Long Beach Breaks Ground on Park Honoring LBGT Groundbreaker Harvey Milk
Stuart Milk, Long Beach city officials, and Equality Plaza honorees about to break ground
On what would have been LBGT pioneer Harvey Milk's 82nd birthday, the City of Long Beach became the first city in the United States to honor former San Francisco city supervisor by naming a park after him, breaking ground at the head of 3rd Street and Promenade in a well-attended ceremony that included Stuart Milk, chairman of the Harvey Milk Foundation and nephew of the slain leader.
"Harvey […] represented the best of what being an American is all about," said openly gay Councilmember Robert Garcia, "because being an American […] 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. And that's what Long Beach is about."
Stuart Milk reflected on how far society has come since his uncle's death, noting that in 1972, when his uncle ran for office, it was a crime to have a same-sex relationship in California; and that homosexuality was listed as a mental illness by the American Psychological Association. "[But] 75 percent of the world's population live in an environment like Harvey had when he ran for office," he said, "so we do have work to do. And this is part of that work."
Mayor Bob Foster, a strong ally of the LGBT community throughout his six years in office, spoke of the importance of honoring those who came before us and established the foundations on which we stand today.
"I talk a lot about founders, whether it's the founding of this country or the founding of a movement or civil-rights leaders or whatever you want to look at," Foster said. "The founding is very difficult. […] In those days [of the founding of the LGBT movement, if you were gay,] you certainly had risk to your own personal safety, you had risk to your family, you had risk to your employment; you had the catcalls and the calumny that was leveled at you all over. And people stood up and took that. And they stood up not only because they had hope, but […] because they saw that it was necessary to make things better. […] You really do need to have a lot of respect for those who took all the blows early on. [… Harvey Milk] stood up for a part of our community that today is very accepted. […] This is a great way to honor a very great man. […] It's an honor for Long Beach to remember him."
Stuart Milk shared with those in attendance his uncle's understanding that his openness about his sexual orientation might eventually cost him his life (for example, most of the many death threats he received were not anonymous but signed) — but that it's a price he was willing to pay.
"He knew that the first of any civil-rights movement who proudly and loudly proclaim their authenticity often does take a bullet," Stuart said. "But he did that because he believed in a dream. So I often get asked [whether] I feel bad that Harvey didn't get to see someone who's standing so proudly on his shoulders like Councilman Garcia or […] allies like Mayor Foster or all of you, and I always reply that that is the only way he was able to go to work every day. […] He dreamed of this day, and he saw all of you not only standing on his shoulders, but creating new shoulders for future generations. […] His message 35 years ago was that we have to be out, we have to be proud, we have to be visible is as relevant today as it's always been."
Among those in attendance were Signal Hill City Councilmembers Larry Forester, Michael J. Noll, and Ellen Ward; and representatives from the offices of Sen. Alan Lowenthal and Assemblymembers Bonnie Lowenthal and Ricardo Lara.
Also in attendance was Vice-Mayor Suja Lowenthal, another staunch ally of the LGBT community and co-sponsor of Garcia's efforts to name the park after Harvey Milk.
"It's through controversy, pain, and struggle that we do advance as a human race. […] We don't stand here today because we had comfortable conversations; we stand here today because we actually are descendents of very, very, very courageous people who had very difficult conversations."
Garcia, who initially put forward the idea of naming the park after Milk, spoke to the Long Beach Post about some of that controversy as it applies to the park itself.
"The majority [of the response to naming the park after Milk] was overwhelmingly positive," Garcia says. "But there were people that felt Harvey wasn't the right name. But my argument was pretty simple. There's parks throughout this whole city that are named after all sort of national and California leaders. And this was a name that was supported by the community. […] At the end of the day, all the neighborhood associations — the Promenade Association, North Pine — they all voted unanimously to support 'Harvey Milk.' And we always support the name that the neighborhoods bless. Had the neighborhoods wanted something different, we wouldn't have done in this direction. But you can't argue with the residents who will be the ones living around the park."
Foster says while he was not aware of the controversy, he is not surprised that there was some.
"Actually, I haven't heard [about] any [controversy]," he told the Post. "But I'm gonna tell you something: you can't do anything anywhere in any place without somebody being opposed to it. That's just the way life is."
Stuart Milk said his uncle would have enjoyed the controversy.
A portion of Harvey Milk Park will be Equality Plaza, which will function as a sort of "hall of fame" (but without the hall) of LBGT community members. The groundbreaking honored the first nine inductees:
- Bob Crow—co-founder and current co-president of LB PRIDE
- Ray Lowen—founding member of The Center Long Beach; activist and artist
- Patty Moore—former chair and assistant director of The Center; longtime activist
- Michael Noll—the first openly gay Signal Hill city councilmember, who has served for 20 years; boardmember of The Center
- Frank Rubio—former president and current vice-president of LB PRIDE
- Ellen Ward—11-year Signal Hill city councilmember; former executive director of AIDS WALK
- Pastor Michael Cole—founder of Christ’s Chapel Long Beach; founder of AIDS Food Store
- Ellen “Mary” Martinez—25-year member of LB PRIDE; boardmember of The Center
- Jean Harris—former executive director of CA Alliance for Pride and Equality; political leader
During their remarks, both Garcia and Stuart Milk invoked Harvey Milk's favorite catchphrase: You gotta give 'em hope.
"[Because of current economic crisis,] there are voices telling us this is not the time to move forward with human rights," Stuart said. "[But] we are only reaching our full potential when we celebrate the diversity that is everybody in our community, without qualification or any exception. […] Harvey's message and legacy is something that's enduring."
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Stuart Milk addresses the crowd, as Councilmember Robert Garcia and Mayor Bob Foster look on.