The following is a guest post by South Dakota State Senator Angie Buhl O’Donnell, a member of People For the American Way Foundation’s Young Elected Officials Network.
Harvey Milk’s words inspired audiences throughout his life, but his most enduring words may have been the simple push to “come out, come out wherever you are.”
To me, that’s the most important legacy of the political leader we lost 35 years ago this week – his insistence on the far-reaching impact of the very personal act of coming out. Despite the potential downsides, despite the fact that it can feel easier not to come out, Harvey Milk knew that our community must be visible in order to make legal and social equality a reality.
While Milk spent much of his life in urban centers, I believe the urgency to make ourselves visible is even greater in places like South Dakota, where I live. It’s 2013, but some people still think LGBT people only exist in New York or San Francisco. As researcher Mary Gray has written, popular representations of rural LGBT people paint us as “out of place” in states like South Dakota – as people who need to “seek out belonging in an urban elsewhere to find happiness.” But LGBT people are in every part of our country, and we are increasingly visible in the political landscape.
Milk’s legacy has been a personal inspiration for me, as an openly bisexual elected official. Earlier this year, I became a Harvey Milk Champion of Change. While I was honored to be recognized by the White House with an award bearing his name, I actually had some hesitation about accepting. As a bisexual woman married to a man, I was worried about people thinking I didn’t really “deserve” it. But I realized that line of reasoning was not what Harvey Milk would have embraced. His legacy is about sharing your own identity, your own truth in whatever form that might take. Besides, there’s a “B” in “LGBT” for a reason.
The following is a guest post by Campbell, California Mayor Evan Low, a member of People For the American Way Foundation’s Young Elected Officials Network.
In 2009, I became the youngest openly gay mayor as well as the youngest Asian-American mayor in the country. Some journalists wrote about how I was making history, but I like to point out that I was preceded by a number of other courageous “firsts.”
I became mayor 35 years after Kathy Kozachenko was the first openly LGBT person elected to public office, and 32 years after Harvey Milk – affectionately known as “the mayor of Castro Street” – was elected to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors in the same state I serve today.
This week marks the anniversary of the tragic end of Milk’s short time in office, when he and Mayor George Moscone were shot and killed by Supervisor Dan White. But the legacy of Harvey Milk and other LGBT trailblazers is very much alive. Today there are more than 500 openly LGBT elected or appointed officials serving our country. Through their service and that of public officials representing other marginalized communities, it is clear that our democracy works best when our lawmakers reflect the nation’s diversity.
That’s not to say that things are always easy for LGBT elected officials. Like Milk, I have received my share of hate mail, with messages like: “We don’t want the homosexual agenda in our community.” As I have told reporters before, I don’t know what is on that so-called agenda, other than basic equality for all people.
One issue that’s certainly on my agenda is the end of the FDA’s ban on blood donations from gay and bisexual men. In a petition that now has more than 62,000 supporters, I wrote:
…recently, I hosted a blood drive on city property, but was banned from donating blood myself.
As the mayor of Campbell, providing for the welfare of the general public is a top priority. As a gay man, however, I am conflicted in my advocacy for blood drives. Under current U.S. Food and Drug Administration guidelines, a man who has sex with another man is deferred for life from donating blood. The ban was imposed in 1983 when there were no reliable tests for screening blood for HIV/AIDS. It was also made during a time of mass medical confusion and cultural homophobia associated with HIV/AIDS. The current FDA ban is wildly outdated and perpetuates unfair labels against gay and bisexual men that live on through decades of discrimination.
These kinds of stereotypes are not unlike the ones Harvey Milk was fighting nearly four decades ago, and why he, like I do today, encouraged LGBT people to come out whenever possible – to dispel the harmful lies about our community with the truth. Stuart Milk, nephew of Harvey Milk and founder of the Harvey Milk Foundation, continues his uncle's legacy, and we are so fortunate to have Stuart carry the torch.
In a tape Milk recorded before his death, he said, “I have never considered myself a candidate. I have always considered myself part of a movement.” I think he would be proud of the movement that lives on in his spirit today.