Signal Hill councilmembers among those honored during ceremony
Thirty-five years after Harvey Milk became the first openly gay person to be elected to public office in California when he won a seat on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, the City of Long Beach has broken ground for a park in his honor– the first in the country to be named after him and the first park in the city to recognize a member of the LGBT community.
Last Tuesday morning, which was Milk’s birthday, First District Councilmember Robert Garcia, who spearheaded the project, hosted the groundbreaking ceremony that included various other city officials and leaders from the local LGBT community. The Harvey Milk Promenade Park will be located at 3rd Street and The Promenade, an area of the city that has rapidly evolved in the last few years with new retail establishments, condominiums and park space.
On Nov. 27, 1978, Milk and then-Mayor George Moscone were assassinated by Dan White, another city supervisor who had recently resigned.
“Harvey was someone that, not just represented the best of us as a community, as an LGBT community, but represented, really, the best of what being an American is all about,” said Garcia in his opening remarks. “Because being an American, to me and, I think, to most of us, is about fighting for those without a voice. It’s about fighting for the underrepresented. It’s about building coalitions and partnerships and collaboratives. It’s about working with everyone regardless of their race, gender or sexual orientation. That’s what Long Beach is about. That’s what we believe in, and that’s what Harvey fought for.”
Garcia pointed out that, to him, Milk was not “an LGBT leader,” but rather an American leader. “He is someone that we should celebrate as a community, and we should be proud that his namesake will bear the area that we’re standing on today,” he said.
The councilmember also discussed Milk’s emphasis on giving people hope and how he had influenced other significant social movements.
Garcia then introduced Long Beach Mayor Bob Foster, who called the new park “a beautiful way to honor a civil-rights leader and a person who’s done so much to change life in California and indeed probably around the world.” Foster said the park is a great redevelopment project that represents the revitalization and rebirth of the city and that having a park there named in honor of Milk is truly remarkable. “I talk a lot about founders, because, whether it’s the founding of this country or the founding of a movement, or civil-rights leaders, whatever you want to look at, the founding process is very difficult,” Foster said. “When I was over at [The Gay and Lesbian Center of Greater Long Beach], I talked about, always honor people that started this movement, that built The Center, that started the LGBT movement, because… today, we all think of it in a different light, we have a different perspective. But back then… certainly you had risk to your own personal safety, you had risk to your family, you had risk to your employment, you had cat calls and the calumny that was leveled at you, all over, and people stood up and took that, and they stood up because, not only did they have hope, they stood up because they saw that it was necessary to make things better. In my view, the sweep of Western history is to be able to improve the lot of the common person to increase personal freedom within the bounds of the law, and they saw that it was necessary to put a slot in there for civil rights of all varieties. So, you really do need to have a lot of respect and admiration for those who took all the blows early on and really took a lot of heat for the benefits that all of us enjoy today.”
One significant individual among those at the ceremony was Stuart Milk, Harvey’s nephew who is chair of the Harvey Milk Foundation, which, according to its website, “envisions governments that celebrate the rich and universally empowering diversity of humanity, where all individuals– gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgendered, racial and ethnic minorities, the elderly, the young, the disabled– all who had been excluded, can fully participate in all societal rights without exception.”
Stuart Milk opened his remarks by telling those in attendance that he comes from a Jewish family and when he’d mentioned to his mother that he was coming to Long Beach at the request of “Dr. Robert Garcia,” she asked, “Is he single?” Stuart said he replied by telling her, “He could be my son.”
Stuart said the local park honoring his uncle is an inspiration to his family. He also mentioned that the Harvey Milk Foundation had already received numerous calls from around the world that day to commemorate his uncle’s birthday. “Interestingly enough, Harvey Milk Day started with phone calls coming in late last night where May 22 began in Sydney and then followed into the subcontinent of Asia and then calls from Istanbul and Rome because Harvey’s message and legacy is something that’s enduring,” he said. “I love the way Mayor Foster talked about the progress we have made, and the world is watching that progress. And I do have to point out, because so much of our work is global, that 75 percent of the world’s population live in an environment like Harvey had when he ran for office, so we do have work to do, and this is part of that work.”
Stuart said that, at public events, he often mentions the fact that, when Harvey was running for public office, it was both a crime to have a same-sex relationship in 1972 in California and it was listed as a mental illness by the American Psychiatric Association. “Harvey was told by many people…that he was crazy, that ‘You can’t get elected and you’ll be killed,’” he said, noting that his foundation still has the threat letters that Harvey had received. “[They] were not, by the way, anonymous,” he said. “They were signed. People said, ‘If you come into my town, you’ll be shot.’ So, that wasn’t ‘Hollywood’ that he knew that he was going to be killed. He knew the first of any civil-rights movement who proudly and loudly proclaim their authenticity often does take a bullet, but he did that because he believed in a dream.”
Garcia then introduced a number of local leaders who have been pioneers in the LGBT community: Robert Crow, co-founder and current president of Long Beach Pride; Ray Lowen, founding member of The Center who is also an artist and activist; Patty Moore, former chair and assistant director of The Center and a longtime activist; Signal Hill Councilmember Michael Noll, who was the first openly gay member on the Signal Hill City Council; Frank Rubio, former president and current vice president of Long Beach Pride; and Signal Hill Councilmember Ellen Ward, who had served as the executive director of the local AIDS Walk.
The ceremony also included a posthumous honoring of several individuals who made significant contributions to the LGBT community on a local level: Pastor Michael Cole, founder of both Christ’s Chapel Long Beach and the AIDS Food Store; Ellen “Mary” Martinez, who was a 25-year member of Long Beach Pride and a board member at The Center; and Jean Harris, former executive director of the California Alliance for Pride and Equality.
After those acknowledgements were made, the actual groundbreaking took place, then cake was served in honor of Milk’s birthday.