The Orange County Board of Education voted unanimously last week to oppose a state bill that would declare May 22 as Harvey Milk Day to honor the assassinated gay-rights activist and San Francisco councilman annually on his birthday.
“This bill would provide that the governor proclaim May 22 of each year as Harvey Milk Day, and would designate that date as having special significance in public schools and educational institutions and would encourage those entities to conduct suitable commemorative exercises on that date,” reads an excerpt from state Senate Bill 572.
“If you want that lifestyle, don’t make my tax dollars pay for it, and don’t make me teach it to my children,” county Board of Education President Alexandria Coronado, who represents portions of Costa Mesa and other cities, told the Coastline Pilot on Wednesday.
She added that she has gay friends who have contributed a lot to society, but she doesn’t believe that government should promote their sexual preference.
The county Board of Education voted 5 to 0 at its Sept. 17 meeting to oppose the bill.
At last week’s meeting, the board cited a reduction of instructional time that would be required to participate in commemorative exercises as its chief reason for opposing the bill. The county board partners with 28 school districts in Orange County, including Newport-Mesa Unified schools.
Representatives from the Newport-Mesa Unified School District School Board declined to comment.
The county board said that adding Harvey Milk Day to California’s education code would represent another unfunded state mandate, with local districts having to cover related costs.
When asked to comment on this Wednesday, Costa Mesa resident and longtime county Board of Education member Elizabeth “Liz” Dorn Parker said the board’s decision had nothing do with Milk’s homosexuality. The two aforementioned reasons were the only ones discussed before the five members voted, she said.
“The state is asking us to grab a day or time out of the curriculum,” Parker said, stressing that schools are “under the gun” to follow mandates like No Child Left Behind. Parker represents Newport and parts of Costa Mesa, among other cities.
“It truly represents a disingenuous effort on all sides of the issue,” she said. “It has nothing to do with who this gentleman is, or what he did.”
Written by state Sen. Mark Leno of San Francisco and other Bay Area politicians, SB 572 passed the state Assembly on Sept. 3, and the state Senate on Sept. 8.
Groups statewide have been clamoring to contact the governor’s office either to support or denounce the bill. It is on Gov. Schwarzenegger’s desk, awaiting his signature. He vetoed a similar bill last year.
Harvey Milk Day, however, wouldn’t put Milk on par with other days of observance honoring other prominent rights activists such as the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., who has a federal holiday named after him, or Cesar Chavez, who has a state holiday in his honor. But Milk would have equal importance in the state’s education code as the late conservationist John Muir. California public schools honor the Sierra Club’s founder on John Muir Day.
Coronado did not mince any words.
“I have a common-sense reason for opposing that bill,” she said.
She said there are many more Californians who are more deserving of a “special day” than Milk. In her opinion, former Presidents Ronald Reagan and Richard Nixon, publisher William Randolph Hearst and former Gov. Pat Brown deserve such acclaim.
“If we’re going to give a special day to somebody, it had better be someone from the state who’s done something really special,” Coronado said.
She added that she worries that commemorative days in general cut into instructional time.
As it is teachers are having a hard enough time having their students meet state standards, Coronado said.
‘It’s a tragedy’
Local gay-rights organizations expressed dismay at the board’s unanimous decision.
“Harvey Milk’s biggest theme was that we have to give the young people hope. Now they can’t even celebrate Harvey Milk Day,” said Ginger Hahn, executive director of the Center, a community center and advocacy organization based in Santa Ana.
“It’s a tragedy because our young LGBT [lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender] people do need hope. But it’s not surprising, because LGBT rights are the last civil rights frontier.”
Founded in Costa Mesa in 1971, the center offers support groups, counseling, youth programs, HIV/AIDS prevention, social activities and many other services for the area’s LGBT population.
Conservative groups, on the other hand, fear that the bill would introduce a slippery slope in the educational system.
“‘Harvey Milk Gay Day’ would teach schoolchildren the very controversial values of Harvey Milk,” Randy Thomasson, president of SaveCalifornia.com, a self-described pro-family organization, said in a statement.
“Based on the historical record of Milk’s sordid life, this could include teaching elementary and secondary schoolchildren that adult-child homosexual ‘sex’ is OK, having multiple sexual relationships at the same time is OK...”
Writers of the bill hope that students will be required to participate in “exercises remembering the life of Harvey Milk, recognizing his accomplishments, and familiarizing pupils with the contributions he made to this state,” the bill read.
Thomasson said the organization was concerned such “exercises” would include “gay-pride parades on campus, cross-dressing exercises, and mock gay weddings.”
A polarizing life
Born in 1930, Harvey Milk was the first openly gay man to be elected to public office in a major American city. Among other efforts, Milk helped to defeat a 1978 proposition that would have prevented gays and lesbians from teaching in public schools. On Nov. 27, 1978, Milk and Mayor George Moscone were assassinated at City Hall.
A recent biographical feature film about Milk, starring Sean Penn, brought national attention to Milk and his mission, which, in the 1970s, faced fierce resistance from Orange County conservatives.