Milk fought for our basic human rights and dreamed of a better future. Milk urged all lesbians and gay men to come out of the closet, to stand proud and embrace the diversity that makes us each unique and special. When Milk bravely spoke out against hate, he was doing it for all of us.
Institutional change, however, is slow moving and not without struggle. Milk’s life is an example of that.
So it is breathtaking to see the cultural shift in beliefs and attitudes surrounding the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community that have occurred in the past three decades.
Harvey Milk was a populist and understood the importance of every vote. He was a campaigner with limitless energy and took note of civil rights leaders who came before him. To promote his own civil rights campaign, he used Cesar Chavez’s human billboard concept, where advocates holding political signs standing shoulder to shoulder line streets.
Milk also understood that there’s strength in numbers. He reached out beyond his natural base in the gay and lesbian community to other marginalized communities. He spoke about uniting all minorities, people of color, youth, women, elders and straight. "If we unite, we would no longer be the minority," he would say.
Milk empowered us and took action to make a difference. During Milk’s brief tenure as a San Francisco supervisor, he was successful in authoring the Gay Rights Ordinance and getting it signed into law.
He also led the statewide efforts to defeat Proposition 6, state Sen. John Briggs’ hateful proposition to ban gay teachers in California. This initiative threatened our core belief – that all people, regardless of sexual orientation, are equal. Change is still incremental today, but we must celebrate each milestone and persevere to the next conquest.
The repeal of the military’s policy of "don’t ask, don’t tell" was a major step forward. Lesbians and gay men in the military no longer have to hide their sexuality as Milk did when he served in the Navy. There is also a growing grassroots effort to name a Navy ship after Milk. While Milk was a pacifist, he would have appreciated the symbolic importance of naming a naval vessel after a gay man.
Earlier this month, President Obama showed great courage when he publicly affirmed his beliefs that same-sex couples should be allowed to marry. In sharing his thoughts with the nation, the president took a major step toward equality for all Americans. The president has led by example, appointing many lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people to his administration; honoring Milk with the Presidential Medal of Freedom; and now supporting marriage equality.
In 1977, we were taking baby steps in our fight for equal rights. In 2012, we have come a long way as the dialogue on equality is a top-of-mind issue and specific actions are reaching that goal.
Harvey Milk’s life and death changed the course of history. Milk’s legacy, to give people hope for a better tomorrow, is very much alive in the hearts of anyone working to achieve change. Thank you, Harvey!
Anne Kronenberg is the co-founder of the Harvey Milk Foundation and was the manager for Harvey Milk’s 1977 District 5 supervisorial campaign. She is the executive director of the San Francisco Department of Emergency Management.