On May 21, 2014, I was honored to be in attendance at the White House ceremony when our nation released a United States postage stamp honoring Harvey Milk, a gay man who became the first openly gay person to be elected to public office in California, when he spectacularly won a seat on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors.
Harvey’s tenure in office was short, assassinated in November of 1978, by a crazed colleague only eleven months into his term. I know, it’s a long time ago, but his life has been memorialized in a moving documentary, and then captured again in the award winning film, “Milk,” so amazingly played by actor, Sean Penn.
For me, Harvey’s life was more than a movie. In no small measure, Harvey’s life touched my own. I grew up and went to high school in Woodmere, Long Island, New York. That’s where Harvey was from. He taught at Hewlett High School, but left for the west coast in the early 1970’s.
It was 1976 when I left New York and moved temporarily to South Florida. I never thought I would stay here. Except for the weather, I really hated this place. There was no sense of community or purpose. In 1977, I left for California, staying in San Diego, Venice, LA, and San Francisco, trying to find a comfort zone on the West Coast.
It was in San Francisco in 1977 that I met Dennis Peron, an openly gay man, also from Long Island. Not surprisingly, Peron was a prominent cannabis activist, and I met him through NORML, the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws.
Peron was a little older than me but he showed me the Castro, openly gay life, and we hit it off and hung out at his Island Restaurant. Active in politics and the soul of the community, Peron introduced me to this fiery candidate for city hall — Harvey Milk.
Ironically, as much as I wanted to learn about them and San Francisco, their eyes and ears were focused on South Florida. Milk wanted to know all about this ‘crazy lady,’ Anita Bryant, the Orange Juice Queen, a former Miss America, who wanted to repeal a Dade County human rights ordinance that prohibited discrimination based on sexual orientation. I remember giving Milk a button that read “Anita Bryant Sucks Oranges.” It was 37 years ago, a brief moment in time decades ago.
On that day he was shot, less than a year later, I remember being so stunned and shocked. It was not only Milk who was killed, it was the Mayor too, George Moscone. For me, it was Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy all over again; another civil rights leader slain by the bullets of false revenge. This one was more personal. This was my friend from Woodmere, a man I had just met in the last year and now would never see again.
Never did I ever imagine when I was playing softball at the age of 12 at School Number 6 on Branch Boulevard in Woodmere, that at the age of 62, I would be invited to the White House to celebrate his life, the life of a gay rights leader from Woodmere. Never did I ever imagine I would become one myself. I guess life is what happens when you are making other plans.
Offered a job at Florida Atlantic University as an Assistant Professor of Criminal Justice, I wound up staying in South Florida. I would teach for a few years, before deciding whether to stay here or move there. I stayed here, and visited there. Years later, I would establish dual residency with an apartment in San Francisco. It’s still my favorite place to go.
Stuart Milk, Harvey’s nephew, was a teenager when his uncle was shot. Today, he stewards the Milk Foundation, a global ambassador for LGBT rights, working with an administration that has done more for our community than any other, ever. Last month, SFGN featured a new national drug czar who happens to be a gay man.
Last week, President Obama signed an executive order prohibiting federal contracts from discriminating against employees based on sexual orientation.
He has also appointed over 250 LGBT persons to positions of stature in the federal government, from ambassadors to district court judges.
Being gay has opened doors, not closed them.
Being gay in 1978 meant breaking down those doors, at great personal risk. We scared people. Laws were lined up against us everywhere. When I applied for the Florida Bar in 1978, being gay was grounds for denial. Being open was professional suicide. Being gay made you a target. Harvey knew that. He understood that he might have to give up his life in the struggle for human rights. He understood he could be shot. But he fought on.
Peron is still in San Francisco, ever the activist, having worked on Prop 215 and marijuana legalization in California for decades. He also runs Castro Castle, a guest house in the LGBT district. Today, bars as well as high schools memorialize Harvey Milk’s name. Now so does a U.S. postage stamp.
Milk was a natural to become the first openly gay supervisor. His passion, his voice, made him known as the “Mayor of Castro Street.” He had started the Castro Street Fair in 1974. He helped make gay people feel safe and secure, yet visible and open to the world. He helped make San Francisco a safe haven for homosexuals. What we take for granted for today he gave his life for yesterday.
Milk did not win in his first try for the board of supervisors, or his second, or third. He kept on plugging away. So must we.
We only lose out in life when we have no purpose. Harvey Milk stood tall and died proudly, for all of us; for the cause of equal rights. There is no greater calling.