HRC’s Planned Rental of Harvey Milk Camera Shop Strikes a Nerve

575 Castro as recreated for the Gus van Sant biopic Milk.

Activists and friends of Harvey Milk are speaking out for and against the Human Rights Campaign's planned rental of Milk's old camera shop at 575 Castro Street. The group plans to use it as a retail shop and action center.

(Cleve Jones photo by Brian Kusler)

Writes The Bay Area Reporter: Jones

While Dan Nicoletta, a photographer who befriended Milk, said he feels HRC's being in the historic retail location is "an awkward fit," he does not see a need to "police" who control's Milk's legacy.

"Even though lots of people who were/are the antithesis of what Milk stood for continue to brazenly co-opt his name on a regular basis, the 2010 truth of the matter is that Harvey's legacy is everybody's now," wrote Nicoletta in an e-mailed response. "I hope that this new HRC location will truly be an action center as the press release states and not simply a cottage industry. The countless visitors to San Francisco's LGBT mecca need something more than a T-shirt or a coffee mug to take home to their respective struggles, hopefully HRC will do its part to honor the legacy which it seeks to represent in this instance and provide that."

But in interviews with the Bay Area Reporter, Milk confidante Cleve Jones (pictured) and his former speechwriter Frank Robinson, as well as screenwriter Dustin Lance Black, who won an Academy Award for his biopic about Milk, lambasted HRC for using Milk's legacy for its own financial gain.

"To start selling Harvey Milk coffee mugs, Milk condoms, whatever merchandise … for God's sake no. It is a cheapening of Harvey's image," said Robinson, who lives nearby the store. "Harvey essentially gave his life for the gay community and for anybody to go in there and make money off of his image by selling cheap trinkets, I am sorry that is a no-no in my opinion."

Jones said that anyone who knew Milk and what he stood for would never equate his brand of progressive, grassroots political activism with the Human Rights Campaign, long criticized as being more interested with having access to Democratic political leaders than pushing for LGBT rights.

Harvey-milk San Francisco-based activist Michael Petrelis called HRC's rental of the shop "gay perversion".

"In taking over the lease of Harvey's old shop, HRC is showing us again how desperate they are to develop some bona fide grassroots credibility, by moving half a block in the Castro from their current "action center's" location. That move will not transform HRC into an effective advocate for the gays. That center, BTW, has never been the site for an open forum or series of meetings by HRC's San Francisco local organizing committee. It's just a gift store outlet whose sole purpose is to take local gay dollars and ship them to DC, to pay for HRC's headquarters and robust executive salaries."

The Log Cabin Republicans of San Francisco also blasted the move, arguing that Harvey Milk worked for both Democrats and Republicans and HRC does not. Said LCRSF president Dan Brown.

“Harvey Milk supported both Republican and Democratic candidates throughout his life, and continually sought to reach consensus on both sides of the aisle for the benefit of us all. He tried to get everyone involved in fighting for their rights, whether by volunteering, lobbying, protesting, running for office, talking to friends, coworkers and family, and yes, even fundraising. If HRC, as the largest LGBT rights organization by funding, took a page from Harvey’s book rather than relying on empty promises from elected officials that rarely materialize, then we would be much closer to full equality than we currently are.”

Besen At least one activist (who is also a former spokesman for HRC) is defending them. Wayne Besen (right), of Truth Wins Out, scolded Black, calling his criticism a "cheap shot" at the organization:

"It is disappointing to watch Black throw a petty little tantrum that is unworthy of his honorable reputation. If he does not like HRC that is his prerogative. However, the answer is to start an organization of his own, not take underhanded swipes at our nation’s largest LGBT group. As Black must know, real estate is quite pricey on San Francisco’s Castro Street. The alternative to HRC running this store is to have a bland chain outlet take over the space that offers no value to the LGBT community. At least HRC has an action center, where people can make a difference by reaching out to their elected officials."

Besen also takes issue with the LCR:

"The Human Rights Campaign has endorsed many Republicans over the years, even at the price of alienating much of its liberal base. The only reason that HRC has not embraced more members of the GOP is that they are so crappy on LGBT rights that they are not worthy of support."

