Harvey Milk Day supporters bring awareness

"My name is Harvey Milk, and I am a gay man. What can I do for your community?"

Milk, known for his activism for gay rights, would carry this message door-to-door in nearby neighborhoods throughout the 1970s to the Excelsior District in San Francisco, a traditionally conservative district. On May 22, in commemoration of California's Harvey Milk day, a crowd of volunteers followed his lead.

At the East Los Angeles Service Center, advocacy organization Equality California (EQCA) celebrated the first annual Harvey Milk Day by coordinating a canvas of the predominantly Latino East Los Angeles area. Before the 52 volunteers surveyed the nearby neighborhoods measuring support for the legalization of gay marriage, a rally was held featuring prominent supporters of LGBT rights, including screenwriter Dustin Lance Black, who won an Academy Award last year for the movie Milk (2008), starring Sean Penn.

Black delivered an emotional address to the crowd, hoping to encourage volunteers by speaking of the importance of awareness of gay history. Inspiring the audience to action, Black specifically addressed educators, pushing for more visibility of gay leaders in school curriculum.

"You're a second-class citizen, that's what you learn growing up in school," he said. "The real work begins, because now we have to build that curriculum. We have to teach about the LGBT leaders and founders that can inspire children to excel."

Last year, Black used his film as a means of promoting Harvey Milk Day. Milk was an activist and politician who championed gay rights during the 1970s before his assassination on November 27, 1978. Senator Mark Leno of San Francisco authored the bill and, after being vetoed previously in 2008, was signed into law by Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger on October 11, 2009.

"That's the kind of political flip-flopping I like," said Black.

It is the only state holiday in the country designated to honor the life of a gay man.

EQCA regularly hosts canvases around Los Angeles County and throughout California. During these volunteer-led events, organizers lead groups door-to-door, using voter registration records to guide them to areas with high percentages of opposed voters.

Each canvas is prefaced with a training session on what and how volunteers communicate their contentious topic. Each volunteer receives a packet of information, including a roster of registered voters in dominantly anti-gay-marriage neighborhoods and a variety of forms that EQCA uses to document the successes of their visits. In this way, progress is measured and the organization can track what impact may or may not have been achieved.

"We've had conversations with 85,000 Californians last year," said Marc Solomon, Marriage Director of EQCA. "We focus on people who are not with us, engaging them and moving people one person at a time."

He previously worked in Massachusetts, campaigning for gay marriage. He was compelled to bring his efforts to California in April of 2009. Solomon maintains that his efforts have brought about quantifiable change.

Using an independent social psychology marketing firm, EQCA tracks citizens who have been approached and surveys their feelings, and they have affirmed that there has been a five percent increase in support of gay marriage in the past year. The number had previously remained stagnant at 45 percent since 2004.

EQCA works with a variety of pro-gay activist groups, including the Latino Equality Alliance (LEA), an advocacy organization dedicated to promoting at the event. LEA representatives assisted in the preliminary training session, educating volunteers on etiquette and what to expect from door-to-door canvassing.

Jacky Guerrero volunteered at EQCA before joining LEA.

"When I volunteered, I was afraid of the reception," she said. "I wasn't sure if people were going to get angry. But I was really surprised at the amount of respect I encountered."

She now volunteers with LEA in educating EQCA canvassers on the facets of Latino culture. The Latino community is regarded as one of the least accepting of LGBT rights.

"It's not that the community is conservative or close-minded," said Alfredo Lee of LEA. "It is just not in our culture to talk about these things—and not just about gay issues, he said. "We want to start the dialogue."

Even so, both Lee and Solomon maintain that once informed, the Latino community is open to change.

"Latinos move more than any group on the issue of gay marriage," said Solomon.

Other speakers included Assembly Members Hector De La Torre and City Councilmember Jose Huizar, both expressing their support of Harvey Milk's message.

"You all are the Harvey Milks of today," said Mike Ai, Los Angeles Field Manager for EQCA, in concluding the event. "Remember that when you go out door to door."

More information on future scheduled canvases can be found on EQCA's Web site, www.eqca.org.