Event celebrates Harvey Milk's legacy

Event celebrates Harvey Milk's legacy

Michele Ellson

Anne Kronenberg was a typist in her early 20s when Harvey Milk asked her to manage his 1977 campaign for San Francisco supervisor. And over the months Kronenberg worked as campaign manager and then aide to the larger-than-life Milk – the first openly gay man elected to political office in the United States – he became a political mentor, father figure and friend whose passion for equality left a lasting mark on society.

“That’s what he gave his life for. He truly, truly was a martyr for the cause,” Kronenberg said during Alameda’s Fourth Annual Harvey Milk Day celebration, which was held Monday at Encinal High School.

Students from Otis Elementary School read the Harvey Milk Story to a crowd of about 350 people who came for a buffet dinner, speeches and songs by the Oakland East Bay Gay Men’s Chorus. Kronenberg, who helped launch a foundation to educate people about Milk’s story and message, offered a living history about the man she described as a charismatic visionary with a quick temper but also, a keen sense of humor.

Kronenberg said Milk’s string of electoral losses had become something of a joke around the Castro Street neighborhood where he owned a camera shop. But during the campaign she helped him win, Kronenberg saw a charismatic storefront politician who rode Muni and walked precincts, spreading his message of equality for all.

Before moving to San Francisco from his native New York, Milk was a suit-wearing Republican who worked on Wall Street. But he eventually doffed the suit and focused his energies on equality for gays and other communities, telling Kronenberg and others they should come out of the closet in an effort to change the minds of the people they knew.

“Things change one person at a time,” she said.

During his 11 months in office, Milk spearheaded a landmark effort to outlaw discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation in San Francisco – and crafted what became known as the “pooper scooper law,” which he promoted at a Duboce Park press conference where he purposely stepped in a pile of the stuff to make his point.

“He said that anybody who could solve the dog s--- problem in San Francisco could be mayor,” Kronenberg said.

When Kronenberg met Milk, she was at a place in her life “where you don’t think bad things can happen,” she said. But as they prepared to participate in a local gay pride parade that preceded Milk’s death, he asked Kronenberg to make sure she knew the way to the closest hospital in the event he was shot.

Kronenberg said she learned of Milk’s November 27, 1978 murder from her family, who were waiting for her at the Seattle airport. Not knowing Milk’s fellow former supervisor, Dan White, was responsible, she said her family feared for her safety. But her father purchased a return plane ticket because he knew she would want to head back home.

“That night we walked in silence,” she said of the thousands of mourners who crowded the mile-and-a-half path between Castro Street and City Hall. “The only thing you saw was candles. The only thing you heard was tears.”

The pain of Milk’s death caused her to recede from view for decades, she said, until Gus Van Sant memorialized him in a 2008 film.

“My youth was re-created there,” Cronenberg, who was a consultant for the film, said of its Castro Camera set. “It was a very healing thing for me.”

Kronenberg continued Milk’s work in a series of government jobs that have taken her to Washington, D.C. and back; she’s now the director of San Francisco’s Department of Emergency Management. And she said a lot has changed in the years since Milk’s death.

In 2009, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger signed a law designating May 22 as Harvey Milk Day. Alameda started celebrating with an annual event, in 2010.

“He spoke of equality for everyone. I think that is the legacy that needs to be conveyed,” said Henry Villareal, co-chair of the 2013 Alameda Harvey Milk Day Committee.

Leaders of Alameda’s public schools, which have hosted the event for each of the past three years, approved anti-gay bulling lessons for Alameda’s grade schoolers in 2009, a decision that placed a trio of school board members who voted in favor of the lessons at the receiving end of a recall attempt.

The district has formed an LGBTQ Roundtable with community members in an effort to foster an “inclusive, safe and welcoming environment” in the district’s schools, Assistant Superintendent Sean McPhetridge said. And he said Alameda Unified’s middle and high schools have initiated their own anti-bullying efforts, which include Lincoln Middle School teacher Chris Hansen’s WallBreakers Project and Wood Middle School’s participation in the Pinwheels for Peace Project.

The Rev. Laura Rose, pastor of First Congregational Church, read a list of local churches that have embraced gays, whose congregants made up much of the crowd at Monday’s event. The Rev. Rose, who said religion “caused a lot of harm to the LGBT community” before some churches began to embrace it, told the audience about the day that she, as a 10-year-old girl living in Brooklyn, was first labeled a lesbian.

“That burned into my soul,” she said.

As the United States Supreme Court prepares to rule on California’s gay marriage ban, Proposition 8, and the Defense of Marriage Act, which restricts federal benefits to opposite-sex couples, a raft of polls show that Americans’ support for gay marriage is growing.

“I don’t think any of us in the 1970s would have seen this happening right now,” Kronenberg said.

EXTRA! The Oakland East Bay Gay Men's Chorus performs Monday at Alameda's Fourth Annual Harvey Milk Day Celebration.

Monday's event also included the winning speech from the 2012 Season for Non-Violence Speech Contest, given by independent studies student Hunter DeVecchi, and announcement of the winners of the Harvey Milk Day poster and poetry contests. Poster contest winners were Alex Sifuentes, Encinal High School and Molly Clem, Edison Elementary; poetry contest winners were Palm Chiewphanit, Encinal High School and Amelia Bond, Otis Elementary.