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The legacy of Harvey Milk strengthened with release of US postage stamp, community celebrations

Harvey Milk In front of his Castro Street Camera Store, circa 1977 | PHOTO: DAN NICOLETTA

Back when he first ran, unsuccessfully, for a seat on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, Harvey Milk didn’t have the stamp of approval from the so-called “gay establishment.”

Today, May 22 – which would have been his 84th birthday and is celebrated as Harvey Milk Day in California – he will be memorialized with a stamp from the United States Postal Service, complete with a dedication ceremony at the White House.

Milk, who ran three times for supervisor before being elected in 1977, was one of the first openly gay elected officials in the United States. His life was cut short when he and Mayor George Moscone were assassinated Nov. 27, 1978 after serving just 11 months in office.

In spite of the brevity of his service, his inspiration has lived on and his story has been shared widely through Randy Shilts’ award-winning book, The Mayor of Castro Street, the 1984 documentary film, The Times of Harvey Milk, which won an Academy Award for Documentary Feature and in the 2008 feature film, Milk, which also won Academy Awards for openly gay screenwriter Dustin Lance Black and actor Sean Penn, who portrayed Milk.

In 2009, he was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Barack Obama, the highest civilian award in the United States. That award was received by Milk’s nephew, Stuart Milk, who is the co-founder of the Harvey Milk Foundation. He will also be on hand for the dedication of the postage stamp.

“The Milk family thanks President Obama and other allies and champions of LGBT inclusive diversity as exemplified by Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi, all of the LGBT leaders who have stood on Uncle Harvey’s shoulders to run for and serve openly in public office, and each and every LGBT individual who goes about their daily life with authenticity, refusing to hide who they are and who they love. Together, all of us continue to move humanity forward, bending that arc of the moral universe ever closer to justice,” said Stuart Milk in a prepared statement.

“A stamp dedication ceremony at the White House comes with incredibly special significance for both place and date. President Obama and his administration have provided the nation with steadfast and trend setting leadership in support of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community in the U.S. and abroad,” Milk stated. “May 22, Harvey Milk Day, is celebrated annually on Uncle Harvey’s birthday as an official California state day of recognition and is used in communities around the world as a day for all minority groups to collaborate on the vigilance needed to achieve fully inclusive human rights for everyone, everywhere.”

San Diego’s commitment to Milk’s memory, work

The campaign for a Harvey Milk postage stamp has its roots in San Diego, where there is a street, scholarship and awards named after Milk.

Nicole Murray Ramirez, who sits on the board of the Harvey Milk Foundation and is the chair of the International Court Council of the United States, Mexico and Canada, knew Milk in the 1970s and enlisted the support of the Imperial Court members across the country in the effort to secure the Harvey Milk stamp.

“I know how important our heroes are, our civil rights icons,” Murray Ramirez said. “I collected stamps as a kid – no surprise I liked the ones with royalty and the presidents. I was involved with the (Cesar) Chavez stamp campaign. I had this idea to try to get a stamp for Harvey because there was no prominent, out gay person on any stamps when we started this seven years ago.

“At that time, people didn’t really know who he was. God bless Dustin Lance Black, because he made that movie and it changed everything,” Murray Ramirez said. “People now know who Harvey was. He was awarded the Medal of Freedom and named to the California Hall of Fame. Harvey was truly a martyr for the gay community.”

Murray Ramirez is clear that he’s not finished finding ways to honor the life and work of Harvey Milk. “We gotta get a ship (Milk served in the U.S. Navy), we gotta get a national holiday,” Murray Ramirez said. “I may not see it in my lifetime, but we have great Americans who have made great contributions to our nation, our state and our city.”

San Diego is also home to the hugely popular Harvey Milk Diversity Breakfast produced by The San Diego LGBT Community Center. In just six years, the breakfast has already become a “must-attend” event among civic leaders, and sells out to 1,000 people annually. And Harvey Milk breakfasts and other community events are springing up in cities across the country.

This year’s event takes place today, May 22, at the San Diego Bayfront Hilton, and will feature San Diego’s own Assembly Speaker Toni Atkins as the keynote speaker, and the recipient of the Harvey Milk Equality Award. Atkins, who served on the San Diego City Council before being elected to the State Assembly, was just sworn in as the first openly lesbian speaker, the third woman and the first San Diegan to hold that position.

“It’s incredibly important to take a moment to celebrate the life and legacy of an American hero,” said Robert Gleason, who has been a co-chair of the event since its inception. “Harvey’s work was not only about the power of being out and being yourself, it was also about the power of coalition – to work with other communities who have experienced discrimination, who have been marginalized, to stand together and stand up for access and equality and justice. That’s particularly important here in San Diego, and I think we keep getting better and better at it.”

Gleason and Murray Ramirez, who is the other event co-chair, both credited San Diego’s annual All Peoples Celebration and the Cesar Chavez Community Breakfast as models for building the Harvey Milk Diversity Breakfast.

“While we are celebrating someone who is long since not with us, the movement is very much in the present,” Gleason said. “And that’s part of the message – to build and sustain a coalition that is focused on achieving the goals we share in common; to continue to see and build on that unity of purpose.”

“Every single year we come together, there’s something relevant for us to talk about,” Gleason continued. “This event is important to people. They feel they need to be there, to be part of it. The work, the content is all relevant and it’s all happening right now.”

Gleason noted the appropriateness of hosting an event honoring Milk in San Diego, with its history of openly gay and lesbian elected and appointed officials going back more than two decades now.

“This program is about Harvey Milk. The community has collectively decided that he is one of our symbolic forbearers, and he was an elected official. He fought for equality in terms of equality of representation. In a place like San Diego, that is so full of trailblazers in elected office, it’s so clear how we can achieve equality.

“There is a deep community pride in seeing your own in office, and in San Diego we have such a long history of that. Now, from Chris Kehoe being the first and only, we have a dozen or so elected officials, including the president of the school board, the City Council president and the speaker of the Assembly,” Gleason said. “When you listen to Harvey’s message, and you come to the breakfast and you see them all up there on the stage, you know how much they’ve done.

“He was so visionary to see that real progress was only going to come with linked arms with other communities,” Gleason said. “That vision is timeless, and certainly timely. In that prism, it’s absolutely right that we celebrate him in this way. Our progress as a community has come from having a seat at the table, from being in the room, from being in office. It’s really fitting that Harvey is a symbol of that. It’s how we’ve gotten here, to this moment in time.”

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Posted by on May 22, 2014. Filed under Feature Story, Top Highlights. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. You can leave a response or trackback to this entry

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