Published May 20, 2010

“My name is Harvey Milk and I’m here to recruit you.”

Harvey Milk Festival
1-10 p.m. Sat., May 22, Rosemary District, 5th St. and Central Ave., Sarasota, 228-4872 orharveymilkfestival.com; The Milk Collection Art Opening: 6-9 p.m. Fri., May 21, Pure Luxe, 513 Central Ave., Sarasota, 364-5800 or pureluxeonline.com.

Shannon Fortner sits in her home just north of the Rosemary District flipping through a small notebook filled cover to cover with phone numbers, hastily scribbled notes and artistic doodles. “This is my Harvey Milk book,” she explains, her scratchy voice straining with exhaustion. The volume was nothing but blank pages not two months ago when she decided to start organizing the Harvey Milk Festival just before traveling to England to visit her girlfriend of three years.

Fortner’s partner was her inspiration for the festival. The U.K. native has been limited to no more than 90-day stays in the U.S. due to the U.S. Immigration and Nationality Act, which states that same-sex partners of U.S. citizens are not granted permission to be sponsored for family-based immigration. So Fortner, a long-time civil rights activist and lead singer of local bandsMeteorEyes and Spontaneous Habit, decided to spend much of her two-week vacation on the phone putting together the event to raise awareness about laws that she sees as discriminatory toward Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) individuals.

The Harvey Milk Festival will coincide with California’s Harvey Milk Day, which honors the American politician who became the first openly gay man to be elected in a California public office as a member of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. The story of Milk’s life work and assassination by fellow city supervisor Dan White in 1978 was depicted in the 2008 Gus Van Sant-directed film Milk, which was nominated for eight Academy Awards.

Fortner, who shares the same birthday as Harvey Milk and was born the year he died, thought a celebration of his life was the perfect opportunity to rally Sarasotans around the civil rights issues of our time. “It really opened a lot of people’s eyes, the movieMilk,” she says. “I feel like it’s doing its job of making people aware of what happened in our past and the path of what we’re working and striving for — that every citizen in the U.S. should have the same rights, not different sets of laws, but full equality. Past generations have made things happen and opened doors for us. Now it’s time for our generation to step up and see it through.”

With the help of local friends, organizations and businesses, Fortner has managed to put together one of the most action-packed Harvey Milk-inspired events in the country according to EqualityActionNow.org, the California-based grassroots civil rights organization that was one of Fortner’s first contacts in the planning stages. The all-day festival goes well beyond a rally and candlelight vigil, with a VIP lounge and Milk screening room in Churchwalls Studio, an art gallery in Pure Luxe, a massive tent-covered beer garden set up in the empty Rosemary District lot west of Central Avenue between 4th and 5th Streets, and 20 musical acts on two stages.

A stage in Felice’s Café will feature acoustic music and an outdoor stage will showcase national and local bands, a 40-minute improv piece by Florida Studio Theatre, a kids-friendly equal rights puppet show by Dr. Nick, and a variety of speakers. Nancy’s BBQ and Stairway to Belgium will set up food stands and Gold Coast Eagle Distributing is donating a Budweiser beer truck. All proceeds from the event will benefit ALSO Out Youth, a Sarasota organization that has offered LGBT support services for 18 years.

Fortner intended to have an event that would appeal to everyone, gay or straight, and to present something that other gay-oriented groups in town haven’t offered. “It’s a music festival and that’s because that’s where I come from,” she says. “I think what Sarasota Pride is doing is totally different. I feel like what they are doing is focusing really on the gay community, and that’s a huge thing that needs to be embraced. I’m focusing on uniting that community with the rest of the community. We need our allies.”

The underlying goal, however, is to get the word out about discriminatory laws and support changes in legislation. Andrepealing the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), which defines marriage as being between a man and a woman, is priority number one. “We’ll have petitions for people to sign on different topics, LGBT related, and we’ll have information on legislation,” says Fortner. “I feel like if it’s not in your face you’re not going to know. I feel people are more open-minded they just don’t have the access to it. … With any marriage or any laws on a federal level, until DOMA is repealed that really sets everything aside. Repeal DOMA is huge.”

Some laws that will get attention at the event are specific to Florida, like Florida Statute 63.042(3), which indicates that no person who is homosexual can adopt a child. Florida Attorney General and gubernatorial candidate Bill McCollum recently felt some heat for having urged the state to hire George Rekers, the anti-gay psychologist who was recently busted by the Miami New Times with a male prostitute he found on Rentboy.com, to defend the anti-gay adoption law in a lawsuit in 2007. Florida taxpayers paid $120,000 for Rekers services, highlighting the vast distance the state still needs to travel in the battle for equal civil rights.

Two politicians who don’t share McCollum and Rekers views are Sarasota Mayor Kelly Kirschner and St. Petersburg City Council Member Steve Kornell. Kornell, the first openly gay person elected to the St. Pete City Council, is making the trip down to be the keynote speaker at the festival. Mayor Kirschner will be cutting the ribbon to kick-off the festivities and will give a proclamation as well. “I think we’ve historically had a strong gay community,” says Kirschner. “We’ve always had strong activism and there have been people and politicians that are openly gay. It’s always been a city that accepts those sorts of things and it says a lot. … Anything we can do more of in our slow season to foster festivals we should support them. I think there’s a lot of energy in the community and I think it contributes to the greater quality of life. It’s not just a festival, but celebrating that portion of our community and uniting our economy too.”

As our interview comes to a close Fortner gets a call on her cell phone from her partner in England. “I’ll call her back,” she says with a sigh. Staring down at her phone, she’s reminded of why she has put herself through so much preparing for the event: “I’ve been struggling for years being separated from my partner. You promise your partner, ‘I’m going to do whatever it takes that I can possibly do.’ So that was my intention of the Harvey Milk Festival — to use as a platform to have people uniting straight allies, co-workers, friends, family, everyone as a whole. When you promise the person you love that you will do everything it takes you will go to the extent of organizing a festival from scratch.”

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