HRC accused of ‘spitting in face’ of Milk’s memory

Cleve Jones, others criticize organization’s plans for ‘Action Center’ at site of slain gay rights leader’s Castro Street store

Associated Press

SAN FRANCISCO — On the surface, the new tenant at the storefront where Harvey Milk waged his historic political campaign would seem like the last organization to anger people in the gay community.

The Human Rights Campaign, the United States’ largest gay rights lobbying group, wants to open up an information center and a gift shop in the building that would pay tribute to the slain gay rights leader.

But Milk’s friends and admirers are so incensed at the group taking over the slain San Francisco supervisor’s stomping grounds that they would rather see a Starbucks there, underscoring the tensions that exist within the various factions of the gay rights movement.

The organization is a frequent target of criticism from gay rights activists who consider its mainstream, “inside the Beltway” style ineffective. They believe the organization’s philosophy of incremental progress in the gay rights movement runs completely counter to the uncompromising message of gay pride championed by Milk.

“It’s spitting in the face of Harvey’s memory,” said AIDS Memorial Quilt founder Cleve Jones, who received his political education at Milk’s side in the 1970s.

“What’s next? Removing the Mona Lisa’s face and replacing it with the Wal-Mart smiley face?” asked Bil Browning, the founder of a popular gay issues blog.

The Washington-based nonprofit organization announced last week that it was moving its San Francisco “Action Center” and gift store into the site of Milk’s old Castro Camera.

It’s a historic site in the gay rights community. A sidewalk plaque outside that marks the spot’s historical significance and encases some of Milk’s ashes is a popular stop for visitors making pilgrimages to San Francisco gay landmarks.

In the 32 years since Milk was assassinated at City Hall along with Mayor George Moscone, the building has housed a clothing store, a beauty supply shop, and most recently, a housewares emporium.

HRC President Joe Solmonese said the new location will stock items bearing Milk’s words and image, with a portion of the proceeds going to a local elementary school named in Milk’s honor and the GLBT Historical Society. The organization also plans to preserve a Milk mural the previous tenants installed, Solmonese said.

“People are rightly protective of the legacy of Harvey Milk, and we intend to do our part to honor that legacy,” Human Rights Campaign spokesman Michael Cole-Schwartz said. “Bringing an LGBT civil rights presence to the space that has previously been several for-profit retail outlets is a worthwhile goal.”

Not according to activists like Jones and Dustin Lance Black, the screenwriter who won an Oscar for Milk — the 2008 Sean Penn movie about the first openly gay man elected to a major elected office in the U.S.

During his life, Milk railed against well-heeled gay leaders he regarded as assimilationists and elitists — Black devoted two scenes in Milk to the subject. Some of the leading activists he crossed swords with went on to launch the Human Rights Campaign, which sometimes is criticized for focusing on lavish fundraisers and political access at the expense of results, Jones said.

“He was not an ‘A-Gay’ and had no desire to be an A-Gay. He despised those people and they despised him,” he said. “That, to me, is the crowd HRC represents. Don’t try to wrap yourself up in Harvey Milk’s mantle and pretend you are one of us.”

The Human Rights Campaign has been struggling to regain its credibility with gay activists who favor a more grassroots approach since at least early 2008, when the group agreed to endorse a federal bill that included job protections for gays and lesbians, but not transgender people.

The disillusionment grew later that year with the passage of a same-sex marriage ban in California. Although HRC donated $3.4 million to fight Proposition 8, the devastating loss provoked young gay activists to take to the streets and to question the organizing and messaging abilities of established gay rights groups.

Since then, HRC has been accused of taking too soft an approach with President Barack Obama and the Congress that until last month’s election was controlled by Democrats. To some, the group’s failings were epitomized by the U.S. Senate failure last week, for the second time this year, to repeal the ban on gays serving openly in the U.S. military.

Black said HRC’s failure to talk to anyone close to Milk before it leased the Castro Street storefront demonstrates that it is out of touch. He and Jones think the space would be put to better use as a drop-in center for gay and lesbian youth, or if HRC partnered with another local nonprofit to ensure its sales benefit San Francisco.

“If any LGBTQ political organization is to move into Harvey’s old shop, there is a higher standard to be met, because such a move begs comparisons,” Black said. “Because it has become a tourist destination, whoever moves in that’s a political organization is in some way adopting Harvey as their own.”

HRC creative director Don Kiser understands the concerns and says he is open to suggestions, but thinks the criticism is overstated. The group obtains about one-third of the new names on its mailing lists from visitors to its retail stores in San Francisco, Provincetown, Massachusetts, and Washington. Each tourist who goes in to buy a Harvey Milk T-shirt or an HRC tote bag is a potential activist, Kiser says.

“They live in small towns in Texas and flyover states. Those are the people we need to help find the spirit that Harvey Milk had,” he said. “If they can go back and take a little of the spirit the Castro has, we will see sea changes.”

—  John Wright

C.U.R.E. announces huge AIDS Quilt display for 2011

Display in Plano will be largest in more than a decade, with at least 500 panels included, organizers say

DAVID TAFFET  |  Staff Writer taffet@dallasvoice.com

TIME TO REMEMBER | Visitors walk through a display of panels from the NAMES Project Quilt exhibited Wednesday, Dec. 1, at the Interfaith Peace Chapel as part of a World AIDS Day event. Next September, C.U.R.E. will bring more than 500 Quilt panels to Plano for the largest display in a decade. (David Taffet/Dallas Voice)

PLANO — C.U.R.E. will bring at least 500 panels of the Names Project’s AIDS Memorial Quilt to the Dallas Convention Center next September for the largest display since the entire Quilt was shown on the Mall in Washington, D.C. in 1996, according to C.U.R.E. leaders.

