Happy Birthday Harvey Milk! Today you would have turned 82. But your life was cut short when you were shot to death at the young age of 48, a year after being elected (as the first openly gay person) to California’s Board of Supervisors.
Harvey Milk is often considered an LBTQ rights activist, which he was. But he was an activist who saw the connections among the struggles of all disenfranchised people. In 2009, President Obama awarded Milk a posthumous Presidential Medal of Freedom, which his openly gay nephew, Stuart Milk, accepted. That same year, Stuart and Harvey Milk campaign manager Anne Kronenberg co-founded the Harvey Milk Foundation, with the support of Desmond Tutu. The Foundation established Harvey Milk Day, on May 22nd, Milk’s birthday.
Also in 2009, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger signed the Harvey Milk Day Bill, honoring the fallen hero on his birthday, and inducted Milk in the California Hall of Fame. Part of the bill encourages schools to shape their lessons on May 22nd around “remembering the life of Harvey Milk, recognizing his accomplishments and familiarizing pupils with the contributions he made to this state.”
Stuart released a statement on today’s Harvey Milk Day, saying,
Today is the celebration not of a people or community or nation being better than another, but a celebration of the knowledge that we are so much less when we do not embrace, without qualification, all members of our unique and varied humanity. My uncle’s legacy has many monuments, all those openly LGBT elected officials, all those who live an authentic and open life, all those strong allies like our President in the United States that fight to keep us embraced, the hope givers who help to full fill our potential of equality….
Today we are here are voicing the hope of a global community set on the path of inclusion – there is no more fitting tribute to my uncles dream, a dream that remains alive in each of us. Today is a day of recognition and appreciation of our own authenticity and that of others, a day to collaborate and reach out to those who still struggle with either self-acceptance or societal acceptance.
Harvey Milk day is a reminder to put hate and separation in their place, a place of learning of wrongs that have been righted and reminders not to repeat them, a day to create the dream and vision of what is possible, even in the all too many places around the world where it is still so hard to visualize that dream, as it was when my uncle spoke out over 38 years ago in the US.
Sadly, for some people, today is a reminder to embrace hate and separation, to reject learning, a day to destroy the dream and vision of what is possible. That’s how the campaign “Save California,” which calls on parents to boycott the Day by keeping their kids home from school sees it. They go as far as calling Milk a “teen predator” and urge parents to “protect your children from ‘Harvey Milk Gay Day’.”
But the legacy of Harvey Milk lives on, despite the fear, narrow-mindedness, and hate/ self-hate of some. Harvey Milk lives on in the Harvey Milk Foundation, in Harvey Milk Day, celebrated around the globe (check out events near you here.) He lives on in the Harvey Milk School in New York City, in all of the LGTBQ politicians (at least the truly progressive ones) and in all politicians whose existences and identities challenge the status quo. For his nephew Stuart, Milk lives on through political legislation:
President Obama said it best, “Harvey gave us hope, All of us, Hope unashamed, Hope unafraid” My uncle was very much with us in spirit as we watched the President and then Speaker Pelosi sign the Matthew Shepard Act and then the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. And we were all standing on his shoulders just last week when the President, true to his word in staying on the side of justice, basic dignity and human rights as he endorsed Marriage Equality, becoming the first sitting US President to make that courageous move…. These are the tangible monuments to Harvey’s legacy that have the impact to effect change, real societal change.