Feature: Harvey Milk – his legacy lives on through the Harvey Milk FoundationTop Highlights, Feature Story Thursday, May 9th, 2013
As Harvey Milk Day approaches and thousands across the globe join to honor his memory and celebrate his message of hope, San Diego LGBT Weekly looks at how the Harvey Milk Foundation began and how, through the Foundation’s work, Harvey Milk’s vision continues to inspire individuals, communities and organizations throughout the world.
The biography of Harvey Milk is so well-known and thoroughly documented – perhaps none more famously so than in Randy Shilts’ choate The Mayor of Castro Street: The Life and Times of Harvey Milk – that to a certain generation of gay men and women the events leading up to his assassination Monday, Nov. 27, 1978 can seem less like a political, social and civil fantasia of a certain time and place and more like the denouement to a five- or six-year revolution manifested by and through Harvey Bernard Milk.
But Milk was more than just a first of things – the first gay man appointed to the Board of Permit Appeals in 1976, making him the first openly gay city commissioner in the United States, or the first openly gay politician in the state of California. He was a gifted orator and public servant that reshaped the political landscape in a city where top-down politics defined the city’s ruling political elite.
Milk helped to reshape the city by using the collective power of the ‘every man’ who he was sure had just as much of a voice and a right in how the city should be run as the corporate entities with deep pockets and outsized influence. Milk was also a skilled facilitator who could bring disparate interests together to help achieve a common good.
His death at 48, which Milk himself frequently presaged by saying he didn’t expect to live past 50, was to become a symbol that Shilts saw as a “metaphor for the homosexual experience in America.” No gay figure had achieved so much in such a short amount of time so that his rise, death and the ultimate injustice of murderer Dan White’s sentence came to represent the experience of millions of gay men and women in this country.
After the justifiable outrage of assassin Dan White’s sentence had petered out, there were a raft of memorials, tributes and dedications inspired by his life.
But by 1995, the dawn of a new age was upon us as radicalism and revolution were being supplanted by a growing assimilationist movement. Suddenly it wasn’t solely about the right to love anyone you wanted but about serving in our military and getting married and tax benefits.
Harvey Milk, the icon, seemed farther and farther removed from a generation that could watch Tom Hanks win an Academy Award for playing a man dying of AIDS or the comic exploits of a group of sassy, martini-toting New Yorkers in Will and Grace.
But then came 2008, our nation’s first black president and a gay civil rights movement that was on the precipice of change the likes of which we had never seen. It was the year that director Gus Van Sant and writer Dustin Lance Black introduced a new generation to Harvey with the Academy Award-wining film Milk (2008).
The following year, President Obama issued the Presidential Medal of Freedom to Harvey stating, “In the brief time in which he spoke and ran and lead, his voice stirred the aspirations of millions of people.”
Accepting on his behalf was nephew Stuart Milk who was only seventeen when Harvey was gunned down. And it was then that Stuart launched the Harvey Milk Foundation as a challenge from another of that year’s recipients, Archbishop Desmond Tutu.
The foundation that Stuart started in 2009 has shaped itself to be more than just a historically named plaza or a symbol of gay self-empowerment. The goals are to enact the political and humanitarian philosophies that Harvey embodied.
The organization, with its vast cavern of resources for educators, community organizers, law enforcement officials and others serves a vital link between those who have and can and the marginalized communities here and throughout the world that live without hope.
I managed to catch Stuart to discuss some of the issues this his organization is challenged with, the role that the transgender community plays and the genesis of the Harvey Milk Foundation.
“75 percent of the world’s population lives east of Istanbul right up to the Pacific Ocean. It’s a very dark place. There’s darkness there,” Stuart said when I asked him to paint a picture of the state of LGBT affairs in the world. “And for the LGBT community it’s as bad since my uncle ran for office and in this case it’s worse than he could have ever imagined.”
