Harvey Milk Airport?

By Joel P. Engardio

Is it sacrilege for a gay person to question why we need to rename San Francisco International Airport after gay trailblazer and martyr Harvey Milk?

Milk had the courage to run as an openly gay politician before it could be done, win on the fourth try and take a bullet that would compel future generations to break down the closet door.

For that, it’s difficult as a gay man to object to putting Milk’s name on a great landmark. Yet I’m not convinced Milk needs his name on the airport—or even the Golden Gate Bridge— to keep his legacy alive.

First, there are practical reasons for keeping San Francisco’s name on the Bay Area’s largest airport. Much of the high tech innovation that drives our economy and influences global trends actually happens closer to San Jose. To stay relevant, the San Francisco brand name needs to be associated with more than just sourdough and Summer of Love. There is benefit to our city’s image when someone traveling from China for a meeting in Silicon Valley has a boarding pass destination of San Francisco.

We should also remember that past attempts to rename the airport have failed, even for Tom Lantos, the only Holocaust survivor to ever serve in Congress. Then there are San Francisco political giants like former mayor Willie Brown, Rep. Nancy Pelosi and Sen. Dianne Feinstein who are contenders for a monument to match their decades of service. Common sense says there are too many deserving names and only one San Francisco airport. Besides, “San Francisco” is already synonymous with everything Milk stood for.

What concerns me most are the opportunity costs when our elected officials spend scarce time and resources on issues like renaming the airport. I believe focus is better spent on our $4 billion in unfunded retiree health care liability. Or figuring out how to fund and maintain our buses so they run on time.

Changing the airport’s name will cost millions to create and market new signage. It will also require amending the city charter, which means putting yet another initiative on the ballot that adds to voter fatigue. We don’t need feel-good legislation that serves to raise a politician’s profile for higher office. Our supervisors should spend their political capital working on real problems that need fixing.

Milk was only a supervisor for 10 months before he was shot and killed. He wasn’t able to craft any laws to shape history. He wasn’t able to become a lion of any legislative body. That means his greatest legacy is the living, terrifying and liberating moment that every lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender person faces when they heed Milk’s call to come out.

“You must come out,” Milk said in a speech a few months before he died. “Come out to your parents. Come out to your friends. Come out to your fellow workers. Once and for all break down the myths, destroy the lies and distortions. For your sake, for their sake.”

Milk said gay people would win their rights only after becoming visible. That’s why the oral tradition of coming out is Milk’s living monument. Voters wouldn’t have embraced same-sex marriage for the first time last year and President Obama wouldn’t have supported it if enough people hadn’t followed Milk’s example.

All the kitchen tables, employee cafeterias, family rooms, coffee shops and college dorms where a coming out conversation has happened deserve Milk’s name. These monuments are the places where a friend, co-worker or relative made the attitude-changing discovery that someone they know, respect and love is gay. These places matter more to Milk’s legacy than any airport could.

Also published in San Francisco Bay Times February 7, 2013

LGBTJoel Engardio