“LGBTQ Legacy” is a series of Equality Utah posts celebrating influential lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer individuals who have gone before us. Each post focuses on a particular person and reflects upon the ways we can honor their memory.
Harvey Milk (1930–1978) was born and raised on Long Island, New York, but he is best known for his work as an openly gay politician in San Francisco in the 1970s. Milk’s speeches and elections invigorated his supporters and received national media attention. But, tragically, his political career and his life were cut short in November 1978, when he and San Francisco’s current mayor were assassinated by a former fellow city supervisor who had recently resigned. The two killings were a shock to the city and the nation, and, in the aftermath, mourners honored the fallen men with spontaneous candlelight vigils and memorials.
Harvey Milk is still honored today as a community organizer, a gifted speaker, and an inspiring leader in San Francisco’s gay community. He was even a posthumous recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2009. Here are some of the lessons LGBTQ people and their allies can learn from his compelling example:
1. We can respect a person’s ability to evolve and make a difference at any age. Although Harvey Milk is remembered best for his work and influence as a politician, he didn’t enter the political arena until relatively late in his life. He spent his earlier years in classrooms, in the military, in office environments, and running his own business. These experiences helped form Milk into the man who would eventually inspire a community and lay the groundwork for LGBTQ equality in the decades to follow. Although we might expect people to have their worldviews and life paths firmly set while still in their youth, the truth is that we can each change. When asked about his choice to run for office, Milk was quoted in The San Francisco Examiner as saying, “I finally reached the point where I knew I had to become involved or shut up.” Like Milk, we can adjust our values and find new trajectories, even in our 40s, 50s, 60s, and beyond.
2. We can remember the value of our local communities and neighborhoods. Milk’s campaigns focused not only on the gay liberation movement but also on the importance of having strong neighborhoods. He supported increased access to childcare and public transportation, opposed the closing of an elementary school, and responded to basic complaints about stop signs and potholes. In Milk’s own words, “The American Dream starts with the neighborhoods. If we wish to rebuild our cities, we must first rebuild our neighborhoods. And to do that, we must understand that the quality of life is more important than the standard of living. To sit on the front steps—whether it’s a veranda in a small town or a concrete stoop in a big city—and to talk to our neighborhoods is infinitely more important than to huddle on the living-room lounger and watch a make-believe world in not-quite living color.” Equality Utah shares Milk’s desire to build healthy, engaged neighborhoods. We host events, like our QTalks and annual Allies Dinners, in an effort to bring people together. And we hope that EU’s active volunteering efforts also help people to feel more invested in their local communities and neighborhoods.
3. We can live authentically. Milk, of course, was forthright about his sexual orientation. And he encouraged other gay men and women to live openly as well. In 1978, at the San Francisco Gay Freedom Day Parade during the summer before his death, Milk gave an electrifying speech, saying, “On this anniversary of Stonewall I ask my gay sisters and brothers to make the commitment to fight. For themselves. For their freedom. For their country.... Gay people, we will not win their rights by staying quietly in our closets.... We are coming out! We are coming out to fight the lies, the myths, the distortions! We are coming out to tell the truth about gays! For I am tired of the conspiracy of silence.… So I’m going to talk about it. And I want you to talk about it.” In other words, Harvey Milk exemplified sincerity in his public life, and he made the most of his unique talents rather than trying to fit the mold of an electable politician.
4. We can appreciate the wider impact of LGBTQ visibility. In his signature speech, Milk declared, “Without hope, not only gays, but the blacks, the seniors, the handicapped… will give up. And if you help elect to the central committee and other offices, more gay people, that gives a green light to all who feel disenfranchised, a green light to move forward. It means hope to a nation that has given up, because if a gay person makes it, the doors are open to everyone. So if there is a message I have to give, it is that if I’ve found one overriding thing about my personal election, it’s the fact that if a gay person can be elected, it’s a green light. And you and you and you, you have to give people hope.” Ultimately, the fight for a more accepting, loving world isn’t complete if only one group of people is making strides forward. Harvey Milk reminded his supporters, many of whom were gay men, that their fight wasn’t just about them: it was relevant to all the people on the margins of society. And he saw his campaigns and his time in public office as a hopeful beacon to anyone who needed it.
Has the example of Harvey Milk made a difference in your life? And, which other LGBTQ heroes would you like to see featured in future “LGBTQ Legacy” blog posts? Let us know in the comments below or on Twitter (@EqualityUtah) or Facebook (www.facebook.com/EqualityUtah).