Today would’ve been my uncle Harvey Milk’s 90th birthday. When I was 17, he was assassinated after becoming one of the world’s first openly gay elected officials, and it’s the most visible one, at a time when it was illegal to be gay in most of the United States.
My uncle Harvey’s bravery to be his true authentic self ignited a movement and inspired countless others to come out, including his nephew. If he were alive today, he would be so proud of the remarkable progress lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ+) people have made towards acceptance and equality. He would be amazed at how visible and integral we’ve become across American society and culture, from the White House lighting up in rainbow colors to the first openly gay major presidential candidate. While he would be surrounded by loved ones celebrating Harvey Milk Day, as recognized by his adopted home state of California where he served in public office, he would certainly not take these successes for granted nor the work still left to be done. It’s why I have no doubt that if he were alive today he’d be leading the charge for Joe Biden to be our next president.
Most of the progress in LGBTQ+ rights over the last 40 years has happened in the last decade. As vice president, Joe Biden’s public support for the freedom to marry, at a time when 30 states had laws on the books against same-sex unions, shattered so many closet doors not just for LGBTQ+ people, but our allies too. He helped change hearts and minds and set in motion the Supreme Court’s landmark decision recognizing our right to love. Vice President Biden allowed the world to accept us and, for once, see us as human. That took courage, and it’s the kind of leadership and empathy we so desperately need today.
We are living in a consequential moment for the LGBTQ+ community. A resurgence of white nationalism and populism — the likes of which we saw in 1930s Europe — are fueling a rise in human rights abuses here at home and around the world. In Russia, we have a president who’s turned a blind eye to the torture and killings of his country’s LGBTQ+ citizens, and has proposed a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage. In Brazil, we have a president who said he’d “rather his son die in a car accident than be gay.” In Hungary, we have a prime minister who has used populism to curtail the democratic rights of media and civil society. In America, we have a president who gaslights his support for our rights while enabling his administration to hurt us.
There are dark realities at hand and challenges ahead, but in Joe Biden, we have the opportunity to stand on Harvey’s shoulders and continue his life’s work.
More than 40 years after Harvey helped pass the country’s first gay rights city ordinance banning discrimination in public accommodations, the LGBTQ+ community still doesn’t have these federal civil rights protections. Most Americans aren’t aware that in 28 states you can still be fired from your job if you’re gay. It’s 30 states if you’re transgender. That is unconscionable and wrong. That’s the difference electing Joe Biden and pro-equality leaders in Congress will make. I, personally, have seen the impact Joe Biden can make while leading the nation. He understands that LGBTQ+ rights are human rights, that an attack on women’s rights, a wall targeting immigrants, or a policy banning Muslims, is an attack on LGBTQ+ people too. We represent every background, rich and poor, young and old, and live in every corner, tribal nation, and community across this country.
Harvey started me on the path of self-acceptance by talking about how being different brings greater gifts to the world. He was the only person in my life that would say “you feeling different is powerful.” My mother would say, “oh don’t worry you’ll outgrow that,” my brother would say “it’s a phase,” but my uncle was the only one to tell me not to give that up. What makes America powerful and unique in the world is the richness of our diversity and the power of our differences.
Uncle Harvey made the ultimate sacrifice giving his life for our visibility. This November, we can carry on his legacy. You don’t have to go on television or march in a parade, but we must be visible at the ballot box. Harvey said it best, “You don’t have to be out there doing marches. The most important thing you can do in your personal life is to be visible. When we’re visible they can’t hate us.”
Stuart Milk is an international human rights activist, LGBTQ rights speaker, government relations consultant, and youth advocate. He is the co-founder and Board President of the all-volunteer South Florida based Harvey Milk Foundation