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    ‘I Really Want to Visit Your City!’

    By John Lewis and Stuart Gaffney–

    The lyrics of the iconic 1936 song “San Francisco” conclude with the grand proclamation: “San Francisco, welcome me home again. I’m coming home to go roaming no more.” Although we don’t promise never to “roam” again overseas to support the global marriage equality and LGBTIQ rights movement and for other travel adventures as well, we’ve never felt the City by the Bay’s welcome more warmly than when Stuart returned home last week from Japan.

    As he looked up on his way to customs and immigration at SFO, he was greeted by the enormous image of a powerful and passionate queer rights activist with their fist raised high in the air in front of a huge pink triangle with the words “NEVER AGAIN” and “FIGHT BACK” in huge letters. The poster was flanked by images of LGBTIQ street protestors, one featuring Harvey Milk and the other with marchers holding signs reading “March for Gay Rights.” Indeed, countless travelers from all around the globe see this permanent installation at SFO on a daily basis.

    “I really want to visit your city!” That was the response from a courageous Chinese LGBTIQ activist friend when Stuart shared a photo of the image with him on social media. Despite the challenges San Francisco currently faces, the city remains a beacon of hope and inspiration to myriad queer people around the world, especially people who face formidable obstacles simply being themselves in their home countries. Indeed, over the last decade that we’ve spoken about marriage equality and LGBTIQ rights in Japan and other parts of Asia, countless people have been greatly inspired when they hear us tell the story of the magic of San Francisco’s 2004 “Winter of Love.”

    An LGBTIQ Chinese university student who comes from a remote part of China recently visited San Francisco this summer as part of a 10-day training program. “Empowering” is the word he used to describe what he felt when he visited the Castro for the first time. As he walked past bookstore windows openly displaying LGBTIQ books—something that is currently unthinkable in China—he told us that he finally found a place where he felt as if he truly belonged. He had the epiphany: “This is what straight people get to feel all of the time.”

    This student, a self-described introvert, had not asked the other participants in his program to take photos of him as they spent a day visiting the city. But when he saw the enormous rainbow flag waving in the sunshine at Castro and Market, he told them that there was one photo he had to have—standing proudly in Harvey Milk Plaza in front of the flag. And after dancing at the Sundance Saloon one evening and receiving a warm welcome from strangers, he exclaimed, “I wish I could come here every week.”

    More than anything else, gun violence is what we’ve found gives foreigners pause about coming to the U.S. Of course, gun violence is a national problem caused by the powerful gun lobby and horrific rulings from the extremely conservative and out of step Republican-dominated U.S. Supreme Court. Gun violence in many parts of the U.S. is much worse than in San Francisco.  And San Francisco has sent strong gun control advocates to Washington, D.C., including Vice President Kamala Harris, House Speaker Emerita Nancy Pelosi, and Senator Dianne Feinstein. If San Francisco set national gun policy, the entire country would be a much safer place to live.

    San Francisco International Airport was lit in rainbow colors on April 9, 2020, in remembrance of lesbian pioneer Phyllis Lyon.

    And if one seriously considers the claim that San Francisco is in a “doom loop,” we must remember that during the last three years of the COVID-19 pandemic, San Francisco was indisputably a leading American city in saving the lives of its residents. According to the news outlet Governing, the COVID-19 death rate in San Francisco was approximately one-third that of the nation as a whole. Indeed, Robert Wachter, Chair of the UCSF Department of Medicine and a leading global public health expert, explained to Governing: “If the country mirrored San Francisco’s death rate, 600,000 or 700,000 people we lost would be alive today.” 

    Those are staggering statistics.  Hundreds of thousands of lives would have been saved if only the nation had conducted itself as San Francisco and its people did. We are deeply grateful to have lived during the height of the pandemic in San Francisco, where the city and its people undertook whatever was necessary to save precious lives.

    San Francisco Bay Times photographer Rink’s photo on display in the
    Harvey Milk Terminal at SFO shows activist Cleve Jones with Supervisor
    Harvey Milk and protestors in the Castro. (1978)

    We have lived in San Francisco for decades, and this is not the first time San Francisco has risen to face an overwhelming challenge. If ever there was a time that a feeling of gloom pervaded the city, it was not today but in the 1980s and early 1990s when thousands of beloved members of our communities lost their lives to HIV/AIDS. But even in the darkest times, San Francisco always answered Harvey Milk’s call that we “gotta give ‘em hope,” creating grassroots and community models of care that became an international model. We will never forget all those lost to HIV/AIDS, and all that San Francisco and its people did to meet the challenge with compassion and wisdom. We are confident that together we San Franciscans will do so again and again no matter what confronts us.

    John Lewis and Stuart Gaffney, together for over three decades, were plaintiffs in the California case for equal marriage rights decided by the California Supreme Court in 2008. Their leadership in the grassroots organization Marriage Equality USA contributed in 2015 to making same-sex marriage legal nationwide.

    6/26 and Beyond
    Published on September 7, 2023