Yesterday evening, my partner and I watched the 2008 film Milk, which tells the story of the political career of San Francisco City Supervisor Harvey Milk, America’s first openly gay elected public official. Milk was an inspirational figure who overcame prejudice and even violence during his campaigns to be elected, but was ultimately assassinated in City Hall on 27 November 1978, less than a year after taking office.
Harvey Milk challenged not only the straight establishment in San Francisco in the cause of equality, but also many gay community leaders who had chosen to remain closeted and not to ‘rock the boat’. He believed that being open about your sexual orientation, demonstrating the number and contribution to society of gay people, would alter public opinion. And he was proved to be right as this tactic helped successfully defeat Proposition 6, an initiative by a Christian fundamentalist and uber-conservative State Senator to dismiss all homosexual teachers and those who supported them from the public school system.
In a speech on the steps of City Hall on Gay Freedom Day in 1978, Milk said:
I ask my gay sisters and brothers to make the commitment to fight. For themselves, for their freedom, for their country … 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 didn’t only campaign on behalf of LGBT people. He stood-up for workers’ rights and campaigned for larger and less expensive child care facilities, free public transportation, and the development of a board of civilians to oversee the police. He even got San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors to pass a law requiring dog owners to clear up after their pets!
What struck us in seeing the depiction of Harvey Milk’s career, was his dedication to both defending his firmly held principles and to fighting prejudice against LGBT people and all others who were excluded or suffered discrimination in San Francisco and beyond.
Whilst society has moved on and we now live in a much more tolerant and open world – certainly in Europe and North America – we still need people of principle in public life who are willing to fight for what they believe in and to stand up against bullies and bigots.
All who celebrate diversity, promote equality, and fight against discrimination should regard Harvey Milk as a twentieth century hero of civil rights, alongside Emmeline Pankhurst, Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, and Nelson Mandela.
For me Harvey Milk is an inspiration and will remain so.