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  1. says

    I’m sorry I think Wayne is off base on his comment and I think he’s just more pissy that the LCR had the nerve to say something.

    That being said. IMO it is an OUTRAGE that HRC is taking over that spot to use as a gift store. It they were going to use it as an archive or a museum MAYBE I wouldn’t be so pissed. But its very crass and calloused to use it for selling thier merchandise to support a group that probably wouyld not have approved or accepted Harvey had it been around at the time like the elitist homos in SF didn’t at that time

  2. Danny says

    Though some of the rhetoric seems overstated to me, Mr Petrelis’ reading of the HRC is right on point: HRC is a sham that is so out of touch with the people it pretends to fight for that they ought to laughed out of any town–except Washington, where they’re a good fit. HRC thinks itself a bunch of political “experts” with their pulse on the gay community. They don’t care about or are way to expert to be bothered about what real people think about real issues. They prefer the heady-glitzy DC lobbying scene, complete with cushy offices. Ever since they endorsed Al D’Amato for Senate I wouldn’t wipe my ass with their logo. As far as I am able to learn, they haven’t improved their technique for evaluating gay-friendly candidates since that time. Brooks Brothers Pansies.

  3. says

    Is it any surpise that the former spokesperson for HCR, wayne besen, would be as mean spirited towards his community as the leaders of HCR have been in their ongoing quest to spout democratic/ofa talking points to the LGBT community while pretending to be “advocates”? He and his cohort at TWO, Evan Hurst, have been doing nothing but apologizing for the bigoted, anti-gay actions of the Obama administration from day one. Their faux advocacy has led to the deep divisions and misleading propaganda that plague our community. They are a disgrace.

  4. Jeffrey Taylor says

    I would appreciate it very much if beltway activists like Wayne Besen would refrain from giving advice on the makeup of our local neighborhood. He has precious little idea of what he is talking about when it comes to Castro rents, let alone the Byzantine permit process to open a business of any kind on our city. We’ve done a fairly good job with the Castro for nearly 40 years, and I think we could do without the advice of outsiders whose own gay neighborhoods aren’t doing so well.

    LGBT activism is spiritually dead as long as K Street runs the show, and the first person or group that comes up with an EFFECTIVE idea that breaks through our corporate-style activism and their stranglehold on the press and corporate and private purse strings. We should expect more affronts from out-of-touch elitists such as this until such a solution is found. I refuse to waste money or participation in any LGBT political action, and have redirected my activist efforts towards direct services for LGBT people until this era of ‘corporatized’, lobbyist-style activism is over.

  5. Z says

    Who cares? Before HRC moved in, the space was occupied by another store selling overpriced tchotchkes. Why is it worse to have the profits going to HRC, which for all the legitimate criticisms does a lot for us in Washington, instead of into the pockets of private businesspeople who would spend the profits for their own benefit instead of ours? If the complainers want to buy the place and turn it into a museum, fine, but otherwise I see no reason to whine about it.

  6. Patric says

    Danny, I voted for neither D’Amato nor Schumer in ’98 but, and I say this as someone who has never voted for a Republican in my life, HRC’s endorsement of D’Amato was defensible. While Schumer has come around since and while HRC perhaps should have issued no endorsement in that race, they most certainly were correct to not endorse Schumer, whose vote for DOMA was completely unnecessary politically and a real outrage.

  7. says

    the point is, z, that HRC sees this as yet another way to fill their coffers to pay for ritzy parties and joe’s $300,000 salary. The disneyfication of Harvey Milk will not generate money for our community, but rather shore up the funds of an organization whose grassroots donations are drying up because it is becoming clear that they are nothing more than a propaganda outlet for the DNC and OFA. Let THEM pay for it, and stop pretending they are lobbying for the lgbt community. It is incredibly offensive that they would use the name of an activist like Harvey Milk to continue to support policies and politicians that do real damage to our community. If they do occupy this space, all of us who really believe in equality through grassroots actions should boycott it.

