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Harvey Milk-SFO? I'll Take That Flight

San Francisco magazine editor-in-chief Jon Steinberg warms up to David Campos's airport proposal.

Supervisor Harvey Milk (pictured in 1978). Coming soon to an airport near you?

“You have been twisted by nature into something foul, and even I can see that you did not ask for it.” So said Carson the butler to the sad gay valet Thomas in a recent episode of Downton Abbey, aka the greatest PBS soap of our time. Carson’s line, and the sentiment behind it, actually reflects some fairly progressive reasoning for its day: In his way, he was expressing sympathy for Thomas’s “condition.” Or course, he did use some nasty pejoratives to get the point across, but keep in mind: Yorkshire, 1920, aristocrats, cummerbunds—we shouldn’t expect much.

The joy I take from Downton comes in part from its dedication to the dramatic epiphany: There’s nothing like watching a bunch of uptight fops be constantly rocked by their own naïveté. They are so easily shocked, so morally certain, so sentimental, so reactionary—at times, they sort of remind me of, well, San Franciscans. Not that we’re as repressed as those poor, starched souls, but we certainly get trapped in similar bouts of self-righteousness.

Take, for instance, the raging debate over whether to rename San Francisco International Airport after slain gay supervisor Harvey Milk. I admit that I find the timing of this proposal, which was cooked up by Supervisor David Campos, a little odd. But when I called Campos to ask about the impetus behind it, he clarified that it wasn’t a response to one specific need or one special anniversary—it just felt right.

“The reality is that I’ve been thinking about this for quite some time, and with everything that’s been happening around the country in terms of advancing LGBT rights, this seemed like an appropriate moment,” he said. I wondered whether it was also a gesture by Campos, who is gay, to counter the prevailing cultural winds that are making San Francisco less central to the larger gay rights struggle. “There’s some of that,” he said, “but it transcends that. It’s more to recognize the international appeal of Harvey and to remind people that San Francisco was the first place in the U.S. and the world where LGBT rights were discussed.”

Plenty of locals, including the editorial writers at the Chronicle, have come out virulently against Campos’s idea—which they find disruptive, aggrandizing, and wasteful. But I, for one, am warming up to it. Yeah, Milk was only a city supervisor, but who says you need to be a Reagan, Kennedy, or Bush to qualify for airport status? Quick: Who was Logan? O’Hare? McCarran? What did John Wayne have to do with Orange County aeronautics? Since when is Charles Lindbergh a San Diegan? The fact is, an airport’s name creates meaning only for those who are searching for it. For the rest of us, it’s just shorthand for the purgatory between home and hotel. And more to the point, what’s wrong with tying our airport’s identity to Milk’s? At a time when equal rights for gays are slowly but surely becoming the international standard, it would be a profound reminder to the rest of the world that San Francisco got there first.

Should the proposal be approved by the Board of Supervisors within the next few months, and then by the city’s voters on the November ballot, we can expect the bill to be several millions of dollars. Obviously, that’s a lot. But as Campos tells it, the airport’s annual budget is $783 million; the cost of a name change would be but a mere fraction of that and could be amortized over a number of years, as well as offset by private donations. So, I say to the supervisors and my fellow voters: Let’s do it. The Downtonians among us should recognize the need to embrace dramatic change. And besides, we’ll probably still call it SFO, anyway.

 

Originally published in the February issue of San Francisco
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