Leading the Gay Pride Parade. A.P. photo. Front photo by Dan Nicoletta
A belated heartfelt happy birthday to Harvey Milk, killed in 1978 for daring to come out of the closet, be who he was and insist on his rights, who would have turned 89 on Wednesday. To commemorate this year's Harvey Milk Day, established in 2010 by his nephew Stuart Milk and the Harvey Milk Foundation, the California Senate unanimously passed a resolution honoring "his critical role in creating the modern LGBT movement" and a legacy that "left an indelible mark on the history of our nation." Born May 22, 1930, Milk was a middle-class Jewish kid from New York who played football, joined the Navy, worked on Wall Street and for Barry Goldwater's 1964 presidential campaign before finding himself a new American Dream - reinvention.
In 1977, he became the first openly gay elected official in California - and one of the first in the country - when he won a spot on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. At the still-onerous time, Anita Bryant was vowing to "Save Our Children" and John Briggs was pushing a ballot to ban gay and lesbian teachers, a measure Milk helped defeat by tirelessly debating Briggs around the state. "If I turned around every time I was called a faggot," he once said, "I'd be walking backwards, and I don't want to go backwards." In these similarly dark times, his life-giving message resonates more than ever: "You stand up and fight."
His triumphal election, and the bravery and ultimate acceptance it represented, inspired many others to follow suit. "It's not my victory, it's yours and yours and yours," a joyful Milk said to supporters when he was sworn in for the $9,500 a year job. "If a gay can win, it means there is hope the system can work for all minorities...I will fight to give those people who have walked away, hope, so that those people will walk back in. You've gotta give 'em hope." In his year of service, Milk helped pass the country's first gay rights ordinance, which in turn sparked a series of vital, legally mandated LGBTQ rights, including to same-sex marriage.
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Anne Kronenberg, his last campaign manager, said of the exuberant, tenacious Milk, "He imagined a righteous world inside his head and then he set about to create it, for real, for all of us." Given who he was and what he was doing out in the hate-filled world, he also knew he could meet a violent end. Shortly before Dan White killed him, along with Mayor George Moscone for supporting him, Milk wrote a last will and testament. “If a bullet should enter my brain," he wrote, "let that bullet destroy every closet door.” Always, he insisted, "Hope will never be silent."
After his assassination, friend and colleague Cleve Jones wrote movingly of seeing Milk's dead body on the marble floor in City Hall: "All I could think was, It’s over, it’s all over. But then the sun went down and the people began to gather. Hundreds, thousands, and then tens of thousands of people came to Castro Street — Harvey’s street — and began the long, silent march down Market Street to City Hall. We were men and women of all ages, races, and backgrounds, gay and straight alike, and as we filled the Civic Center plaza with the light of our candles, I knew that I was wrong: It wasn’t over, it was just beginning.”
Harvey's joy. Getty Image