‘You’ve Gotta Give Them Hope’

by Dennis Herrera
[Originally published in the San Francisco Chronicle, June 27, 2003]
I was re-reading “The Mayor of Castro Street” last winter when the theme was announced for the 2003 Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender Pride Parade and Celebration this weekend. It was a signature line from Harvey Milk’s political career: “You’ve gotta give them hope.”

Reading the acclaimed Milk biography by the late Randy Shilts, I couldn’t help considering anew the meaning of Milk’s words, as much for what they reveal about a remarkable leader as for what they say about an extraordinary city.

The line comes from a campaign stump speech Milk delivered frequently as a candidate for supervisor in 1977, in which he spoke eloquently about the limited options available to lesbian and gay youths at the time who struggled to come to terms with their sexual orientation in a homophobic society in such places as San Antonio and Altoona, Pa. He invited his San Francisco audiences to consider what his election might offer these disenfranchised teens who, picking up their own local newspapers, might read that voters in the distant City by the Bay had elected an openly gay supervisor.

“It gives them hope,” he said, and with it two new options: to move to San Francisco, or to stay in San Antonio and fight. “And you, and you, and you, and you, and you,” he would repeat, emphasizing individual responsibility for each of his rapt listeners. “You’ve gotta give them hope.”

In the context of a groundbreaking campaign more than a quarter-century ago, it was a persuasive and politically astute appeal to all San Franciscans on the importance of electing the first gay-identified man to a major public office. It explains much about Milk’s caliber as a politician. But in its historic context, the quote is powerful testimony to the unique qualities of the San Francisco we call home, something I referred to in my inaugural address (with admittedly less eloquence than Milk) as our “civic creed.”

Consider for a moment the political calculus behind Milk’s admonishment: “You’ve gotta give them hope” assumed that the plight of troubled youths, thousands of miles from San Francisco’s city limits, could exist as a salient voting issue here. Politically, of course, it would be a woeful miscalculation in any democracy in the world. Except in San Francisco, of course, where Milk’s instincts were ultimately proved right.

Whether it has been as “the city that knows how” or as a city of sanctuary for all manner of refugees, San Francisco has represented a beacon of hope for oppressed minorities — including sexual minorities — all over the world. We don’t merely accept one another for our differences, we protect one another for our differences. We take responsibility not merely for our fellow citizens here, but for fellow citizens in San Antonios all over the world. And if we risk the ridicule of conservative critics and talk-show hosts from time to time, may the world note a more important truth about San Francisco: We lead.

  • San Francisco led the way during the 1980s in proposing the nation’s first measures to recognize domestic partnerships. Today, domestic partner benefits are a staple in benefit packages of enlightened companies — and an important benchmark by which job-hunters judge potential employers as true meritocracies that support diversity.
  • San Francisco’s leadership in enacting and enforcing its Equal Benefits Ordinance in 1997 has seen numerous other localities follow suit. Today, Seattle and Tumwater, Wash.; Los Angeles; Berkeley and San Mateo County similarly seek equality in the benefits city contractors offer to their married workers and employees in domestic partnerships.
  • San Francisco has been at the forefront on behalf of 57 other counties statewide in defending the legality of second-parent adoptions from attack by conservative legal groups. Affording rights and responsibilities of parenthood to same-sex adoptive couples, while assuring such benefits as insurance, pensions and inheritance to adopted children.
  • Most recently, San Francisco has taken the lead for gay and lesbian survivors of domestic partnerships, and I’ve worked closely with state Board of Equalization Chairwoman Carole Migden and the San Francisco tax assessor’s office to make ours the first municipality in California to end the practice of property tax reassessment following the death of a same-sex partner. Once again, jurisdictions are already looking to the example we’ve set here.

On issues such as these and in countless other ways, San Francisco continues to provide an enlightened example to more and more localities across the nation.

And to anyone who ever doubted the importance of providing leadership and hope on issues of individual liberty, it’s worth noting that until late this week an antiquated law in Texas still made homosexual acts a criminal offense in San Antonio. On Thursday, the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Lawrence vs. Texas finally eradicated the remaining state sodomy statutes by overruling the 1986 Bowers vs. Hardwick decision. A decisive setback to institutional bigotry and intolerance in our legal system, it more importantly removes key legal underpinnings from hundreds of discriminatory laws enacted in Bowers’s wake that have helped to deprive gay men and lesbians of their rights in employment, military service, child custody matters and elsewhere.

On the eve of one of the world’s largest celebrations for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender pride, the high court gave us yet another reason to celebrate. And while it specifically honors one of our city’s largest and most vibrant communities, every San Franciscan can justly take pride in something a remarkable political pioneer recognized about our civic creed more than a quarter-century ago: “You’ve gotta give them hope,” Harvey Milk said. Because that’s what San Francisco does.

Dennis Herrera is city attorney of San Francisco.