After more than three years of activist protests, the Orange County Board Supervisors have recognized Harvey Milk Day and will issue a proclamation for the first time since state officials recognized the birthday of the slain San Francisco supervisor and gay rights activist as a day of significance in 2009.
And board Chairman Shawn Nelson is planning to do it himself.
Nelson is expected to address the countywide celebration of Harvey Milk Day at 7 p.m. Thursday in the Cal State Fullerton Student Center being cosponsored by The Center OC, the Orange County Equality Coalition, Gay Neighbors, Families and Friends of Santa Ana and the chorus group Men Alive.
It was starkly different two years ago when activists from the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community attended a supervisors meeting to ask for the recognition during the public comment portion.
Not one supervisor said a word.
Milk, who served as a supervisor in San Francisco in the 1970s, was the nation's first openly gay elected official. He was killed in 1978 by Dan White, a fellow supervisor.
In some ways, Milk had a special connection to Orange County, which was responsible for one of the nation’s first anti-gay ballot initiatives. It was called the Brigg’s Initiative, named after conservative state Sen. John Briggs, who represented most of the county. He proposed a 1978 ballot initiative barring gays and lesbians from working in public schools.
To no one’s surprise, when activists returned to the Orange County Board of Supervisors in 2012, they were rejected again.
This time, however, Nelson reached out.
He told activists he wasn’t against Milk or the LGBT community but as a limited-government conservative, he just hated proclamations.
But he also hates watching people being singled out, he said. If supervisors gave out proclamations for a variety of other groups, they should do the same for Harvey Milk, Nelson argued.
Supervisors usually adopt their resolutions in December. Nelson told activists he wouldn’t support a midyear adoption but would support adding the day to the annual list of recognized dates.
The Fullerton Republican surprised LGBT activists when he followed up on his promise in December and quietly added the day to the list of recognitions.
As Harvey Milk Day approached this month, activists prepared for another campaign aimed at supervisors. When the activists didn’t see a proclamation on last week's board agenda, they began an online petition drive and expected a fight.
Instead, they got a phone call from Nelson.
“I remember being startled,” said Linda May, a Silverado resident and LGBT activist who was a founding board member of the OC Equality Coalition. “He was extremely pleasant.”
Nelson explained that he hadn’t offered a proclamation at the meeting because he hates proclamations, not gays.
Then he offered to attend the Equality Coalition's official celebration and offer a proclamation at the event. May said she was stunned.
“I was very impressed,” said May, adding that Nelson spoke passionately and authoritatively about Milk and his significance.
“He knew who Harvey Milk was and could cite why Milk should be recognized. He talked about his leadership and his courage, the fact that he was killed at his desk.”
Nelson does not consider himself a champion of gay marriage or other LGBT issues but, he said, “I saw their frustration."
And he said he understands that recognition has more to do with paying respect to a community than with a political position. “I’m just trying to be aware and realizing there’s no sense in going out and creating unnecessary hostility,” Nelson said. “Everybody deserves respect.”
Acknowledging that Nelson would likely be pressured by social conservatives not to recognize an LGBT civil rights icon, May said dealing with him had lifted her expectations about the Republican Party.
“I think he’s sensitive to the issue and people who are not part of the mainstream. He’s sensitive to rights and equality for everyone. And I’m impressed," she said.
"If more Republicans were like that," she said, "I might reconsider my registration."