Debra Walker of the San Francisco Police Commission holds a homemade sign of Harvey Milk during a memorial for the Club Q shooting victims in the Castro on Nov. 27, 2022. (Aryk Copley/KQED)
In the wake of the mass shooting that claimed the lives of five people at Club Q in Colorado Springs, over 100 people came together on a somber Sunday evening in the Castro neighborhood to mark the 44th anniversary of the assassination of San Francisco Supervisor Harvey Milk and Mayor George Moscone.
Gathered at Harvey Milk Plaza, local community leaders expressed their sadness over the recent mass shooting and highlighted how much work still needs to be done to protect LGBTQ+ communities.
"We have had so much progress in terms of new laws protecting LGBTQ people," said memorial organizer Jeffery Kwong. "But at the same time, we are shocked."
"In the last year or two, there's this significant increase in extremist voices that have weaponized false narratives about queer people, whether they be trans athletes or teachers in the classroom or drag queens, and have weaponized those narratives to launch attacks against LGBTQ+ folks and communities, to introduce laws, to roll back those same protections that we have gained in the last four or five decades," said Kwong. "And it's shocking that these extremist attacks are still out there."
'Despicable and terrifying' social media attacks
Those false narratives were top of mind Sunday night for community leaders like state Sen. Scott Weiner, who recently became the target of an anti-gay online attack from U.S. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia. The far-right Congress member, who has promoted conspiracy theories and was banned from Twitter for spreading misinformation about COVID, was reinstated to the social media platform this month following the company takeover by Elon Musk.
“The word ‘groomer’ is categorically an anti-LGBTQ hate word,” Wiener tweeted on Nov. 20, referring to a term some far-right conservatives have used to demonize the LGBTQ+ community and gay men in particular with the false stereotype and anti-gay myth that they are more likely to molest children. “It’s super homophobic/transphobic. It plays into the slander that LGBTQ people are pedophiles. It’s no different than calling someone a fagg*t. If you call someone groomer, you’re inciting violence against LGBTQ people.”
Greene responded by calling Wiener a "communist groomer" and promoting the Protect Children's Innocence Act, which would outlaw gender-affirming care for minors.
"Marjorie Taylor Greene has gone after me multiple times and homophobic ways based on legislation, laws that I've authored to protect LGBTQ people, and particularly hostility to young people, including trans young people, so it's not surprising," said Wiener.
"But it really was a vile attack to call me a quote-unquote 'communist groomer.' Communists, I don't care about. It's like a classic McCarthyism, whatever. But calling a gay man a groomer, just like they were calling the trans bartender who was murdered at Club Q a groomer, it is basically the same as calling me or us f------. And for a significant political leader, a high-ranking member of Congress, to use language like that is despicable and terrifying."
Wiener said that when powerful people with large platforms vilify LGBTQ+ people and announce to all of their followers that they are dangerous to children, it ultimately will instigate people to commit violence. He sees the rise in hate speech across social media as a cause for concern.
"Twitter was never perfect, but it did a reasonably good job of moderating hate speech and and provocations to violence," said Wiener. "And for all of these people now to be brought back in months, it just makes the platform toxic and also dangerous and just unsafe for people."
In the upset following Musk's takeover of Twitter — including layoffs of half its 7,500-person workforce, including content moderators — there's been a notable uptick in hateful content. The Network Contagion Research Institute, a group that analyzes messages on social media, reported that appearances of the N-word on the app spiked nearly 500% over the 12 hours after Musk’s deal to acquire Twitter was finalized.
'There is still work to be done'
Even in a progressive city like San Francisco, many children are still dealing with persecution for identifying as part of the LGBTQ+ community, said Jacob Stensberg, artistic director of the San Francisco Gay Men's Chorus.
"We like to think San Francisco is a bubble and everyone here is welcome and included," said Stensberg, speaking on the SFGMC's work in schools. "But we work with 12-, 13-, 14-year-olds who can't come out because of the way they're treated at school or in their communities. And so it's still about providing a space free from the threat of violence, just as it was 44 years ago."
When Harvey Milk was elected to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors in 1977, he became the first openly gay elected official in California history. A year later, his advocacy led to the Board passing an ordinance to protect gay people from workplace discrimination. During that time, Milk also opposed a state ballot measure, Proposition 6, that would have banned gay and lesbian teachers, debating then-state Sen. John Briggs on the issue.
On Nov. 27, 1978, Supervisor Milk and Mayor George Moscone were assassinated by former police officer and city supervisor Dan White. The deaths sparked a political awakening among the LGBTQ+ community and allies on gay rights issues.
“San Francisco Supervisor Harvey Milk and Mayor George Moscone were victims of hatred and gun violence 44 years ago this Sunday,” said Brian Springfield, executive director of Friends of Harvey Milk Plaza, in a statement on Friday before the gathering. The nonprofit neighborhood organization is dedicated to maintaining and improving the public plaza, which was named in honor of the politician and civil rights icon one year after his death.
“The mass shooting at Club Q that took five innocent lives in Colorado Springs is a reminder that there is still rampant gun violence and hate speech across America targeting the LGBTQ community and there is still work to be done to end this cycle of violence," continued Springfield. "The fight for full acceptance and freedom isn’t over and members of the LGBTQ+ community everywhere deserve to feel safe in public spaces."
For District 8 Supervisor Rafael Mandelmann, the anniversary felt bittersweet.
"There's hundreds and hundreds of queer elected officials," said Mandelman, of the progress the LGBTQ+ community has made since Milk's assassination. "This is a quite different world. And I think in many ways, Harvey Milk, if he were alive today ... he would be very gratified to see the changes that have happened. I think he'd also be saddened that there's still so much killing and hatred and death."
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