“My name is Harvey Milk, and I am here to recruit you.”
-Harvey’s most famous words
It was November of 1978 when the first openly gay office holder in California, Harvey Milk, was slain by a disgruntled colleague on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors.
In 2009, a chronicle of his life and death came to the big screen, a mainstream studio film starring a renowned actor, Sean Penn. Rapidly winning critical acclaim, the historically accurate film was riveting and compelling. It still is, and every person defining themselves as members of our community should see it.
The film was playing on HBO last week while I was in San Francisco to attend a ceremony naming a United States Navy Ship after the late Mr. Milk.
Harvey Milk opened the doors yesterday that invite gay men throughout our community today to run and serve openly on city commissions, in the judiciary, or even in law enforcement.
America has appropriately honored Harvey Milk. SFGN featured a city street named after him in, of all places, Salt Lake City, last month. New York City has a high school named after him, and San Francisco, a park. But Milk’s legacy is global.
In the past four weeks, the Lithuanian LGBT community center has been named after Harvey Milk. And if you want to send them a letter congratulating them, you can mail it with an American postage stamp bearing Harvey’s image.
The significance of a U.S. Navy ship bearing the name of Harvey Milk can’t be overstated. It sends a message into every community in America that being gay is not an obstacle to achievement, but potentially a path to honor. It means that your dedication and determination to serve your country in the military might be met with decorations rather than discharge.
Related: The Legacy of Harvey Milk
The USNS Harvey Milk will sail across the world as an ambassador for America. Hopefully, that ship will land in ports from Qatar to the Ukraine, where gays are still sodomites and criminals, treated with discrimination and injustice. Maybe, in some small way, it will speak out that our country represents liberty, diversity, and equality.
The USNS Harvey Milk was named in a ceremony on Treasure Island, sitting on the sunlit bay of San Francisco. It will be built in San Diego. It will sail the world with an American flag on its mast, but it will be one of many colors. It will be the rainbow of liberty heralding the rise and respect, the decency and dignity of the LGBT community.
There was also a major news revelation in the ceremony announcing the naming of a ship after Harvey Milk. It has not gotten enough attention from the national press. It has been foolishly underplayed even by the LGBT media.
Simply, the secretary of the Navy, Ray Maybus, issued an unexpected announcement, declaring that any American soldier, anywhere, anytime who has been discharged dishonorably from the military for being gay should apply for reconsideration of that severance. I wish my old friend, Frank Kameny, was around to have heard that pronouncement.
Many Americans who had served honorably in the military were forced out because of their homosexuality. They were disgraced, demeaned, and discharged. The recognition that this was wrong and that the evil will be repaired is worth writing about.
The bullets of a deranged man may have taken away Harvey Milk’s life, but the foundation bearing his name carries on his legacy locally and globally. Nearly forty years may have passed, but we still have legislatures that seek to discriminate against us, from boardrooms to bathrooms. We still need judges to protect us from unconstitutional laws and lawmakers to ensure equality is real, not artificial.
The fight for civil rights equality did not end with an emancipation proclamation or a judicial declaration that you can marry. It is a struggle you incorporate into your soul and carry with you every day, standing up to injustice whenever it confronts you.
Time and again, we have met challenges. We have learned to fight back, be proud, and stand up. Harvey Milk paid the ultimate price. We all owe him a debt we can only pay forward by fighting that same fight in our own lives, every day and in every way.