Late gay rights pioneer Harvey Milk accomplished many things in the city of San Francisco and, arguably, for gay people across the country. Many of his grassroots efforts were run from in his photography shop, Castro Camera, positioned right in the heart of San Francisco's prominent gay neighborhood.
In the years since Milk's life was taken, several retailers have occupied the space. Now the Human Rights Campaign is moving in. The HRC already had a retail space in the area, called an action center, but pounced at the idea of taking Milk's old space this January. The problem, however, is that Milk's cohorts say the organization does not honor their slain friend's legacy.
"I think it is completely inappropriate for the simple reason is that the HRC represents the antithesis of Harvey Milk's organizing strategy," said longtime activist Cleve Jones, who found a mentor in Milk during in the 1970s. "Would we want to see the hotel where Dr. Martin Luther King was assassinated occupied by the Daughters of the Confederacy? Of course not."
Jones told The Advocate Monday that he is in talks with the local chapter of the HRC as well as representatives from the national group in an attempt to reconcile their visions for the space. He recommends less corporate branding, more historical information, and an honoring of Milk's activist work.
"I want to see something representing his involvement in poor people, working-class people, and queer youth," he said. Jones also suggested he would prefer that any profits made at the San Francisco shop remain "in the city, and not go to Washington," D.C., where HRC's main office is located.
Gay California assembly member Tom Ammiano said Monday that HRC's move "comes across as somewhat opportunistic. If you knew Harvey and how HRC operates — they are very restrained. It's simply not a place where activism is applauded."
Conversely, Milk was known for his radical, out-and-proud style, which rejected establishment politics in favor of grassroots activism.
Ammiano, however, added that this situation provides an opportunity to find common ground between two factions of gay rights advocates. He also supported Jones's idea that the new action center should become a drop-in center for LGBTQ youth or partner with a local nonprofit that doesn't necessarily have the same financial reach as HRC.
HRC spokesman Fred Sainz said the proceeds from the action center will support its efforts across the country, but proceeds from certain merchandise will benefit the GLBT Historical Society as well as a local elementary school bearing Milk's name. It will also preserve the mural installed in the shop by previous tenants.
Stuart Milk, Harvey Milk's nephew and cofounder of the Harvey Milk Foundation, said Tuesday that his uncle may not have agreed with HRC but would have loved the dispute.
"To be quite honest, Harvey would have actually loved that there is controversy about who occupies his store, as it allows for discussion of our common LGBT rights movement past, present, and where we take it into the future," he said. All in all, however, Milk said his uncle would probably want the in-fighting to stop. "Harvey repeatedly warned us that our community history of attacking each other is one of our movement's greatest weaknesses. We have the video and audio tapes of Harvey on this constant message — 'stop attacking each other.'"