California panel OKs honors for gay leader Harvey Milk

Posted on 07 May 2009 at 5:57pm
By Steve Lawrence Associated Press

Schwarzenegger previously vetoed similar bill

SACRAMENTO — With encouragement from an Oscar-winning screenwriter, a state Senate committee approved legislation Wednesday, May 6 that would designate a day honoring slain gay rights leader Harvey Milk.

The Senate Education Committee voted 7-2 to send the bill by Sen. Mark Leno, D-San Francisco, to the full Senate.

It would designate each May 22 — Milk’s birthday — as Harvey Milk Day. The "day of special significance" would recognize Milk’s life and contributions to the state but would not be an official holiday, meaning there would be no cost to state government.

It also would encourage public schools to conduct "suitable commemorative exercises" in honor of Milk on that day.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger vetoed a nearly identical bill last year, saying it should be up to each community to determine if it wanted to honor Milk, a San Francisco supervisor who was assassinated in 1978.

The bill’s supporters hope the success of "Milk," the 2008 film about the first openly gay man elected to public office in California, will encourage the Republican governor to change his mind if this year’s bill reaches his desk.

"If there’s one thing Arnold Schwarzenegger understands, it’s box office," Leno said. "Harvey Milk now has box office."

A spokesman for Schwarzenegger, Aaron McLear, said the governor had not taken a position on the current bill.

Dustin Lance Black, who won an Academy Award for his screenplay for "Milk," testified that Milk’s story would inspire gay youths, who often feel inferior and contemplate suicide.

Black, who is gay, said he considered killing himself until he heard about Milk from a San Francisco area theater director when he was 14.

"I grew up in a very conservative environment, in a church that condemned homosexual activity," Black said. "I knew I was gay from a very early age. I knew I was less than my fellow students and, according to my church, I was right down there with all the sinners, murderers and rapists."

He said Milk’s campaigns against prejudice and bigotry "lit the fire" for the national and international gay rights movements and gave him hope.

"For the first time in many years, I did not think about taking my own life and I did not cry myself to sleep on Sabbath nights, and I started to dream again and I stopped trying to vanish and I started trying to excel," Black said.

Wednesday’s testimony marked the second time an Academy Award winner from the film has spoken out in favor of the Harvey Milk Day legislation.

During a San Francisco appearance in March, actor Sean Penn, whose portrayal of Milk earned him the Oscar for best actor, said Schwarzenegger’s signature on the bill would send a strong message against prejudice.

Karen England, executive director of the Capitol Resource Institute, and Benjamin Lopez, a lobbyist for the Traditional Values Coalition, testified against the bill, saying they agreed with Schwarzenegger’s veto message.

"He was definitely a local figure," Lopez said. "The city and county of San Francisco has appropriately honored this man."

Encouraging schools to discuss Milk "would amount in some parents’ eyes to the promotion of Mr. Milk’s lifestyle," Lopez added.

He said there were other famous Californians, including Ronald Reagan, Richard Nixon, Pat Brown, former U.S. Sen. Alan Cranston and Walt Disney, who were more deserving of official recognition days.

"I think Mr. Milk should wait in line, so to speak," he said.

On the Web: www.senate.ca.gov

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