In my family, our history is a sacred part of our lives. The stories of my ancestors were the stories I heard at bedtime; not Little Red Riding Hood. In my mind, I can see the dewey morning that my great, great, great grandparents Frank and Sarah Martin set off from Indianapolis in a covered wagon 160 years ago much more clearly than I can see pigs building houses. I’m actually embarassed to admit that before last November, I didn’t know who Harvey Milk was. The tragedy of my generation of LGBT activists is that we have little ties to our roots. LGBT history is not taught in public schools, or even at a college level unless you very specifically seek it out. I studied business in college and never sought the history of our community; and so, I embarked on my journey into activism without ever hearing the name of one of our greatest heroes.
Over the course of the last several months, I have sought an education on Harvey Milk. The movie MILK was gut-wrenching and uplifting at the same time, and formed a basis for my understanding. Later, I would meet Cleve Jones, one of Milk’s interns during the late 1970s. I watched The Life and Times of Harvey Milk and gained more insight. Harvey Milk was born 79 years ago today in New York, and before his entrance to activism he was a math geek. This makes me smile — it’s nice to know that someone else has made the (sometimes rocky) transition from number crunching to community organizing. What I also learned about Harvey Milk was that he served in the Navy right here in San Diego. It wasn’t until he was 40 years old and had moved from New York to Texas, and then back to California, that he decided to stay in San Francisco.
If there is one moral that I take away from my new understanding of who Harvey Milk was, it is never too late to make a difference. Harvey Milk truly lived an active life once moving to San Francisco. He built coalitions with organized labor and showed that he wasn’t a single-issue organizer. Milk respected and engaged youth in the movement, showed love and compassion for all of the people he represented (not just LGBT), and remained unphased by the cacophony telling him that he could not succeed. And he did it all while remaining truly fabulous. In 1999, TIME magazine honored Harvey Milk as one of the Most Important People of the Century, saying,
“There was a time when it was impossible for people — straight or gay — even to imagine a Harvey Milk. The funny thing about Milk is that he didn’t seem to care that he lived in such a time. After he defied the governing class of San Francisco in 1977 to become a member of its board of supervisors, many people — straight and gay — had to adjust to a new reality he embodied: that a gay person could live an honest life and succeed. That laborious adjustment plods on — now forward, now backward — though with every gay character to emerge on TV and with every presidential speech to a gay group, its eventual outcome favoring equality seems clear.”
(The excellent bio that TIME wrote of Milk can be found in full here.)
Here in California, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger had the opportunity to honor Harvey Milk last year, and declare May 22nd Harvey Milk Day in California. The legislature overwhelmingly supported this. Instead, the Governator chose to veto the bill, claiming that Harvey Milk was a historical figure of local importance only. This year, San Diego was proud not only to recognize Harvey Milk in our city by declaring today Harvey Milk Day in San Diego, but we also hosted the Inaugural Harvey Milk Diversity Breakfast. We recognized Milk for his great contributions not only to the local area of San Francisco but to the broad issue of equal rights.
The genius of Harvey Milk was not that he had any special perception of the problems facing our community. We all – given the time and inclination – can enumerate any number of problems that we would like to see addressed. Rather, what Milk saw differently was the need for new solutions. He saw that change was coming too slowly when it came at all, identified the need for a new angle on creating that change, and then took the all-important step of acting personally to make it happen. Milk didn’t just open up the opportunity, he also created a standard against which we can and should measure ourselves. By refusing to accept the establishment position on slow, plodding, non-disruptive “progress,” he set the bar to which our entire movement ought to be holding itself.
Tonight, as I light a candle in honor of the 79th birthday of our great hero Harvey Milk, I am thankful for the way in which he lived his life without apology, and the legacy he left for each of us to follow: a legacy of hope, of coalition, and of not being afraid to be who we are.
Sara Beth Brooks, who authored this post, is the Western Regional Liason for Join the Impact. She helped organize San Diego’s November 15th protest which had 25,000 people in attendance. She is the Executive Chair of the San Diego Equality Campaign. In her day job, she is a bookkeeper. You can contact her at email@example.com.