O.C. declines to honor Milk

As cities and schools across California celebrated the 82nd birthday of slain gay rights activist Harvey Milk, Orange County elected leaders remained steadfastly silent.

Activists, for the second year, asked Orange County supervisors Tuesday to recognize Milk’s birthday with a proclamation, but the board declined the opportunity, as it did last year.

One of the supervisors, Janet Nguyen, walked from the board room shortly after the activists began their presentation. Last year, Nguyen also left the meeting as the activists spoke.

Dave Hoen, a 28-year Santa Ana resident, and other activists waited more than six hours before they could step to the podium, and by then the room was almost empty. Hoen read a poem, saying he suspected that fear was the reason the five supervisors have yet to endorse a proclamation honoring Milk.

“You’re happy to keep your job instead,” he said.

The speakers, members of local gay rights groups, began a letter, postcard and phone campaign to the supervisors about two months ago to push for the proclamation.


“We’ve been ignored,” said Archer Altstaetter, the founder of the Orange County Equality Coalition.

California first officially marked May 22 as Harvey Milk Day in 2009 and, on Tuesday, San Diego named a street in his honor, while Long Beach broke ground on Harvey Milk Promenade Park.

For activists like Hoen, getting the county to embrace the activism of the former San Francisco supervisor would be a meaningful step toward erasing what they see as an ugly chapter in Orange County’s past.

One of Milk’s final battles was to take on then-state Sen. John V. Briggs, a Fullerton resident who championed a state initiative that would have essentially given school boards the right to fire openly gay teachers.

The discord between Milk and the Orange County legislator was depicted in scenes in “Milk,” the movie in which Sean Penn played the activist.

At one point in the film, one of Milk’s colleagues asks how many signatures would be needed to put the Briggs initiative on the ballot. “Whatever it is,” someone says, “they’ll get it in two Sundays at church in Orange ... County.”

The initiative was soundly defeated statewide in 1978. Voters in Orange County also rejected it, though by a narrower margin.

Shawn Nelson was the lone supervisor to respond to the activists Tuesday, noting that the county receives a “laundry list” of days to dedicate. But he said that if other days are set aside in someone’s honor, Milk’s birthday should be too.

After the meeting, Chairman John Moorlach said that he’s more of a “policy wonk” and wants to put his staff to good use by dissecting and analyzing budgets, for instance.

“I guess it’s a style difference,” he said, adding that he has other priorities. “If that makes me a bad guy, I’m sorry.”

Stuart Milk, the former supervisor’s nephew, said in an interview Tuesday that he remembered his uncle talking about Briggs as someone who used hate and exclusion to get ahead.

He said it would be symbolically significant for Orange County to recognize the day.

“The important element is because you have a history of non-acceptance doesn’t mean you need to continue on that path,” he said. “Harvey Milk Day is the way to do that.”