During the 1970s, calls came in almost daily to late gay rights activist Harvey Milk’s Castro Camera store in San Francisco from youth struggling to come to terms with their sexuality.

Anne Kronenberg, Milk’s campaign manager, would answer the phone in the back of the office at 575 Castro St. and then hand it off to Milk, who was on his way to becoming the first openly gay city supervisor in the country.

“He would say (to the callers), ‘You’ve got to have hope,'” Kronenberg said today. “He’d say that the world is not a bad place, that there’s a place for each of us, and you can come someplace that will accept you.”

Today, 575 Castro St. has come full circle on what would have been Milk’s 81st birthday.

The Trevor Project–a nonprofit that provides suicide prevention and crisis counseling to gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender youth–opened a call center in the back of the Human Rights Campaign store that now occupies Milk’s former office space.

The Trevor Lifeline’s Harvey Milk Call Center has space for four volunteers to help respond to the 3,000 calls the Trevor Project’s hotline receives each month on average, spokeswoman Laura McGinnis said.

The calls range in severity from gay youth who are confused and need someone to talk to, to young people who are considering or determined to commit suicide, interim executive director David McFarland said today.

In about 1 or 2 percent of cases, crisis counselors end up working with local law enforcement to initiate a rescue of a suicidal youth, he said.

“It’s probably very similar to Harvey in that we listen to them without judgment and try to figure out what’s going on with them at that time,” McFarland said.

The hotline volunteers receive 40 hours of training and listen in on two shifts before they begin answering calls, he said. Their first two shifts are also monitored by more experienced staff.

The Harvey Milk call center is the Trevor Project’s third nationwide, McGinnis said.

Dustin Lance Black, the Oscar-winning screenwriter of the film “Milk,” came up with the idea for the center with gay rights activist Cleve Jones about six months ago, Black said.

“There was a bit of groundswell within the Castro saying, ‘We need actual services,'” he said. “We heard that call and thought this would be a solution the community would embrace, and they seem to have (done so).”

He and Jones found out that space was available in the back of 575 Castro St. for the first time since filmmakers recreated Castro Camera there for the 2008 biopic that Black wrote.

The movie presents Milk as a man ahead of his time who not only led what amounted to a one-man precursor of today’s “It Gets Better” campaign — in which prominent Americans assure struggling gay youth that things will improve for them–but also as someone who recognized that the key to equal rights was living out of the closet.

Milk was first openly gay politician in the U.S. when he and then-mayor George Moscone were assassinated on Nov. 27, 1978, by their colleague, Supervisor Dan White.

San Francisco Board of Supervisors President David Chiu and state Sen. Mark Leno, D-San Francisco, were on hand today to present the Harvey Milk call center with proclamations of commendation from the city and state.

“This proclamation thanks the Trevor Project for all the lives they have saved,” Leno said. “That they’re doing it at Harvey’s old desk really moves the spirit.”

District 8 Supervisor Scott Wiener also praised the call center and encouraged the Castro District to be more welcoming for youth. Too many of the neighborhood’s activities rely on alcohol, he said.

“We all have been young, teenage LGBT people,” he said. “We all remember the fear, anxiety and uncertainty.”

He and others emphasized that until the gay community has equal rights and recognition, safety nets like those provided by the Trevor Project are essential for LGBT youth.

“I will never be happy there is a need for this,” said Black, who serves on the board of directors for the Trevor Project. “But I am very pleased that we are providing it.”

Janna Brancolini, Bay City News

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