Milk’s real legacy

Pub date February 7, 2013
WriterTom Ammiano

OPINION Ever since Supervisor David Campos announced his proposal to add Harvey Milk’s name to SFO, there’s been an unending string of criticism — mostly from one source — that has an eerily familiar ring to it.

We heard it years ago when we tried to change the name of Douglas School in the Castro to Harvey Milk Civil Rights Academy. Believe it or not, it took seven years before the School Board finally voted for the name change — and there was still bitterness. This was a school in Harvey’s neighborhood that Harvey personally helped when he was alive.

And of course Harvey heard it himself, when he was constantly told not to rock the boat, not to make waves, not to be so out about being gay. Why? Because it would be divisive, alarm our friends, empower the gay community’s enemies, and set the movement back. And forty years later, people are still saying that.

It’s not just Harvey Milk. When we went to change the name of Army Street to Cesar Chavez, the same cast of characters voiced the same empty complaints, and it wasn’t until a vote of the people that it was finally settled.

Now we come to Campos’s courageous proposal to add Harvey’s name to San Francisco International Airport. For the city that wildly celebrated gay marriages at City Hall (another event that naysayers were quick to criticize), the city that is the emotional heart of the gay civil rights movement, and the city in which Harvey Milk lived, rose to prominence, and died — this should be a no-brainer. People say this is divisive? In fact, it should be an issue that unites us.

Yes, it will cost the airport some money to change its signage. But this can be done over time, through attrition, and can be far less than the estimates. (Which still only amount to one-half of one percent of the airport’s annual budget.)

But by far the most pernicious charge against the proposal is that it would tarnish Harvey’s legacy if it loses. Let me tell you — a little adversity never scared off Harvey Milk. He knew how to take a punch. And he knew how to move the civil rights agenda forward through provocative proposals.

For example, did you know before this that 80 airports in the United States are named after individuals, and not one is gay? How long are we going to be second-class citizens?

I commend Supervisor Campos for having the guts to put this proposal forward. That’s the real legacy of Harvey Milk: a city with openly gay elected officials who are willing to put their own careers on the line to challenge the status quo. Harvey would be proud.

And, as the powers that be sanctimoniously intone that we shouldn’t name the airport after any individual, our great city itself is named after St. Francis.

If being named after an inspiring individual is good enough for our city, it’s good enough for our airport.

Assemblymember Tom Ammiano represents the 17th District.