So how, then, will the Foundation’s goals change as the world moves, albeit glacially, toward a more equality-based society? “Our goal, fighting for equality, fighting for global equality, does not change. Really, one of our watchwords, and actually not even a message of my uncle’s but Martin Luther King’s message that injustice anywhere is an injustice everywhere. So, unfortunately, we have not seen progress in the Middle East. We have not seen progress in Asia. We’ve seen a repeal of progress, a brutal repeal of progress in Central and Eastern Europe.”
When I asked him about the role of the transgender community, I framed it as a study in contrasts. Here, in the United States, there is very distinct progression. It wasn’t, after all, until the gay and lesbian community began to assert and then build a foundation for their equal rights we turned our attention to the injustices of the transgender community. But Stuart made it clear that the Harvey Milk Foundation has no time for a hierarchal distribution of rights. “One of the few things we insist on when we go somewhere is fully inclusive quality work. So if we go into a region or a country or a continent that won’t be inclusive of the transgender community then we say we won’t be the right match for them. Luckily, we have been very successful.”
Citing one example of the work the Harvey Milk Foundation has done with the transgender community, Stuart pointed out that, “One of the most inspiring things we did last year – and we had to push until the last minute – for the first time ever, a panel of transgender leaders was elected, some on television, from all five continents that come together for a global summit we did in Milan. That was the first time it was ever done. People in Italy were afraid of it. People in Asia were afraid of it. When they got to see these wonderful transgender activists talk about their struggle, talk about the hypocrisy, it really opened up the doors.”
He continued, “Having said that, I think it’s important in the United States and in Western Europe and in places where we have seen progress, to recognize that the transgender community has stood with us, has stood up for us from the very beginning whether it was Stonewall or back in 2008 when it was the first time we were successful in having a Pride parade in Taksim Square in Istanbul. When the Turkish police had their water cannons and their assault rifles focused on me and Mechthild Rawert (MP of the Deutscher Bundestag and Harvey Milk Foundation board director); when we were faced with cocked machine guns and water cannons, the community that walked toward us and not away from us was the transgender community. And we have seen that throughout our history and it’s important we tell that history.”
San Diego City Commissioner Nicole Murray Ramirez who is the national chair of Harvey Milk Day 2013 and has accompanied Stuart Milk on a number of his overseas trips acknowledged the importance of the work the Foundation is doing and particularly the contribution of Stuart Milk himself. “Harvey Milk has indeed become a global icon and martyr for millions of LGBT people across the globe. People are hungry for this and to witness people from some of the most oppressed countries in the world embrace this American and see the light of hope in their eyes is something to behold.”
Murray Ramirez continued, “I have had the privilege of accompanying Stuart on some of his foreign trips and Stuart is not simply walking in his uncle’s footsteps, as some say, but he is taking his own journey and he is giving comfort and hope to our global brothers and sisters. Stuart enters these hostile environments, facing all kinds of threats, and continues to deliver these messages of hope that ensure the legacy of Harvey Milk lives on.”
Speaking of the day Stuart went to the White House in 2009 to accept the Presidential Medal of Freedom on behalf of his uncle; he retold how it all began.
“I had brought a couple of people with me and one of the people I brought with me was Anne Kronenberg, who is my friend and was Harvey’s campaign manager and his friend. So I was in the carpeted area of the White House with the president, the first lady and the thirteen people who were actually receiving the [Presidential] Medal of Freedom for themselves.
“And it was Desmond Tutu who was engaged in a conversation with us and he asked me what I was doing. And I said that I spoke at memorials for two decades and had been the spokesperson for the family. And he pointed a finger amongst all these people, including Justice Sandra Day O’Connor and Sidney Poitier and Chita Rivera and he said, ‘You have to do more. There’s a lot of infighting in the LGBT community. There is not a rallying point; there’s not a rallying person and LGBT people are discriminated against everywhere. I can’t say that for people of color. Harvey and his legacy and his message can free all those people. You must do more.’ And that was really the challenge that got us started with the foundation.”
The Harvey Milk Foundation works on a shoestring budget relying almost entirely on donations.
But one way in which we can do good is by embodying the spirit and the principles of Harvey Milk who offered hope but wanted us to work together to affect change.
For more information visit MilkFoundation.org
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