Harvey Milk made history when he became the first openly gay man to be elected to public office in the Unites States. Discovering his life and legacy changed the way I regard LGBT rights and how best to achieve and defend them.
I first watched Milk in February 2010. I’d shown no real interest in watching it when it was out, although I was aware of all the critical acclaim bestowed upon it. I’d certainly heard of Harvey Milk, although exactly what he was ‘famous’ for had managed to escape me.
Truly inspirational films are rare; those that change your way of viewing the world, even more so. That’s exactly what Milk did for me.
Harvey Milk, Member of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors from January to February 1978, was fearless, untiring, eloquent, intelligent and thoroughly altruistic in intention. Despite vitriolic opposition from several quarters, and in the face of numerous death threats, Milk stood tall as a warrior for LGBT rights at a time when American society seemed very reticent to acknowledge them. He successfully campaigned against Proposition 6, which would have made it a legal requirement to sack teachers confirmed as being gay. He took on notorious homophobe Anita Bryant with characteristic energy and humour. All this in a country that, even to this day, struggles to reconcile its constitutional commitment to equality with the realities of life for its LGBT citizens.
Milk succeeded, with the support of San Francisco mayor, George Moscone, in passing a gay rights ordinance for his adopted home city. Perhaps even more importantly, by the time both he and Moscone were assassinated on November 27, 1978, Milk had galvanised a whole movement dedicated to the cause of LGBT equality.
Anne Kronenberg, Milk’s final campaign manager, summarised his profound contribution to the LGBT movement when she said:
What set Harvey apart from you or me was that he was a visionary. He imagined a righteous world inside his head and then he set about to create it for real, for all of us.
What Harvey Milk’s life has taught me is that it is not enough to sit at home and pontificate. It has inspired me to no longer be satisfied with supporting others in their quest for total equality but rather to become an active part of that movement. As long as gay kids are bullied in the school yard, as long as gay couples are turned away from B&Bs, as long as a gay man can be beaten to death in central London in broad daylight, there is work to be done.