My old friend Harvey has become a legend. His life has inspired books, films and other works of art and music. In California, his birthday, May 22, is recognized as Harvey Milk Day. He is a hero to millions of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people all around the world.
As we remember Harvey on what would be his 85th birthday, it is important to remember that behind the legend there was a real person, a man who was neither genius nor saint, but an ordinary man who endured defeats, tragedies, and the challenges most of us face in our lives. For me, he was a neighbor, friend, and mentor. He encouraged me to go to school and took me with him to work in San Francisco City Hall as a student intern. He was funny and kind and absolutely determined to change the world.
As I look back over the decades, I marvel at the progress our community has made in achieving our rights and know that Harvey would be proud. And as we wait for the Supreme Court’s decision on marriage equality, I know that Harvey would remind us that our struggle is not yet won — no matter what the court decides.
There was a special place in Harvey’s heart for young people, perhaps because he came out late in life and remembered the pain of hiding the truth of his life. I was just one of many young people he encouraged. I was in his office on days when the calls would come in from queer kids across America who had read of his election and reached out in search of hope for their own lives.
I campaigned with Harvey against the Briggs Initiative, a proposition to ban LGBT people and our supporters from working in public schools. It was fascinating to watch Harvey engage voters of all races and backgrounds, to see the way he used humor and wit to find common ground and break down the stereotypes and prejudices we still confront today.
Most observers believe that the Supreme Court will rule in our favor and that marriage equality will become the law of the land. It will be a great victory and a wonderful gift to the many loving couples that have waited so long for their relationships to be honored by the state. But we still have a long way to go. LGBT workers have no protection against harassment and discrimination in 29 states. Transgender people, in particular, suffer from high unemployment rates. We see legislation masquerading as “religious freedom acts” introduced in many states to actually encourage discrimination.
But what would grieve Harvey the most, I’m sure, is the reality that our kids are still killing themselves. LGBT youth are still being thrown out of their homes, abused at school, bullied, and beaten. We read the stories almost every week of beautiful young people whose lives are lost to homophobia and transphobia.
Harvey Milk and his contemporaries, our movement’s pioneers, taught us some valuable lessons that are every bit as relevant today as they were 40 years ago. Harvey knew that the single most important step any of us could take was to come out, to leave our closets and reveal our true selves to our families, friends, coworkers, and neighbors. He understood that this was the only way to tear down the misconceptions and fear and the hatred they fueled. In every speech and interview, Harvey repeated his call, “Brothers and sisters, you must come out!”
Harvey also believed that the LGBT community was part of something larger — the global movement for peace and social justice. He believed in coalitions with labor unions, feminists, antiwar activists, and other progressives. Here in San Francisco, he fought for renters, senior citizens, people of color, and low-wage workers. He wasn’t a single-issue candidate, and as a city supervisor he championed the causes of our most vulnerable residents.
On November 27, 1978, I was in San Francisco City Hall and saw Harvey’s body on the marble floor. I had never seen a dead person before. It is an image that haunts me to this day. All I could think was, It’s over, it’s all over. But then the sun went down and the people began to gather. Hundreds, thousands, and then tens of thousands of people came to Castro Street — Harvey’s street — and began the long, silent march down Market Street to City Hall. We were men and women of all ages, races, and backgrounds, gay and straight alike, and as we filled the Civic Center plaza with the light of our candles, I knew that I was wrong: It wasn’t over, it was just beginning.
Long live Harvey Milk.
CLEVE JONES is the founder of the NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Quilt. He works as a community organizer for UNITE HERE, the hospitality workers’ union.