  8. ehllo says

    Z is right. This space was already a gift shop. For three decades locals and activists could have worked to make it a protected historic destination of some sort…but they didn’t.

    You may not like HRC’s brand of action, and that’s fine. Don’t support them. But you cross a line when you begin to dictate where and how they operate.

  9. ColinATL says

    I’m no huge fan of HRC. I actually really like their non-political work with faith communities and with corporations. But their political operations stink and have seen no major successes in decades. Regardless of all that, I think Wayne Besen for the most part has it right, if he may be a little insensitive in casting aspersions. HRC is as good a steward as any, and if the Castro community was so sensitive about it, why haven’t they already protected this space? Ultimately, HRC has to work with Harvey Milk’s estate to license his image, so you can’t get to upset with anyone but Harvey’s heirs. In the end, I think a commercialized effort will raise the profile of an important historical figure, even if it is akin to Disney-ification…

  10. says

    Nicoletta is right. This is a tempest in a teapot; we have far more important things to be upset about. Cleve Jones is nothing but a media whore trolling for attention.

  11. Eric says

    It’s disappointing that SF District 8 elected Scott Weiner. He thinks the HRC moving in is a great idea. That shows how out of touch he is with the Castro community.

  12. Paul R says

    Add me to the list of people who don’t give a crap. It’s a storefront. Yes, one with history, but not exactly one with a vaunted history for quite some time. HRC often doesn’t help us but it’s not like it’s really hurting.

    I also have trouble with Michael Petrelis, and so automatically take the opposing position. Really mature, I know.

  13. Tony J says

    These objections are sad. HRC is an ideal group for this location.

    It is an empty storefront now.

    Harvey probably would have been a strong supporter of HRC, so I wish these NIMBYS would find something else that they should fight over…..

    In fact, I find it astounding that these pathetic arguments against HRC are being given any credence….

  14. BobN says

    Since Harvey Milk had a shop there, there has been a lot of progress on gay rights. NONE OF IT has been by Republicans, not even in California. It has, in fact, been fought against by Republicans, even in California.

    So I certainly have no problem with HRC renting the space on any sort of “partisan” basis. Especially since HRC occasionally supports the rare GOPer who isn’t opposed to gay rights.

    To the LCR: fix your party, then you can whine.

  15. John says

    The California Republican Party is cut from the same cloth as the Arizona Republican Party.

    It is a very, very, very conservative party.

    The only difference is Republicans in California have repeatedly failed to recognize that the state’s demographics have shifted decidedly against them. Their nostalgia for the Beach Boys “Iowa on the Pacific” days have apparently turned their brains into mush. Secure behind their little Orange County fortress, GOP leaders in the Golden State are increasingly out of touch with reality. These people are still talking about overturning Roe v. Wade, therapy for homosexuality, keeping illegal immigrants out, etc.

    That train left the station a long time ago.

  16. Rand says

    The Castro elected someone named Wiener? Really? Sounds about right for San Francisco and their dysfunctional Board of Stupidvisors. Embarrassing to be a part of that city government.

  17. Adrian says

    I hope they are able to stop the corrupt and disgusting HRC from getting the building. I will send money to anyone that will stop HRC! HRC is only cared about raising money to have yet another multi million dollar party. HRC and GLAAD are the bottom feeders of the gay community! Screw um!

  18. says

    It never ceases to amaze me when I read the words of certain gay Firebaggers who interpret anything but a pitchforks/torches mentality toward the president as being an “Obama apologist.” Indeed, Wayne and I go after the President and the rest of the Democratic party all the time, but we don’t do it with whiny faux Sarah Bernhardt tears like so many in the politically active gay community, so we are branded as apologists.


  19. says

    Many people have made money off Harvey Milk’s
    legacy including his nephew Stuart. I knew Harvey as a friend, and I believe Harvey would of had no problem with HRC anymore then I did. I was disappointed that they left the “T”out of many of their gay programs, as well have too many “Black-tie” events that cost many students,seniors and blue collar gays out of those events. Like all other groups… gays are no different. We belong to far right and left organization, and there are too many heterophobes among us,too.