Milk."
Harvey Milk's name is certainly gay gold. Can Harvey's ghost boost the HRC's reputation among progressives? "If the ghost of Harvey Milk pushes them to take no compromised actions to fight for equality than I'll appreciate them taking that space," says McGehee. "There's a lot to live up to."
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