Imagine you live under a government that says who you are is shameful. You are a crime against nature.
Now imagine the courage it takes to stand up to that government and say: I’m proud of who I am.
In 1955, when the U.S. Navy forced Harvey Milk to resign over questions about his sexual orientation, being a homosexual in the United States was the worst thing a person could be.
Homosexuality ranked equally with pedophilia in the public mind, and sodomy was a crime in most states.
Coming out was dangerous and revolutionary.
Harvey Milk was born May 22, 1930, in Woodmere, New York, to a family of Jewish Lithuanians. His father served in the U.S. Navy as did his mother, who served as a “yeomanette” in World War I. Growing up, Milk and his family listened on the radio to reports about the Warsaw Ghetto and European Jews under Hitler, but there was “plenty of anti-Semitism closer to home as well – nearby towns on Long Island were strongholds for the Ku Klux Klan and the American Nazi Party.”
In 1972 Milk moved to San Francisco, and the following year he ran his first campaign for the Board of Supervisors. He framed gay liberation as part of a fight for the rights of all people. According to the Advocate, Milk “molded the gay community into a united voting bloc, and his populist agenda – which attracted straight families, working-class voters, and senior citizens – gave him a powerful base.”
He lost his second campaign in 1975, but he established himself as the leading political spokesman for the gay community with strong political allies and a growing activist base. When friend and ally Mayor George Moscone appointed him to the city’s Board of Permit Appeals, he became the first openly gay city commissioner in the United States.
I know you can’t live on hope alone; but without hope, life is not worth living,”Harvey Milk
Milk won his 1977 campaign and on January 9, 1978, took his seat on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. He always was clear about why he ran for office as an openly gay man:
It’s not my victory, it’s yours and yours and yours. If a gay can win, it means there is hope that the system can work for all minorities if we fight. We’ve given them hope.”Harvey Milk, after winning a seat on the Board of Supervisors in 1977
Supervisor Milk introduced the nation’s first bill to outlaw discrimination based on sexual orientation. The San Francisco Board of Supervisors passed the bill in March, and Mayor George Moscone signed it into law on April 11, 1978.
Harvey Milk spoke of the value of persisting in the fight to achieve the American ideal of equality:
“…we will not win our rights by staying quietly in our closets.… We are coming out to fight the lies, the myths, the distortions. We are coming out to tell the truths 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. You must come out.”Harvey Milk
Harvey Milk served as a supervisor for almost 11 months. On November 27, 1978, Supervisor Dan White assassinated Harvey Milk and Mayor George Moscone.
I can’t forget the looks on faces of people who’ve lost hope. Be they gay, be they seniors, be they blacks looking for an almost-impossible job, be they Latins trying to explain their problems and aspirations in a tongue that’s foreign to them. I personally will never forget that people are more important than buildings. I use the word ‘I’ because I’m proud. I stand here tonight in front of my gay sisters, brothers and friends because I’m proud of you.”Harvey Milk
Harvey Milk used his passion and his rights to break through a wall of institutional homophobia. He led the United States to become a more perfect union, and while doing so, emerged as an American hero.
In 2009 President Barack Obama posthumously awarded Milk the highest civilian medal available to Americans, the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Milk’s citation read:
Harvey Bernard Milk dedicated his life to shattering boundaries and challenging assumptions. As one of the first openly gay elected officials in this country, he changed the landscape of opportunity for the nation’s gay community. Throughout his life, he fought discrimination with visionary courage and conviction. Before his tragic death in 1978, he wisely noted, “Hope will never be silent,” and called upon Americans to stay true to the guiding principles of equality and justice for all. Harvey Milk’s voice will forever echo in the hearts of all those who carry forward his timeless message.”The Obama White House Archives
As a U.S. citizen, you don’t necessarily get everything handed to you. But you do get the tools you need to petition the government for change. The government may or may not listen to you, and if it doesn’t, you get loud.
Harvey Milk got loud, and his faith in the power of hope is still changing our lives.
Rob Goldstein 2020
San Francisco, CA, USA
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