The Legacy of Harvey Milk - Milk Week

By Zachary Schepis

Photo courtesy of Son of Groucho.

One week from today will mark the 35th anniversary of the day Harvey Bernard Milk was slain in cold blood by his former friend, and member of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, Dan White. Milk wasn’t the only victim that afternoon: moments before storming into Milk’s office, White had paid a visit to the California Mayor George Moscone. He too was shot several times by White in the City Hall and left for dead.

The year was 1978, and the citizens of San Francisco were devastated. Flags across the city descended to half mast following the order of Governor Jerry Brown. President Jimmy Carter released a statement to the nation addressing the tragedy, proclaiming Milk, “a hard-working and dedicated supervisor, a leader of San Francisco’s gay community who kept his promise to represent all constituents.”

Horror had already struck its way into the hearts of Californians, as only a week earlier Leo Ryan, a Representative of the State, had been murdered along with hundreds of other Jonestown, Guyana residents in a shocking mass suicide led by the Peoples Temple. The San Francisco Examiner ran the headline “A City in Agony”, with updates on the assassination running alongside developments on bodies returning from Guyana.

Not even his sudden death, however, could halt the wheels of change from turning; wheels that Milk had labored most of his life as a political leader to set into motion. Nor could it dampen the wrought sentiments of gratuity and love brimming in the hearts of his supporters. On Nov. 27th 1978, the night following Milk’s assassination, thousands of people came together at Castro Street, where Milk had lived and planted the early seeds for his future influence. Together they marched in a candlelit vigil all the way to City Hall.

Anne Kronenberg, co-founder of the Harvey Milk Foundation and Milk’s personal campaign manager, recalled the event for Mercury News. “Thousands of people came together on that sad day,” she said. “The only thing you heard was the sound of people crying.”

For every year since the tragedy there has been a commemoration sponsored by the Lesbian-Gay-Bisexual-Transgender (LGBT) Democratic Club, with vigils held in Castro and larger ceremonies on the steps of City Hall. His memory is attended to with overwhelming respect and steadfast diligence with good reason: Harvey Milk’s changes can still be felt today, perhaps more than ever before.

California Congressman Mark Takano is the first non-white openly-gay member of Congress. He took some time out of his busy schedule to share with BTR just how much Milk’s legacy still continues to impact our government.

“Since his election, LGBT Americans holding public office has evolved in ways we couldn’t have imagined,” says Takano. “Where it was first limited to local office, it has now reached the halls of Congress. Interestingly enough, many of the LGBT Members of Congress represent constituencies that don’t feature a heavy LGBT population – members such as Representative Maloney in Upstate New York, myself in Riverside County of California, and Representative Polis in Colorado prove just how far attitudes toward LGBT people have come.”

Milk was the first openly-gay man to hold public office in California, and made national headlines as one of the first in the country when he was elected to the San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors by Mayor Moscone in 1977. By then he was already well-known as the “Mayor of Castro Street,” where he was notorious in the community for his outspoken stance on LGBT rights. Milk had finally found his stage in the “gayborhood,” where he ran a socially liberal platform that opposed government intervention in private sexual matters and whose influence helped to get Moscone elected as mayor – a favor the mayor thanked Milk for in person before he was elected to the Board.

While in office, Milk enacted a number of reforms ranging from child care, a civilian police review board, and improved housing. He even passed a city ordinance dubbed “the pooper scooper law,” which required residents to clean up their pets’ excrement.

But Milk was most noted for the reforms he brought to the LGBT community. Milk vehemently opposed Proposition 6, knows as the Briggs Initiative. The initiative was a California state-wide ballot that would have authorized the firing of any openly-gay teacher or their supporters. Milk and other LGBT activists began a campaign that emphasized the importance of “coming out,” which led to the defeat of Proposition 6 on Nov. 7, 1978.

“Every gay person must come out,” implored Milk in a 1978 speech following the repel of the Briggs Initiative. “As difficult as it is, you must tell your immediate family. You must tell your relatives. You must tell your friends. You must tell the people you work with. You must tell the people in the stores you shop in. Once they realize that we are indeed their children, that they are indeed everywhere, every myth, every lie, every innuendo will be destroyed once and for all.”

The thunder of Milk’s words has not faded from the nation’s memory. On Oct. 10 of this year the Harvey Milk Foundation announced that the U.S. Postal Service will be honoring Milk with a stamp. The postage stamp, which is slated for release sometime in 2014, will break new ground for being the first of its kind to feature an openly LGBT politician.

The LGBT Caucus, a forum comprised of Senators and Assemblyman, mark California as the first state in the country to recognize an official caucus of openly-LGBT state legislators. They have been working together since 2002 to ensure that the equality and rights of this community remain un-infringed. The Caucus is in full support of the stamp.

“It is progress anytime an accomplished individual such as Harvey Milk is recognized for the power of his convictions up until the very end,” the LGBT Caucus tells BTR. “This commemorative stamp pays tribute to his memory and rightfully commends him as one of our country’s great civil rights leaders.”

“As the first openly-gay public official in California, he has opened the door for countless individuals across the state and the country to come out of the closet and into public life,” says Assemblymember Richard Gordon, a member of the LGBT Caucus. “He helped pave the way for me and my colleagues to run for office and showed us that a small group of civically engaged citizens can indeed change the world for years to come.”

No matter how much Milk has seemingly expanded the consciousness of countless Americans in regard to the LGBT Movement, ignorance and discrimination are monsters not altogether contained to the past. In an interview last month with One News Now, Liberty Counsel’s Matt Barber claimed that the U.S. Postal Service was “whitewashing” reality in choosing to feature Milk on the upcoming stamp.

He also concluded that, “Milk was an evil man based on his rape of teenage boys. The fact that our U.S. government would be commemorating him as some kind of hero really boggles the mind.”

This comes from the same individual who referred to the LGBT community as a “cancer that brings down societies.”

Furthermore, earlier this year the anti-gay organization Save California threatened to withdraw their children from school in response to the state wide celebration of Harvey Milk Day. Save California President Randy Thomasson even went as far as to call Milk a “sexual predator.”

But the fear and prejudice of the few only help to bolster the strength and determination of the majority who believe in the equality of all citizens, regardless of sexual orientation.

“Having parents who are engaged in their child’s education is admirable,” Assemblymember Gordon tells BTR. “However, it is a little misguided and unconstructive to deprive children of an education, even if for a day. Harvey Milk stood with the courage of his convictions and reminded us that we have a part to play in creating the future we want for ourselves. These are lessons that would serve our children well.”

One thing remains certain: no matter on which side the people may stand, the influence of Harvey Milk will not soon be forgotten.

“There is great momentum for the LGBT movement right now,” Congressman Takano tells BTR. “And we have Harvey Milk to thank for that.”