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District leaves Milk Day up to teachers

Local politicians oppose governor’s decision to honor gay civil rights leader

Posted: October 13, 2009 10:25 p.m.
Updated: October 14, 2009 4:55 a.m.
The William S. Hart Union High School District will leave to individual teachers the decision whether to recognize Harvey Milk Day, a day set aside to honor the accomplishments of the controversial gay Bay Area politician, a district official spokeswoman said.

“To my knowledge, there won’t be any district-wide observance,” said Pat Willett, Hart district spokeswoman. “It’s possible that some teachers might cover it in their classrooms.”

The district chose to take the neutral approach to the holiday as the Santa Clarita Valley’s state legislators have vocally opposed recognizing Milk, while some religious leaders praised the civil rights advocate.

The day is not an official state holiday, so government employees won’t get the day off and the district will handle it much the same way as it does Cesar Chavez Day — a holiday celebrating another civil rights advocate.

“If it happens to be in a literature class or a social studies class, it can be included as long as it’s related to the topic,” Willett said about teachers including Harvey Milk Day in the curriculum.

The bill calls for the day to be observed by public schools as a day of special significance. Teachers will be encouraged to conduct exercises recalling Milk’s life and contributions to the state.

Willett imagines teachers could include Milk in a discussion of civil rights.

Milk was a leader of the gay rights movement. He was elected to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors in 1977, becoming the nation’s first openly gay man elected to public office in a major U.S. city.

A year later, Milk played a prominent role in the defeat of the so-called Briggs Initiative, a ballot proposition that would have prevented gays and lesbians from teaching in the state’s public schools.

In November 1978, Milk and Mayor George Moscone were assassinated at San Francisco City Hall by former supervisor Dan White.

While conservative political groups across the state lobbied strongly against celebrating Milk’s life, members of the Santa Clarita Valley faith community lauded Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s signing the Harvey Milk Day bill into law.

“When we talk about people in our state that furthered civil rights, the people we talk about are Cesar Chavez and Harvey Milk,” said Rabbi Mark Blazer of Temple Beth Ami in Newhall.

The news of Harvey Milk Day was enthusiastically welcomed by Pastor George McLeary of Church of Hope in Canyon Country.

“I think it’s great,” he said. “We need to celebrate people in our world who make a difference.”

California lawmakers representing the SCV remained strongly opposed to Harvey Milk Day and criticized Schwarzenegger for flip-flopping on recognizing Milk. In 2008, Schwarzenegger vetoed an identical bill.

“I don’t completely understand (Schwarzenegger’s) rationale when it comes to changing his position from last year,” said Assemblyman Cameron Smyth, R-Santa Clarita. “The governor’s veto message last year was appropriate. Certainly Mr. Milk had a great impact in San Francisco and the Bay Area, but it’s not necessary to have a state day of recognition.”

State Sen. George Runner, R-Lancaster, whose district includes part of the SCV, also blasted the governor’s decision.

“At a time when our education system, our transportation infrastructure and our public safety net are deteriorating, the last thing the governor needed to do was sign a bill to honor an abstract person who did very little for the general good of society,” Runner said.

“Harvey Milk, after all, was not a courageous trailblazer of civil rights like Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King or Rosa Parks.”
Blazer said it’s attitudes like Smyth’s and Runner’s that reinforces the importance of Harvey Milk Day.

“The very fact there has been so much opposition to this day proves that we need it,” Blazer said.

He hopes celebrating Milk’s life will help turn the tide for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered Americans to seek civil rights.
Blazer sees a future where issues like whether gay people battling for marital rights is a distant memory.

“There is a generational shift,” he said. “In 20 years, people will look back on this period and ask why it was so difficult for gay people to get rights.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.


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