Every year, California sets aside May 22 to celebrate a man who transformed the world for queer people everywhere. Harvey Milk was a visionary, a rabble-rouser, a tragic victim, and a hero to millions — but why do we celebrate his legacy, and what are the best ways to mark his contributions?
How Harvey Milk Day Happened
Having a formally recognized day for Harvey Milk is a relatively new phenomenon. For years, people had been trying to make an official holiday, but a bill only came to the California legislature in 2008. It failed, but then later that year California passed Proposition 8, a marriage ban.
Voters were galvanized by the assault on civil rights, and the next year the bill passed and was signed into law by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (himself no hero when it comes to civil rights; Schwarzenegger vetoed marriage equality during his time in office).
The first Harvey Milk Day was held in 2009, spurred by the passage of Prop. 8 and by the release of the Oscar-winning film Milk, which told the story of Harvey’s rise to power and his tragic assassination.
Harvey Milk’s Rise to Power
It’s hard to encapsulate the meaning of Milk’s life. He was a New Yorker who moved to San Francisco and didn’t become involved in politics until his 40s. The counterculture movement was a strong influence — he was in his late 30s during the Summer of Love — and initially he was unpalatable to voters.
Not only was he a gay man, but he had a definite hippie aesthetic and attitude, which was a turnoff for nervous establishment residents of the city. A small business owner, he was frustrated with politics that victimized the disempowered.
A Powerful Symbol of Gay Equality — and Loss
It took several tries and several electoral losses, but he finally won a seat on the Board of Supervisors, the first openly gay man in the country to win public office as a non-incumbent. With the credibility that elected office afforded him, Harvey was able to campaign against a statewide Republican-backed measure that would have stripped queer people of employment. He also helped pass laws that ensured equal rights for LGBTQ San Franciscans.
When he wasn’t working in City Hall, he gave powerful speeches — which are still replayed — insisting on nothing less than full equality for queer people everywhere.
It was devastating, then, when one of Milk’s colleagues on the Board of Supervisors, Dan White, shot and killed him and Mayor George Moscone over political and career disputes.
Remembering the Trailblazer
Today, we remember Harvey for fighting for equality when it was dangerous to do so.
There are lots of ways to observe Harvey Milk Day: If you’re in school, make announcements and organize assemblies. Invite speakers. Hang up posters.
In the workplace, have a lunch presentation about Milk’s legacy, or wear buttons or ribbons of LGBTQ solidarity. Of course, it’s a perfect time to watch Milk, The Life and Times of Harvey Milk or The Mayor of Castro Street with friends and family.
Carrying Harvey Milk’s legacy from year to year will ensure that his principles, his work and his defiant stand for what is right will never be forgotten.
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