San Francisco: City Upon a Hill for LGBT Politics?
As a kid who came out in LA just before the bigoted anti-gay marriage explosion shook the country in the early 2000s, I believed that “San Francisco values” in popular culture meant “gay.” I felt it was used as a dog whistle by right-wing politicians for years to instill fear, and castigate or “other” those who shared progressive views. But I was proud that San Francisco gave the world Harvey Milk, a coordinated and comprehensive response to the AIDS crisis, and City officials who — at personal and professional risk — championed the legalization of marriage equality. Even in my liberal LA bubble, I imagined San Francisco as a gay mecca.
But we all know San Francisco values go far beyond politics: it’s about who we are as the City. We are supposed to be a City Upon a Hill(s), leading the nation on inclusion of many dimensions and uncompromisingly accepting people for who they are.
Sadly, I’m not so sure we’ve been doing our best.
In my previous post, I discussed how Orlando shattered my sense of security as a member of the LGBT community and reawakened my resolve to advocate against xenophobia and against unfettered access to guns. There was a similar response from political leaders and everyday people around the world, especially here in San Francisco.
Within minutes of first hearing about the attack, I received an invitation to attend a vigil that evening in the Castro. San Francisco’s two openly-LGBT supervisors, Scott Wiener and David Campos, jumped into action to create a space for all of us to mourn this unfathomable tragedy.
Over 10,000 people gathered at the intersection of Castro and Market Streets around a makeshift stage on the back of a truck. Supervisor Wiener first spoke, followed by co-emcee Supervisor Campos, who took time to ensure that every dignitary in the crowd was addressed. Before he finished his list, people started chanting, “Where’s the mayor? Where’s the mayor?” and only stopped when Mayor Ed Lee was finally mentioned.
A painful day became even more estranging for me, as (at least) hundreds of people started to boo and shout at Mayor Lee when he got up to speak, not stopping until he was off the truck. It didn’t matter to these people that Mayor Lee was talking about fighting against hateful, anti-transgender bathroom laws in places like North Carolina and Mississippi. It didn’t matter that he spoke about San Francisco’s legacy as an LGBT-inclusive place while acknowledging how much work we have left to do here and around the country. They simply sought to silence him.
The lack of civility left me devastated. What kind of citizens of San Francisco are we when we try to shout down LGBT allies at a memorial event to mourn the loss of LGBT lives?
No matter one’s opinion on Mayor Lee’s overall performance, it’s fair to acknowledge that he has a stellar record on LGBT rights, including hiring a first-ever transgender adviser who will ensure that San Francisco remains not just a welcoming place for transgender city employees, but also continues engaging in pro-transgender advocacy. He has back-filled Ryan White funding for HIV/AIDS for the last five years when the federal government instituted cuts. Lee has enthusiastically signed into law every pro-LGBT bill ever passed by the Board of Supervisors during his tenure.
Allies are the key to LGBT success. Over the years, we’ve changed hearts and minds that once rejected our existence by amplifying the value of love and acceptance.
I understand that the Orlando attack touches on issues of racial justice and gun violence, both polarizing and locally relevant matters in San Francisco. This protest of the mayor occurred when our city is struggling to respond to the SF Police Department’s racist text message scandal, the shootings of unarmed people of color, and our homeless crisis. Like in other cities, people of color in San Francisco feel under attack and often unprotected by law enforcement. So I understand why many fellow residents view Orlando through such a localized lens, and I believe that they must be heard.
But these protestors singled out the Mayor in a way that did nothing but put personal enmity at center stage, resulting in many LGBT people feeling that the sense of unity so many of us sought at the Orlando vigil was shattered.
Unfortunately, the political opportunism doesn’t stop there. San Francisco is currently in the midst of a highly-divisive campaign over who will replace State Senator Mark Leno, the LGBT legislative icon termed out at the end of this year. People with strong ties to one of the candidates claimed that Latino voices were excluded from the dialogue, insinuating that one of the vigil’s hosts and senate candidates is racist, even though one of the primary organizers of the event is Latino himself.
Salt, meet wound.
The crowd’s undisciplined and disrespectful display did nothing to further their cause and did not generate much sympathy. By protesting the Mayor, they sought to turn the Orlando attack into an issue about San Francisco, rather than a space to mourn the loss of LGBT and Latino lives in Orlando, as well as speak out against grotesque attempts to pit LGBT people against Muslims. Do we want to exploit the lives of 49 murdered LGBT people to attack local, pro-LGBT politicians? Is that in any way justified?
Tragedies and related memorials can lead to advocacy, but this happens when the action comes from a place of unity and mutual support for common values. The message we hoped to send that night is that San Francisco will help lead the way in demanding commonsense gun control.
How are we, as San Francisco, supposed to fulfill our role as an LGBT haven if we let ourselves localize the Orlando tragedy in such destructive ways? Why are we neutering the City’s unified passion for eradicating xenophobia and strengthening gun control by devolving into divisive, candidate-driven campaigns?
Polarizing debate among shades of blue in San Francisco is nothing new, but if we as a city want to lead the way on LGBT issues, exploiting tragedies for political gain is not the answer.