By Linda Perine
As you may have noticed, October has not been a happy month for the San Diego LGBT community.
Earlier this month the Harvey Milk American Diner in Hillcrest closed abruptly, bouncing checks to workers and simply failing to pay others, including the Harvey Milk Foundation.
At an October 8 press conference an LA Times reporter began asking questions about allegations of sexual harassment against Republican Carl de Maio. He is an openly gay candidate for the 52nd congressional district.
Both stories have grown into full-fledged embarrassments for the LGBT community. Both stories reflect badly on the judgment and motivations of some of our community’s better known members. Both stories are, and may become more, damaging to our community. But most importantly, and possibly least apparently, both stories are part of a much larger and more corrosive identity crisis in the LGBT community.
But why should you care? As I said at the top-It’s a Gay Thing. Well, because, as the slogan says…
We Are Everywhere
The 21st century has progressed enough that most San Diegans seem pretty comfortable with the fact that there are a lot of LGBT people. Your family, your friends, your school, your church, your football team are, if not chocked full of gay folk, at least lightly sprinkled.
But you may be unaware of how politically influential the San Diego gay community is. The District Attorney, the US Attorney, the chair of the Port Commission, the chair of the Regional Airport Authority, the chair of the Equal Opportunity Employment Commission, the chair of the Civil Service Commission are all members of the LGBT community. The San Diego Unified School Board president, The President of the City Council, a County Commissioner, the Speaker of the State Assembly, the former chair of the San Diego County Democratic Party; yep, they’re gay.
One would be hard pressed to name an important civic event of the last few years that was not substantially impacted by a member of the LGBT community. From the 2010 redistricting, the election of Bob Filner, the destruction of Bob Filner, the election of the new mayor, through minimum wage and Barrio Logan to the current battle in CD52 – the movers and shakers of the LGBT community are moving and shaking in the larger community.
A recent article in The Advocate even suggested that San Diego might have supplanted San Francisco as a center of LGBT activism.
This, of course, is a good thing and I am proud of what my community has accomplished and contributed to San Diego. Our success is founded upon the fundamental liberal messages of acceptance and equality of opportunity. The LGBT community is deeply, historically and overwhelmingly populist and progressive. Each of us knows, personally, intimately, the damage done by bigotry and intolerance.
So when Republicans use campaign strategies of “guns, gays and God” to demonize us; when the Republican Party platform calls for constitutional amendments denying us the full rights of citizenship and control of our bodies; when Republican candidate and supporters call us a pestilence, want us executedor deported or castrated or simply eliminated, we remember.
Thus it is deeply troubling when it appears that the San Diego LGBT community has somehow been hijacked by right-wing opportunists, who are intent on contorting the legacy of Harvey Milk to make it appear that the LGBT community supports their right wing agenda.
“Ya gotta give ‘em hope.”
Many of you probably saw the award winning film “Milk” about the life and times of Harvey Milk. What may be difficult to understand is what an important figure Harvey Milk is to the LGBT community. The Harvey Milk Foundation, headed by Harvey’s nephew, Stuart Milk, does wonderful work for LGBT rights around the world. They work hard to counter the extreme homophobia of Uganda’s “Kill the Gays legislation or Russia’s anti-gay laws.
It is well documented that the Christian right of the Republican party support and have even written some of this extreme anti-gay legislation. That is why it has been of serious concern that the controversial activist named Nicole Murray Ramirez, who actively supports Tea Party Republicans, sits on the advisory board of the Foundation.
Thus, it was with no little trepidation that the community learned that a group of folks associated with Nicole Murray Ramirez was going to open a restaurant in Hillcrest and name it Harvey Milk’s American Diner. It seems likely that it wasRamirez’s close association with the Milk Foundation that led it to make the decision to license Harvey’s name to this group.
Going around. Coming around.
The restaurant opened in late summer of 2013. Things did not go well from the beginning. The building where the diner was located had a colorful frieze of fruits and vegetables that was historic and beloved in the neighborhood. One of the first things the new owners of HMD was paint over the frieze with gray paint. Ramirez and his group made no attempt to work with the community to preserve the flavor and whimsy of the building.
This attitude disappointed and disaffected local preservationists and longtime Hillcrest residents.
Immediately on the heels of this misstep, one of the owner had his annual birthday bash/fundraiser. This was a big community event in the middle of the heated Mayoral election. Ramirez asked Kevin Faulconer to be an honorary chair, but failed to ask David Alvarez who was supported by the majority of the community.
This was a slap in the face to both David and to the community. A time honored tradition and the facility bearing the name of an LGBT hero was being used to advance the campaign of a right wing Republican.
Many leaders of the community, myself included, asked the Ramirez and HMD owners to reconsider and invite David to be an honorary chair as well. The response was pretty nasty, and many in the community determined that they would not support the use of Harvey Milk’s name to advance photo ops for right wing politicians.
From the get go, Ramirez and the Harvey Milk Diner owners had alienated a substantial portion of their prospective customer base. I cannot say whether the diner would have prospered even with the full patronage of the community, but without it the enterprise was doomed.
As if the arrogant dismissal of neighborhood concerns and co-opting the Milk name to support ideas and values that Milk gave his life opposing were not bad enough, on October 9th they closed abruptly; stiffing their employees, vendors and other providers, including the Harvey Milk Foundation. Headlines and TV lead-ins seemed to take special interest in the Harvey Milk name. It seems unlikely that the sudden closure of Joe Blow’s Beanery would be covered by Fox, 10News and the UT.
Nicole Murray Ramirez – Stop Using Harvey Milk’s Name
A clearly angry Miriam Richter, TM counsel for the Foundation, said, “”We are just very disturbed that Harvey’s name and the Milk Foundation are being damaged by the actions of this restaurant.”
Some people in the community think that Ramirez and his group wanted to use the Harvey Milk name to create the illusion that the LGBT community supports right-wing candidates like Kevin Faulconer, Chris Cate and Carl de Maio.
To be clear, there was little chance that the photo ops and staged events would persuade the LGBT community to vote Republican. In fact, it appears that the gayborhood voted even more strongly for Alvarez in 2014 than it had for Filner in 2012. No, the purpose of this charade was to give right wing, even Tea Party, politicians the appearance of moderation by showing them to be “gay friendly”.
The community caught on really quickly to this and voted with their feet, by not supporting the Harvey Milk Diner. The enterprise failed.
But to add insult to injury, the proprietors of Harvey Milk Diner ran it into the ground, waiting until the last minute to abruptly close its doors, bouncing checks and leaving creditors unpaid. The resulting media coverage was an embarrassment to the community and damaging to the Harvey Milk name and reputation.
The Foundation spokeswoman summed it up, “We are disappointed and disturbed by the actions of the diner that bears his name. We are very concerned about the potential damage to Harvey Milk’s name.”
Linda Perine is the President of the Democratic Woman’s Club. She was chair of the LGBT Redistricting task Force in 2011 and served as Mayor Filner’s Director of Community Outreach.
This article first appeared in the San Diego Free Press October 24, 2014.