On Thursday, the White House is unveiling a new forever stamp featuring Harvey Milk, who was one of the first openly gay elected officials in the country (though not the first). When the United States Postal Service first revealed the stamp last month, it lauded Milk as a “visionary leader” who gave “hope and confidence” to the LGBT community.
Indeed, Milk’s legacy is arguably tied more to the values for which he stood than to the historic significance of his being elected to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors in 1977 . Here are ten quotes from Milk that embody the energy he brought to LGBT activism and the novel tactics he used to achieve it.
“Gay brothers and sisters,… You must come out. Come out… to your parents… I know that it is hard and will hurt them but think about how they will hurt you in the voting booth!”
Milk was adamant that the metaphorical closet severely handicapped the gay rights movement. By hiding, LGBT people could avoid discrimination and harassment, but their invisibility simultaneously prevented the education of others about their lived experiences. He encouraged individuals to come out to their friends and family, believing that just by being open about themselves, they were contributing more to the movement than by staying closeted. Since then, studies and surveys have consistently shown that personally knowing someone who is LGBT — or even just having a conversation with someone who is — increases the likelihood that a person supports LGBT equality.
“To sit on the front steps — whether it’s a veranda in a small town or a concrete stoop in a big city — and to talk to our neighborhoods is infinitely more important than to huddle on the living-room lounger and watch a make-believe world in not-quite living color.”
Beyond his LGBT advocacy, Milk was an advocate for all forms of community. He believed that the only way society could improve is if people are actually aware of what their neighbors are experiencing. “Quality of life,” he argued, “is more important than the standard of living,” which means making sure that people are doing what’s best for each other, not just for themselves or their own family. In particular, as an ally to the organized labor community, Milk demonstrated how different movements can support each other, foreshadowing the many alliances the LGBT movement now supports on issues like immigration and labor.
“I would like to see every gay doctor come out, every gay lawyer, every gay architect come out, stand up, and let that world know. That would do more to end prejudice overnight than anybody would imagine..”
Among Milk’s accomplishments was helping pass San Francisco’s ordinance banning employment discrimination against gays and lesbians. This law would go on to be a model for cities and states across the country. In 2014, it’s illegal to fire or not hire a person for their sexual orientation in 21 states, and transgender people are similarly protected in 18 states. Still, discrimination is legal in the remaining states, and no federal law has ever been passed granting such protections on the national level. Last year, the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) passed in the Senate, but Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) says there’s “no way” it’ll come up for a vote in the House this year.
“I was born of heterosexual parents. I was taught by heterosexual teachers in a fiercely heterosexual society. Television ads and newspaper ads — fiercely heterosexual. A society that puts down homosexuality. And why am I a homosexual if I’m affected by role models? I should have been a heterosexual. And no offense meant, but if teachers are going to affect you as role models, there’d be a lot of nuns running around the streets today.”
One of Milk’s most important accomplishments was defeating the Briggs Initiative, a California state ballot initiative proposed in 1978 that would have banned gays and lesbians, and anybody who supported them, from being teachers in the state’s public schools. As the face of the opposition, Milk squared off with its proponent, Sen. John Briggs (R), in debates across the state. He countered claims still made by conservatives today that a teacher or a school environment could somehow change a student’s sexual orientation. Though some still share Briggs’ position, like former Sen. Jim DeMint (R) — now president of The Heritage Foundation — no attempt has been made to ban gay teachers since the Briggs Initiative’s failure.
“If a bullet should enter my brain, let that bullet destroy every closet door in the country.”
Milk knew that his visibility as an openly gay lawmaker was a trigger for other people, eerily predicting his assassination by fellow supervisor, Dan White. But by proudly wearing his sexuality on his sleeve while still working to support the concerns of all of his constituents, Milk served as a role model for future openly LGBT politicians. As of 2012, openly LGBT politicians have been elected in all 50 states, including state legislators in at least 41, and there are currently six openly LGBT members of the U.S. House of Representatives and as well as one in the Senate. This year, there are even three openly gay candidates running for Congress with the support of the Republican Party.
Perhaps more than anything, Milk’s approach to activism was one grounded in hope and the idea that a person’s life is not bound by his or her current circumstances. Arguably, the “It Gets Better” movement also owes its messaging to Milk and the many speeches he gave about young people struggling to come out across the country. Hope, he’d assert, is essential not only for the success of the gay movement, but for all groups — the “us’s” fighting for equality.