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By Mark Leno, Special to CALmatters

I was new to San Francisco in November 1978, having arrived the year before as a 25-year-old rabbinical school dropout from New York City.

That month in my new hometown was momentous, glorious, dark, violent and history-changing.

On Nov. 7, 1978, against all odds and thanks in large part to San Francisco Supervisor Harvey Milk’s remarkable leadership, California voters defeated Proposition 6.

State Sen. John Briggs, an Orange County Republican with aspirations for statewide office, foisted that hateful initiative on California voters. Its intent was to ban all LGBT teachers or anyone supportive of them from instructing in the public school system, from kindergarten through university.

Harvey Milk helped lead the campaign to bury that awful measure by appealing to voters’ sense of fairness. They responded by soundly rejecting it.

On Nov. 18, 1978, San Mateo Congressman Leo Ryan was murdered in Jonestown, Guyana, at the direction of Reverend Jim Jones.

Hours later in Jonestown, 918 men, women and children of San Francisco’s Peoples Temple committed “revolutionary suicide,” or more accurately were massacred by Jones.

Our city was in trauma and disbelief. It was all beyond imagination.

Then, on the morning of Nov. 27, disgruntled and deranged San Francisco Supervisor Dan White walked into Mayor George Moscone’s office and shot him dead. The mayor was survived by his wife Gina and their four young children.

White proceeded to Supervisor Harvey Milk’s office and killed him.

I was in town for Harvey’s historic election in November 1977. Though we never met, the excitement, inspiration and unprecedented nature of his victory were felt by our community and far beyond. Harvey’s message of hope was in the air and unavoidable.

“If you elect more gay people,” he had said, “it means hope to a nation that has given up, because if a gay person makes it, the doors are open to everyone.”

On that disastrous November morning, I was at the counter of the San Francisco sign shop I had recently opened, working with a customer when my neighbor came in with the painful news.

Processing such information takes time.

On that unforgettable night, I joined tens of thousands of people in a tearful and perfectly silent march down Market Street to City Hall.

For me, it has taken years to fully understand the impact that the words and deeds of this one man would have on my life. Unlike few others, Harvey led by example.

His message and his politics were much broader than LGBTQ civil rights.

In the truest sense of the word, Harvey Milk was a populist and a fighter for disenfranchised people. Recognizing the small number of ‘out’ people in the 1970s, Harvey instinctively understood the need to build coalitions and to bring disparate communities together to fight against a status quo that was not working for most of us.

Our strength would be in our greater numbers, a fact Democratic leaders understand in today’s political battles.

He spoke of the “us-es”—the ethnic, religious and sexual minorities, immigrants, women, those who are differently-abled, seniors. He fought for all those who lacked a voice.

Harvey’s time in the public arena was cut far too short. But consider the issues he championed: accessible and quality healthcare, affordable housing, improved public transit, a clean environment, better public education.

Sound familiar? Yes, Harvey issues were today’s issues. He was practical and visionary.

I am often asked what he would think of the progress of our civil rights movement.

Could he imagine the 100-plus California statutes that legally protect us including full marriage rights, our seven-member queer legislative caucus in Sacramento and our first statewide elected constitutional officer, Insurance Commissioner-elect Ricardo Lara?

Yet in more than 30 states, there are no laws against discrimination in housing, employment and public services based on sexual orientation or gender identity. Nor are there any federal laws against the same.

Hate crimes against us are spiking in number and President Donald Trump is trying to erase the reality of transgender people through a definitional change in federal regulation.

A dramatically and disproportionately high percentage of homeless people are from the LGBTQ community, especially among our youth.

Obviously, much more work must be done. Unfortunately, these issues remain highly partisan in this country.

But with the political pendulum now swinging back since the Nov. 6 election, there is reason to embrace the hope of which Harvey always spoke.

“I know that you cannot live on hope alone, but without it, life is not worth living. And you…And you… gotta give ’em hope.”


Mark Leno represented San Francisco in the Legislature from 2002-2016 and was the first openly gay man elected to the California Senate, [email protected]. He wrote this commentary for CALmatters.