Harvey Milk and the Human Rights Campaign

December 14, 2010; Source: Centre Daily Times | In its efforts to win support for gay rights, The Human Rights Campaign hasn’t done such a good job making friends within its own community. In fact the Washington, D.C.-based HRC is so disliked by some activists in San Francisco that they’re trying to stop the group from opening an information center and gift shop at a store that served as the base for the political operations of Harvey Milk, the first openly gay man to be elected to a major public office in the United States.

Milk, a member of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, was assassinated 32 years ago at City Hall, along with Mayor George Moscone. Since then, Milk’s former camera shop has been a place of honor and one of the city’s gay landmarks. According to the Associated Press, gay activists who dislike HRC because they think the group’s lobbying efforts are ineffective would “rather see a Starbucks” in Milk’s old store than an HRC gift shop. AIDS Memorial Quilt founder Cleve Jones calls HRC’s plans akin to “spitting in the face of Harvey’s memory.” Bill Browning, founder of a gay issues blog, similarly asks, “What’s next? Removing the Mona Lisa’s face and replacing it with the Wal-Mart smiley face?”

HRC officials say they understand the desire of Milk’s friends to protect his legacy and that they intend to do that. HRC President Joe Solmonese said the new location will sell items featuring Milk’s words and image and that some of the proceeds will support a local elementary school named in his honor and the GLBT Historical Society. That’s not enough to quiet the anger of those, who according to the AP, believe that HRC’s “philosophy of incremental progress” doesn’t match “the uncompromising message of gay pride championed by Milk.”

More recently the group has been accused of being too soft in its dealings with the Obama administration and also has been blamed for failing to get the Senate last week to lift the ban on gays in the military.

If it were up to him, Dustin Lance Black, the screenwriter who won an Oscar for “Milk,” the 2008 film that featured Sean Penn in the title role, would rather see the space turned into a drop-in center for gay and lesbian youth. For now, HRC officials say they are open to suggestions about how they use the space, but also add that the criticisms about the organization are overblown.—Bruce Trachtenberg