The Legacy of ‘Seeing’ Harvey Milk

The Legacy of ‘Seeing’ Harvey Milk
Associated PressSan Francisco Supervisor Harvey Milk (left) and Mayor George Moscone, during the signing of the city’s gay rights bill in April 1977. The two men were assassinated on Nov. 27, 1978.
Associated Press
San Francisco Supervisor Harvey Milk (left) and Mayor George Moscone, during the signing of the city’s gay rights bill in April 1977. The two men were assassinated on Nov. 27, 1978.

Thirty-five years ago today, our country lost a man who symbolized the breakdown of barriers for LGBT elected officials everywhere.

Harvey Milk, the first openly gay man elected to major public office in California, had held his office for less than a year before he was assassinated. But even in that short time, Milk helped erase some of the invisible boundaries defining who in our country can be elected officials.

Following Marian Wright Edelman’s famous words that “you can’t be what you can’t see,” Harvey Milk gave generations to come a successful LGBT elected official to “see.”

I like to think Milk would be proud of the progress that has been made in pursuit of equality.

When he died in 1978, you could count the number of openly LGBT people in office on one hand. A few years earlier, Kathy Kozachenko had been elected to the city council of Ann Arbor, Michigan, making her the first openly LGBT candidate elected to public office.

Fast forward four decades, and today more than one in five Americans is represented by an openly LGBT elected official.

Still, reports that the work is all but over are greatly exaggerated. The struggle continues because other things haven’t changed much since Milk’s time — especially the presence of a rabidly anti-gay right wing that has the ear of powerful GOP representatives.

Milk fought against the likes of anti-gay activist Anita Bryant and former State Senator John Briggs who campaigned for the idea that being gay should be a fireable offense. Sound familiar?

In today’s fight for the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, it’s new characters but the same old storyline. Like a broken record, the far right is still relying on myths about how employment protections for LGBT people will lead to destruction and death, about how gay people are pedophiles, about how gay people deserve to be fired.

But Milk knew that the only remedy for myth is reality. Long before studies demonstrated what some are now calling the “Rob Portman effect” — the impact on public policy support for LGBT rights of knowing someone who is LGBT — Milk knew it intuitively.

“Once they realize that we are indeed their children, that we are indeed everywhere, every myth, every lie, every innuendo will be destroyed once and for all,” he once said.

Milk was a champion of LGBT visibility, but in the 1970s he could have only dreamed of organizations like the Victory Fund, working each day to ensure that LGBT voices are at the table in legislative and executive bodies.

He could have only dreamed of nationwide networks of progressive young people, many of whom are LGBT, like affiliate PFAW Foundation’s Young Elected Officials Network, that have quite literally changed the face of leadership in our country. And he could have only dreamed of a political future in which a belief in full equality is all but a given for even non-LGBT people in progressive politics.

That change matters.

In the 1984 documentary The Times of Harvey Milk, gay activist Bill Kraus puts into words what may be Milk’s most important legacy: “Before Harvey was elected, I can remember looking at city hall and feeling like that was not my place,” Kraus reflected. “I didn’t belong there, I wasn’t welcome there… Harvey was really part of changing all that.”

When large swaths of the country do not feel that city hall or any hall of government is their place, do not feel that they have a legitimate voice in our political system, then our country’s democracy is simply not representative.

So today we remember Harvey Milk and all of the other trailblazers who opened a door that once open, thank goodness, will never be closed again.

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