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.