Here’s the text of my Guest Commentary in the Visalia Times Delta of May 20, 2011.
“My name is Harvey Milk, and I’m here to recruit you.”
Making this statement during public appearances, Harvey Milk was recruiting people to come out of the closet. He felt this action was the most important thing people in the LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender) community could do to ensure their civil rights. If more people were aware of the gay associates, friends, family and loved ones around them, it would become impossible for most of them to continue past habits of discrimination.
Sunday, May 22, is the second annual California Harvey Milk Day. It’s a day to remind all Californians of the ability of one person to make a difference.
Entering politics in 1973, Harvey Milk went from a small business owner frustrated with government red tape to a San Francisco supervisor in 1978. After only 10 months in office, he was assassinated, along with Mayor George Moscone, by disgruntled former Supervisor Dan White. Yet in those few years, Milk became an iconic leader for LGBT rights; his short political career would inspire political and social action across decades.
An Academy Award-winning movie about his political life, starring Sean Penn as Milk, was released in 2008. In August 2009, President Barack Obama posthumously awarded Milk the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Also in 2009, California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed legislation passed by the state Legislature designating May 22 as Harvey Milk Day.
Perhaps more than anything else in Milk’s struggles for equality, the call to come out of the closet has resounded the loudest across the years since his death.
As more people have been willing to be out about their orientation, we’ve seen a lessening of the ignorance and bigotry directed towards the gay community.
Even in communities as conservative as Visalia, times have changed. While there are still many closeted people in this area, many have decided to step out and live their lives as they see fit, and not as some with closed minds might prefer.
Harvey Milk was adamant that being out was the most important thing a gay person could do. At the time of his assassination in 1978, same-sex marriage was legal nowhere in the United States. Today, five states and the District of Columbia recognize equality by allowing such ceremonies.
California did, for a short time, before out-of-state religious groups began a concerted effort to persuade enough voters that marriage was somehow in danger by letting more people get married.
Many states now have civil unions, which provide many of the same protections (but not all) as marriage. Legislation and court actions continue to increase the protection of LGBT Americans in schools, businesses and government. Many of those same laws and court actions protect other minorities and marginalized groups, as well.
The arc of history in the United States and around the world is clearly toward full legal equality in marriage and civil life, and Harvey Milk was a staunch early leader in that effort. His efforts paved the way for much of what came later, and we are well reminded to honor his memory and use it as an inspiration in the struggles that still remain.
ª Jim Reeves is a near-lifelong Visalian, a 911 dispatcher in Tulare County and editor at QueerVisalia.com.