This month Harvey Milk joined Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Cesar Chavez as one of the few civil rights leaders who have been commemorated on a U.S. postage stamp. I was honored to be among the speakers who celebrated Harvey Milk and his legacy of fighting for equality for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender peoople at the White House unveiling ceremony, which was cohosted by the Harvey Milk Foundation.
Like many of his fellow civil rights champions, Milk did not live to see his dreams develop. Despite this joyous occasion, had Harvey Milk not been assassinated, he would know that the work is far from over.
As an openly gay elected official, I am a beneficiary of Harvey Milk’s legacy, so I know how far we've come. I also directly benefited from the work of the Gay and Lesbian Victory Fund, a national organization that recruits and trains openly LGBT people to run for office.
However, there was a time not too long ago when as mayor of Campbell, Calif., I could officiate a wedding, but could not get married myself.
Not so long ago, a Boy Scout troop came to visit me at a City Council meeting to earn their merit badges. After the meeting, a boy asked me, “Were you also a Boy Scout? Is that how you became mayor?” I had to tell that scout that no, I wasn’t allowed to be a Boy Scout, and suggested that his parents would explain if he had more questions, because the answer was “complicated.”
Most recently, I hosted a blood drive organized by the American Red Cross in a city facility. But because of Food and Drug Administration regulations, I was banned as a gay man from donating blood – at my own drive.
Harvey Milk would have been pleased that marriage for same-sex couples is now a reality in California. However, I don’t believe he would have been pleased that as of today, only 19 states and Washington, D.C., have established same-sex marriage as a right, while 31 states still have bans, so many gay people around the nation still fight in court for the right to marry the person they love.
I don’t believe that Harvey Milk would be satisfied with last year’s decision from the Boy Scouts of America allowing gay youth to become scouts while still prohibiting openly gay adults from being scout leaders. This change in direction came as the result of public outcry and from companies pulling funding. Yet, despite education on homophobia, the Boy Scouts of America still failed to provide equal rights to both gay youth and adults. This exclusion perpetuates the prejudice that gay men are dangerous to children and families.
I don’t believe that Harvey Milk would be satisfied that monogamous gay men are barred for life from donating blood, while a promiscuous heterosexual person is deferred only temporarily from doing so, with modern science providing screening. Under current U.S. FDA rules, imposed in 1983, a man who has sex with another man is not allowed to donate blood for the rest of his life.
When the ban was implemented, there were no reliable tests for screening blood for HIV, and there was cultural homophobia associated with the epidemic. Advances in technology and understanding of HIV and AIDS have come a long way. Rational and scientific protocols utilizing deferral periods consistent among blood donors who engage in similar risk activities have been developed and are being used around the world. In fact, the American Medical Association and the American Red Cross are both in support of a reevaluation of the lifetime ban on blood donation by gay men. And more than 82 Democratic and Republican lawmakers in the U.S. House and Senate have asked for the reevaluation. The current FDA ban is outdated and perpetuates prejudice against gay and bisexual men.
This week was an important moment to pause and reflect on how far the LGBT community has come. Our hero, Harvey Milk, was recognized by his nation for fighting for equal rights for LGBTs everywhere. Yet, as part of that reflection, we must recognize that there is still a long way to go until every gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender individual is equal under the law and in society.
EVAN LOW is a member of the Campbell, Calif., City Council. Follow him on Twitter @Evan_Low.