Why do we have a Harvey Milk Day?
There are two strands of America that are always straining together and against each other. There’s the pull of individual freedom, to be who you want to be and to live life as you choose, and then there’s the fight for equality, to make sure that everyone has the same opportunities and rights as anyone else.
Harvey Milk embodied both of those impulses. He fought boldly to live life as openly gay, to forge that personal identity into a political one. He said, “A gay official is needed not just for our protection, but to set an example for younger gays that says that the system works,” while his opponent was talking about being a businessman who happened to be gay. Milk saw the freedom to live openly as a beacon of hope and a powerful statement of possibility.
At the same time, Milk fought for equality in employment — one of his first acts as San Francisco supervisor was to push for a non-discrimination act — and pushed for coalition building between minority groups. “If we unite, we would no longer be the minority,” Milk said.
Harvey Milk’s life also gives us benchmarks from which to measure progress. He served the country in the Navy, becoming a decorated diver. Some 60 years later, he could now serve openly. Milk fought for anti-discrimination laws, now 21 states and over 150 cities ban discrimination based on sexual orientation. Milk died in a hate crime. President Obama signed a law adding anti-LGBT attacks to the national hate crime legislation in 2009.
Certainly, there are still many fights necessary for full equality. LGBT Americans still can’t necessarily marry the partner they love, and the unconstitutional Defense of Marriage Act still sits as the stifling law of the land. Institutionalized discrimination, whether in employment, social services or basic rights, still defines too much of the LGBT experience.
But Harvey Milk never shied away from a tough fight.
And Milk isn’t just a hero to the LGBT community. Everyone can benefit from the example of a person who saw injustice, organized a community, and fought to end it. Everyone can understand his powerful message of hope:
And the young gay people in the Altoona, Pennsylvanias and the Richmond, Minnesotas who are coming out and hear Anita Bryant on television and her story. The only thing they have to look forward to is hope. And you have to give them hope. Hope for a better world, hope for a better tomorrow, hope for a better place to come to if the pressures at home are too great. Hope that all will be all right. Without hope, not only gays, but the blacks, the seniors, the handicapped, the us’es, the us’es will give up. And if you help elect to the central committee and other offices, more gay people, that gives a green light to all who feel disenfranchised, a green light to move forward. It means hope to a nation that has given up, because if a gay person makes it, the doors are open to everyone.
We have Harvey Milk Day today because we recognize the truth of those words, that someone can be an individual beacon of hope while fighting for the equality of everyone, of all Californians, of all Americans. We know that should be celebrated. We know that should be taught. We know that having Harvey Milk Day does exactly that. Milk may not have lived long enough to see his dreams realized, but that just means that we bear the responsibility of history to work towards that equality, and that we have the opportunity of now to make that happen. We have Harvey Milk Day because sometimes we need heroes to remind us what is possible and what we should still be fighting for.