Meeting Harvey Milk was one of the most important events of my life. We met on Castro Street in the early 1970s and he became a good friend and mentor. When he was elected to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors he took me with him to City Hall to work as a student intern. I was in City Hall on November 27, 1978, the day he and Mayor George Moscone were assassinated. I had never seen a dead person before. Almost 40 years later, I am still haunted by the image of his body lying on the marble floor.
Now Harvey has become a mythic figure. Sean Penn portrayed him in Gus Van Sant’s film, MILK, and won an Oscar for the performance. Harvey’s birthday is celebrated in cities and towns around the world. Schools, streets and plazas are named in his honor and politicians and activists who seek to associate themselves with his legacy evoke his name at every opportunity.
I am glad that Harvey is remembered. But Harvey deserves to be remembered not as a legend but as the man he was — neither genius nor saint. Harvey was in many respects, an ordinary man. He lived in a small rented apartment, did his own laundry, struggled to pay his bills, rode the bus and cruised the cute guys on sunny afternoons on Castro Street.
While he cared passionately about LGBT rights, Harvey was never a “single-issue” candidate. He cared about senior citizens, decried racism, supported labor unions and worried about our public schools. He believed in coalitions and worked closely with labor unions, racial and ethnic minorities, feminists and environmentalists.
CLEVE JONES is a longtime LGBT rights and HIV activist, and conceived the NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Quilt.
It’s impossible for us to know how Harvey would respond to the many challenges facing the world today. But I am certain that he would call on his community — gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people — to be part of the solution. He would urge us to participate, to vote, to march and rally and engage in every possible way.
Harvey spoke often of how LGBT people exist within every race and ethnicity, how we come from rich families and from poor, and our experience as queer people could give us insight and empathy for the struggles of others. Harvey wanted LGBT people to take our rightful place among the ranks of all the other ordinary people, all across the planet, who seek nothing more than to live together in peace with justice.
If Harvey still walked among us, I have no doubt that he would still be speaking out, organizing and mobilizing others to address the many crises we now confront. He would be talking about LGBT issues of course, but also about climate change, immigration, police reform, housing costs, education and war. He would ask us to fight for the refugees, the displaced and the mentally ill.
In his life, Harvey endured many defeats, both personal and political. He knew about loss and humiliation and despair. But he loved his adopted city of San Francisco, he loved people and he was willing to fight for what he loved. We can all aspire to be like Harvey Milk, and I think he would want us to know that. I think he would want us all to know that we do have the power to change the world.
Happy Birthday, Harvey. Thank you.