Image: Harvey Milk and George Moscone
AP file
In this April 1977 photo, San Francisco Supervisor Harvey Milk, left, and Mayor George Moscone are shown in the mayor's office during the signing of the city's gay rights bill.
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updated 5/21/2010 5:41:04 PM ET 2010-05-21T21:41:04

Presidential Medal of Freedom? Got that. A place in the California Hall of Fame and Sean Penn playing you on-screen? Those, too.

Now, Harvey Milk has a holiday of sorts to call his own. California will observe its first day of "special significance" Saturday honoring the slain gay-rights leader on what would have been his 80th birthday.

It took two legislative tries and the 2008 movie "Milk" to help persuade Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to sign a bill last fall establishing May 22 as Harvey Milk Day. Memorial events are planned in 20 other states.

The California measure does not close state offices as an official holiday would but does encourages public schools to conduct activities commemorating the first openly gay man elected to public office in a major U.S. city.

Milk was a member of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors in 1978 when he and Mayor George Moscone were assassinated at City Hall by former supervisor Dan White.

Milk preached a message of pride that made him an inspiration to generations of gay rights activists, and he is credited with helping defeat a ballot initiative that would have prevented gay teachers from working in public schools.

The range of activities planned in his memory — concerts, voter canvassing to repeal California's gay marriage ban, and students at some schools handing out malted milk balls and Milk Duds — speaks to Milk's singularly iconic place in gay rights history and the public's continued polarization on gay rights issues.

The day is shaping up to be even grander than its supporters anticipated. Demonstrations in St. Louis and other cities are aimed at putting pressure on Congress to repeal the ban on gays serving openly in the military and to pass a law protecting gays and transgender people from job discrimination.

"The creation of the first official day of recognition for any openly gay person in the history of this country has really touched people, many of whom have been closeted in life or faced rejection or government discrimination which continues to this day," said Geoffrey Kors, executive director of the gay rights group Equality California.

Talking about discrimination
In Milk's adopted home state, however, few public schools are marking the occasion, despite the language in the California bill that created it.

Having May 22 fall on a Saturday this year may have muted the celebrations. But a conservative group's call for parents to pull their children out of class if any Harvey Milk activities were planned probably had an effect as well, said Carolyn Laub, executive director of the Gay-Straight Alliance Network, a San Francisco group that trains students to be gay rights advocates.

"We have heard from students and teachers who are facing resistance from school administrators who do not want to acknowledge this day," Laub said.

Some students decided to sponsor movie screenings and other activities at lunch or after school in the absence of school-wide events, she said.

House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi of San Francisco was scheduled to appear at a fundraiser Friday night tied to Harvey Milk Day and benefiting Equality California's political action committee, which hopes to qualify a ballot initiative in 2012 that would repeal California's ban on same-sex marriage.

Events planned for Saturday include the premiere of a musical based on Milk's life written by Dustin Lance Black, the screenwriter who won an Oscar for "Milk" the movie, and performed by the Gay Men's Chorus of Los Angeles. The chorus plans to take the piece into high schools next year as part of project to prevent anti-gay bullying.

Stuart Milk, Harvey Milk's 49-year-old nephew and one of the guardians of his legacy, thinks his uncle would be thrilled by the various tributes, but he also wants his day to be more about uniting all marginalized minorities than merely about gay rights or the accomplishments of one man.

"It's still a hard concept for people to get," Stuart Milk said. "This isn't about having a Harvey Milk curriculum in every school. It's an opportunity to talk about what discrimination means and why it's important for everyone to feel included."

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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