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    Pride Reflections

    By Rafael Mandelman

    Ever since I was a college student back home in San Francisco for summer break, I have loved the start of June. Seeing the rainbow flags pop up on along Market Street was particularly wonderful twenty-plus years ago to a newly out young gay, but even today, all these years later, I still get a little thrill at the arrival of Pride month.

    Pride seems to have been getting an early start since California established May 22 as Harvey Milk Day back in 2009. Getting Milk’s birthday recognized as a statewide Day of Significance was no mean feat back then. Notwithstanding the fact that the State has established Days of Significance to commemorate a ton of other people, events and causes—John Muir and the California poppy, just to name a few—former Governor Schwarzenegger actually vetoed Mark Leno’s first bill establishing the day in 2008.

    But Mark persisted, as he does, and the following year he got the bill passed and signed. The intervening release of the movie Milk, and President Obama’s posthumous award of the Presidential Medal of Freedom to the slain Supervisor, might have had something to do with the Governor’s change of heart.


    In the short time since then, our community has come up with a few new traditions to commemorate Milk’s Day. For a couple of years now, the Harvey Milk LGBT Democratic Club has arranged for commemorative showings of The Times of Harvey Milk at the Castro Theater. Windows for Harvey, sponsored by the Castro Merchants, is another developing tradition now in its second year. It affords local artists the opportunity to display works commemorating Milk’s legacy in windows throughout the neighborhood.

    I find that recognized holidays are also an opportunity to mark changes from year to year. As we enter this Pride season, I have been struck by how much the political environment has changed over the last twelve months. A year ago, President Obama was in office, his Department of Education had issued guidance to schools ensuring the rights of transgender students, Antonin Scalia had died, opening the way for another Democratic appointment to the Supreme Court, and Hillary Clinton seemed certain to beat the laughably unprepared and unfit Donald Trump.

    Today, the unimaginable is reality. Trump is our president, his administration has reversed Obama’s guidance on transgender students, and Neil Gorsuch has taken Merrick Garland’s seat on the Supreme Court. Forty years ago, Harvey Milk talked about the need to give hope, not just to the gays, but to all of the Us’s—women, minorities, seniors, and the disabled, and to all of those who are struggling against oppression of one variety or another.

    The election of Barack Obama in 2008 had been a great moment for the Us’s, and it allowed for rapid progress in a number of areas. The election of Donald Trump in 2016 was clearly a significant reversal, although I suspect we will not truly understand the extent of that reversal for some time.

    It seems to me that it is in times such as these—when resistance and persistence are the necessary watchwords of the moment—that the example of Harvey Milk, his contemporaries and his successors are most necessary and useful. These individuals, after all, faced challenges far greater than the ones we face, not the least of which was that they did not know what progress the subsequent four decades could bring for LGBT people, not to mention the other Us’s. But that did not stop them. They imagined the radical transformation of our culture and politics, and by imagination, determination, and struggle they managed to bend that arc of history toward justice.

    Our task today, even in these troubled times, seems far less demanding than theirs was, precisely because we can look back to their example for inspiration. We do not have to imagine social change; we have seen it. We can build on the advances made by prior generations, provided we can preserve the hard-won gains that have been bequeathed to us.

    So this Pride, as we celebrate the legacy of Milk and all of those who labored so hard to ensure that his life and death would not be in vain, let us say a word of thanks to Mark Leno, who ensured that there would be a Harvey Milk Day in California, on which our community would be able to honor that legacy and recommit to protecting and building upon it.

    Happy Pride, everyone! May this queer holiday season help all of us find the strength to resist and persist, as long as we need to, until each and every one of us is free.

    Rafael Mandelman is a Deputy City Attorney for the City of Oakland. He has served as a member of the City College of San Francisco Board of Trustees since 2013, and is Chair of the Board of the San Francisco LGBT Community Center.