“Gay brothers and sisters,…You must come out. Come out… to your parents… I know that it is hard and will hurt them but think about how they will hurt you in the voting booth! Come out to your relatives… come out to your friends… if indeed they are your friends. Come out to your neighbors… to your fellow workers… to the people who work where you eat and shop… come out only to the people you know, and who know you. Not to anyone else. But once and for all, break down the myths, destroy the lies and distortions. For your sake. For their sake. For the sake of the youngsters who are becoming scared by the votes from Dade to Eugene.”
Harvey Milk said those words in the speech he gave on June 25, 1978 (Gay Freedom Day), five months before he was assassinated by former city Supervisor Dan White. His words on that day resonate today as much as they did 42 years ago. Today Harvey Milk would have been 90 years-old and on his birthday it is important to remember the impact Milk had on the LGBTQ community.
I had never heard of Harvey Milk growing up. Needless to say, it wasn’t something that any West Virginia public school would teach. As an adult, I might have heard Milk’s name mentioned at some point but if I did it was not something I retained. It wasn’t until the Academy Award-winning film (8 to be exact including Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Original Screenplay) about Harvey Milk’s life appropriately titled Milk came out in 2008 that I took notice of who Milk was and why it was important to remember his life.
Thanks to director Gus Van Zant, screenwriter Dustin Lance Black, and Sean Penn I became interested in Milk and his legacy. What Milk did for the LGBTQ community in the seventies was he not only gave a voice to the gay community but also gave them the courage to stand up and fight for their equality.
In a time not too long after the Stonewall Uprising, attitudes on homosexuality were still mostly negative but this did not stop Milk from founding the Castro Village Association, one of the first organizations for LGBT businesses. Milk furthered the success of the Castro District in San Francisco in 1974 when he organized the first Castro Street Fair as a way to bring more customers to Castro Street businesses. The 1974 event’s prosperity transformed the Castro village Association to a power base for the gay business owners and a model for LGBT neighborhoods in the United States.1
Milk also paved the way for LGBTQ elected officials. In 1977, Milk was elected as of one San Francisco’s City-County Supervisors and was inaugurated on January 9, 1978 becoming the first non-incumbent openly gay man in the U.S. to be elected to public office. As a Supervisor, Milk created partnerships in minority groups.
One of Milk’s biggest accomplishments was leading a grassroots effort to defeat the Briggs Initiative, a ballot measure which would have prohibited gays and lesbians as well as those who supported gay and lesbian rights from teaching in public schools in California. Thanks to Milk and his supporters, the Briggs Initiative was defeated by over a million votes.
Milk’s time as a Supervisor was cut short on November 27, 1978 when Dan White shot and killed Milk and San Francisco mayor George Moscone. While he was not the first LGBTQ person to be elected to a public office (that honor goes to Kathy Kozachenko2), Milk, like others before him, paved the way for future LGBTQ candidates.
One of those individuals is Lis Regula, who was the first transgender person to run for public office in Ohio. Regula declared his candidacy for Portage County, Ohio auditor in 2018, 40 years after Milk was assassinated. I joined Regula’s campaign around late June 2018 as an unofficial photographer. While Regula lost to the Republican incumbent, he had the makings of someone that would have made a difference in public office. Regula is the type of person who is easily approachable and had some innovate ideas to make the county auditor’s office more accessible to Portage County residents. One of those ideas was to have office hours at libraries around the county in the evening for people who could not make the trip to the auditor’s office during business hours.
“Harvey Milk was known as a gay politician and made his identity a vital part of his political life,” Regula said to me over Facebook Messenger. “Thanks to him paving the way, LGBTQ folks today can let that identity take a back seat and lead on issues, the way Danica Roem (the first openly transgender elected and serving in any U.S. state legislature) has done today. That progress from Milk to Roem has been crucial, but we have to keep expanding representation until all kids see themselves in all walks of life.”
In life, Milk inspired those around him to fight for what they believed in, and in death, he became a historic figure and pioneer for later generations. On his birthday, let’s remember his life and his achievements and honor him by keep fighting for equality. Great progress has been made since Milk’s death, but we still have a long way to go.
In his speech on Gay Freedom Day, he urged all gay people to come out because he knew putting a human face to the gay rights cause would bring the point home to families as to how important the fight for equality was, which was why marriage equality happened.
Eventually there will come a day that we won’t have to fear for our lives or our jobs because of our sexuality or gender identity. But that will only happen through having courage to come out, dispelling the stereotypes and prejudices that demonize the LGBT community.
Writer’s Note: This is the opinion of one contributing writer and may not reflect the views of Instinct Magazine itself or fellow contributors.