California, other states observe first Harvey Milk Day to honor gay rights icon

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — Events were taking place in California and across the country Saturday in observance of Harvey Milk, marking the first day of "special significance" in the West Coast state to honor the slain gay rights leader.

Along with concerts, political fundraisers and rallies in California, commemorative Harvey Milk Day events were planned in 20 other states on what would have been his 80th birthday.

In San Francisco, a dedication of a Milk plaque was set for Saturday afternoon at the site of his camera store. A free showing of the movie "Milk" was also planned in a local theatre.

In Southern California, a rally was taking place in East Los Angeles and a Harvey Milk Day of Community Service was scheduled to take place at West Hollywood Park.

Saturday's observance comes after attempts were eventually succesful in persuading California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to sign a bill establishing May 22 as Harvey Milk Day. Though it took two legislative tries, a Presidential Medal of Freedom and the 2008 movie "Milk."

Now, as the state honors the slain gay rights leader, the occasion is shaping up to be more far-reaching than its supporters anticipated.

"The creation of the first official day of recognition for any openly gay person in the history of this country has really touched people, many of whom have been closeted in life or faced rejection or government discrimination which continues to this day," said Geoffrey Kors, executive director of the gay rights group Equality California.

Milk was the first openly gay man to win elected office in a major U.S. city. He was a member of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors in 1978 when he and Mayor George Moscone were assassinated at City Hall by former supervisor Dan White.

He is credited with helping defeat a ballot initiative that would have prevented gay teachers from working in public schools.

The range of activities planned in his memory — concerts, voter canvassing to repeal California's gay marriage ban, and students at some schools handing out malted milk balls and Milk Duds — speaks to Milk's singularly iconic place in gay rights history and the public's continued polarization on gay rights issues.

Demonstrations in St. Louis, Savannah, Ga., Fulton, Miss., and other cities are aimed at putting pressure on Congress to repeal the ban on gays serving openly in the military and to pass a law protecting gays and transgender people from job discrimination.

In Milk's adopted home state, however, few public schools marked the occasion, despite language in the California bill that created it specifically encouraging schools to conduct educational activities around it.

Having May 22 fall on a Saturday this year may have muted the celebrations. But a conservative group's call for parents to pull their children out of class probably had an effect as well, said Carolyn Laub, executive director of the Gay-Straight Alliance Network, a San Francisco group that trains students to be gay rights advocates.

At San Juan Hills High School in Orange County, Calif., where scheduled state achievement tests prevented classroom activities, 15-year-old Benji Delgadillo and other members of the school's Gay-Straight Alliance Club sold Harvey milkshakes and handed out fliers after school explaining who Milk was.

"Harvey Milk is a civil rights icon who sparked a movement that today is really helping to address the issues of harassment that lesbian, gay, bisexual, queer or gender non-conforming students face in our school and our community," Delgadillo said.

Events planned for Saturday include the premiere of a musical based on Milk's life written by Dustin Lance Black, the screenwriter who won an Oscar for "Milk" the movie, and performed by the Gay Men's Chorus of Los Angeles. The chorus plans to take the piece into high schools next year as part of project to prevent anti-gay bullying.

Stuart Milk, Harvey Milk's 49-year-old nephew and one of the guardians of his legacy, thinks his uncle would be thrilled by the various tributes, but he also wants his day to be more about uniting all marginalized minorities than merely about gay rights or the accomplishments of one man.

"It's still a hard concept for people to get," Stuart Milk said. "This isn't about having a Harvey Milk curriculum in every school. It's an opportunity to talk about what discrimination means and why it's important for everyone to feel included."