The Plano-based group made the announcement at their World AIDS Day event at Event1013 in Plano, where they displayed 13 blocks of the Quilt. They placed other panels at several other corporate headquarters located in Plano.

C.U.R.E. President and founder Rosemarie Odom said that one of those companies, Pepsico, has signed to be the lead sponsor of the Quilt display next year.

She said they are tentatively set to display the panels in Exhibit Hall F of the Convention Center from Sept. 30 through Oct. 2.

Tyler Sweatman is the event director. He said that the dates were chosen to correspond with LifeWalk. He’s hoping Lone Star Ride, which will take place the weekend before the event, will also participate.

“We’d love LifeWalk to walk right through the Convention Center,” said Odom.

Sweatman said that they will be requesting specific panels and will be taking requests from the community. He said it would be easier to get more of the requested panels in September than around next year’s World AIDS Day.

Sweatman said he was living in San Francisco in 1987 when Cleve Jones started the project. He watched the sewing going on in a little shop on Castro Street to memorialize friends who had died of AIDS.

Sweatman said he is amazed at how much the Quilt grew in just a few years.

The Quilt now has 91,000 names representing 17.5 percent of those who have died of AIDS in the United States. The Quilt was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize in 1989 and, at 1,293,300 square feet, is the largest piece of folk art ever produced. It weighs 54 tons.

Each panel is three feet by six feet, the size of a coffin. Eight panels are sewn together to form a block.  Several years ago, the Quilt moved from its original home in San Francisco to Atlanta. Sweatman said he expects the Quilt eventually to be housed in the Smithsonian.

The first day of the 2011 Quilt display is a Friday, and Sweatman said he hopes school groups from around North Texas as well as Oklahoma and Arkansas will come to see the display.

“Our goal is AIDS education,” he said.

To encourage the most people to see the Quilt, admission will be free. But staging the event will be costly. The group, which has non-profit status, is looking for additional sponsors and donations.

In addition to the cost of shipping the Quilt back and forth from Atlanta, there is the rental of the Convention Center, advertising, lighting and sound equipment.

During large displays, the names of persons who have died of AIDS are continuously read.

Volunteers are needed as Quilt monitors. Sweatman said he would especially like people who made any of the quilt panels or those who knew the people represented on the panels to talk about who they were.

Bono’s group ONE will coordinate volunteers. Sweatman said details are being worked out and will have more information about that and about volunteer opportunities soon.

Odom was excited about the opportunity to present such a large piece of the Quilt in Dallas. She became emotional standing in front of one of the 13 blocks hanging in Plano on World AIDS Day and warned about what an emotional experience the large display in September would be.

“I don’t want anyone to walk away from one of our events feeling good,” she said.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition December 3, 2010.

—  Michael Stephens

Groom-to-be Mark Reed of Dallas named to GetEQUAL’s new Board of Directors

Mark Reed, far right, is shown chained to the White House fence prior to his arrest in May. Reed, of Dallas, has been named to GetEQUAL’s Board of Directors.

Dallas activist Mark Reed has been named to the nine-member Board of Directors for GetEQUAL, the national LGBT direct action group.

Reed, who co-owns a lighting company on Oak Lawn Avenue with his partner, Dante Walkup, served on the executive steering committee for last year’s National Equality March. Since then, he’s participated in several GetEQUAL actions. In May Reed was arrested for chaining himself to the White House fence in protest of “don’t ask don’t tell.”

“I accepted a board member position with GetEQUAL because I strongly believe in their mission to inspire our community to rise up and demand full equality and social justice,” Reed told Instant Tea on Wednesday. “For too long we have been asked to be patient for our rights and that strategy has clearly not worked. As Cleve Jones has stated, ‘If we want to be equal, we have to act like we are.’ For me, that means refusing to be treated like a second-class citizen and holding leaders accountable who don’t believe the time is right for our freedom.

“I am very impressed with the talent of people recruited to join the provisional board and am looking forward to working with them to provide leadership and guidance to GetEQUAL. This position is for a six-month period and a decision to remain with the board will be determined at the end of my term.”

According to Reed’s bio on the GetEQUAL website, he and Walkup, who’ve been together for 1o years, plan to marry on Oct. 10, 2010.

—  John Wright

Dallas activist’s National Equality March documentary to premiere at Austin gay film fest

Lesbian Dallas activist Laura McFerrin sends along word that the long-awaited premiere of her directing debut, “March On,” will take place during the Austin Gay & Lesbian International Film Festival in September. The full-length trailer is above. From McFerrin’s press release:

March On documents the 2009 National Equality March through the lives of five families who put aside their daily routine, packed up their hopes and went to Washington DC to demonstrate that they believe in Equality. Along with footage from past marches, interviews and powerful speakers, March On takes you to this fantastic and historic event. In addition, March On includes Lt. Dan Choi, Lady Gaga, Cleve Jones, Cynthia Nixon, Stacyann Chin and Michelle Clunie.

McFerrin says she will attend the premiere along with some of the men and women featured in the documentary. The showing will be at noon Sept. 12 at the Alamo Drafthouse South Lamar, 1120 South Lamar Blvd. in Austin. Also featured at AGLIFF will be Dallas filmmaker Israel Luna’s “Ticked-Off Trannies with Knives.”

—  John Wright

Dallas featured in Equality March video

Local activist Laura McFerrin, historian for this coming weekend’s National Equality March in Washington, put together the above promotional video currently featured on the march’s official blog. The video, called “Will You March With Us in Washington?”,  includes numerous images from Dallas over the last year, from rallies outside First Baptist Church in November 2008 to Cleve Jones’ recent appearance at Gay Pride. But I gotta warn you: Watching the video may result in having “Ain’t No Stoppin’ Us Now” stuck in your head for the rest of the day.

—  John Wright