I wasn’t familiar with the man, Supervisor Harvey Milk until Sean Penn portrayed him in the 2008 blockbuster, Milk. When the movie first came out, I didn’t quite understand what it was about and had no interest in seeing it. As a guy that had been recently diagnosed with lactose intolerance, I thought the movie was about the dairy industry. Some friends of mine convinced me otherwise and a group of us went to see it in the theaters. At the time the movie came out, I had just finally accepted myself and had just recently come out to most of my friends.
For those unfamiliar with Harvey Milk, he was a city supervisor for the city of San Francisco. He is believed to have been the first openly gay elected official in a major city. Milk worked tirelessly for the gay rights movement, cosponsoring a bill that banned discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation in the city of San Francisco. He became the face of the opposition to Prop 6 (The Briggs Initiative), a movement to ban gay teachers, suspected gay teachers and any faculty member protecting those gay teachers from holding a position as an educator in the state of California. When he took on the role of the voice for anti-Prop 6 supporters, the bill was favored to pass by a 2-1 margin in the upcoming elections. Harvey Milk traveled the state garnering support for his cause by having public debates with the sponsor of Prop 6, State Senator John Briggs. The initiative failed in 1978 in a relatively close race.
Harvey Milk along with Mayor George Moscone of San Francisco were brutally assassinated by the former city supervisor Dan White after Moscone refused to give Mr. White his job back after he had resigned from that position.
This past Wednesday would have been Harvey Milk’s 83rd birthday. As I trek along on my own path into the political field, Harvey Milk has become an inspiration and hero for me. He stood for what he believed in and never backed down. He educated Californians on homosexuality and how we are not sick. He encouraged young gay people and advocated for people to come out of the closet. He said if people around us realized they knew someone that was gay, it could help open their hearts to the LGBT community and vote no on the Briggs Initiative. His strategy must’ve worked as Prop 6 failed by a margin of 58.4% to 41.6%.
I often wonder how different this country would be if Harvey Milk’s life hasn’t been cut short. He had successfully lobbied for equality and change on the city level in San Francisco and accomplished a significant amount during his 11 months in office. With Prop 8 now before the United States Supreme Court, I wonder if the outcome for the ballot initiative would have been the same if Harvey Milk had still been around, or even if he had more time in the political arena.
Those are always going to be questions I ponder but will never know the answer. The legacy of Harvey Milk should be required knowledge for anyone who happens to be gay, and even for those who are not. His legacy should be a reminder to all of us that change can happen. Equality can happen and that we’ve got to have hope. Harvey Milk is an inspiration to all.
As I think about my own career path and my own life, I often find myself pausing and asking, what would Harvey Milk do? I don’t want to be a politician. I want to work on campaigns whether they be for politicians or initiatives I believe in. I want to lobby for equality, tolerance and acceptance. I want to work tirelessly and be as passionate as Harvey Milk was to pass sweeping reform in San Francisco and to bring down a bigoted and misguided proposition. I want people to know whether you’re gay or straight, bisexual or asexual, no matter what you are, you are no less than any other person in this world. On that same token, you’re no better than anyone else either.
Whether you’ve been out for 50 years, just came out, thinking of coming out or you’re deep in the closet, know that you are not alone. You are unique and bring a special quality to this universe. You have a large family of LGBT and allies that support you and love you for who you are.
If you are still in the closet, I encourage you to come out, but only do it when you’re ready. I’m only about 95% of the way out of the closet. The other 5% will come in time. I cherish the relationships I have with the 5% that don’t know too much to possibly destroy those relationships. It’s primarily to keep my grandparents out of the loop. Once they are gone, I will come out to the remaining family members, unless something happens that forces me out, such as a ballot initiative in Pennsylvania about gay rights.
Harvey Milk is an inspiration to us all and we will continue to carry on his legacy of equality as we fight to be treated the same as our straight counterparts.