Harvey Milk never lived to see his life’s work come to fruition.
But on Thursday, some of the elected officials and dignitaries he inspired paid tribute to him in a White House ceremony unveiling a commemorative stamp bearing the image of the slain gay rights leader.
Milk, who would have turned 84 on Thursday, was one of the country’s first openly gay officeholders, elected to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors in 1977. The cost of a first-class stamp was 13 cents at the time. But Milk’s grassroots campaign didn’t have enough money to buy them, recalled Anne Kronenberg, a friend and top political aide.
“I find it ironic that during his campaign, we couldn’t afford the postage,” said Kronenberg, who’s now executive director of the San Francisco Department of Emergency Management.
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Milk’s victory came at a steeper cost. He endured constant harassment and death threats. He famously predicted his own death, but hoped the bullet that killed him would eventually shatter closet doors everywhere.
On Nov. 27, 1978, a disgruntled former colleague shot and killed Milk and Mayor George Moscone at San Francisco City Hall. The killer, Dan White, was found not guilty of murder and only served five years in prison for voluntary manslaughter.
At the White House ceremony, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., recalled asking after Milk’s funeral, “Is this how it ends?”
Pelosi, a state Democratic Party leader back then, said, “But it was the beginning of so much.”
In the 35 years since his death, lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Americans have been elected to every office from city council to the U.S. Senate. They’ve gained the right to serve openly in the armed forces and to marry in 19 states. The National Football League this year drafted its first openly gay player.
“He had a dream that he did not get to see become real,” said his nephew, Stuart Milk, founder and president of the Harvey Milk Foundation.
Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., the legendary civil rights leader, said Milk caused “good trouble,” making ripples that built into a tidal wave that swept away discriminatory laws and broke down barriers for gay officeholders.
“I am a direct beneficiary of the work of Harvey Milk,” said Evan Low, a city council member in Campbell, Calif., who also served as mayor.
Sen. Tammy Baldwin, D-Wis., said it was hard to imagine a time when running for the San Francisco Board of Supervisors as an openly gay candidate was a “revolutionary act.” In 1998, Baldwin became the first openly gay non-incumbent elected to the House of Representatives. In 2012, she made history again by becoming America’s first openly gay senator.
Today, there are eight openly gay members of Congress, all Democrats. In a sign of growing public acceptance, three openly gay Republicans are running for House seats this year.
Still, in 29 states, there are no laws that protect workers from employment discrimination based on sexual orientation. Lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender – LGBT – youth endure more harassment than their peers, and they commit suicide at a higher rate.
And for all the progress LGBT Americans have seen, their peers across the world continue to struggle. Samantha Power, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, said that 76 countries criminalize the existence of LGBT people.
Power said that support for LGBT rights is a “central part of our foreign policy,” and it can be traced back to Milk’s work.
“He demanded dignity for himself and for all Americans,” she said. “In short, Harvey Milk made America more American.”
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