As a lesbian activist in the 1970s, I watched Harvey Milk’s run for office with intense interest, inspired by his determination to be an out and proud elected official when most hesitated to even declare their sexual orientation openly. When he was elected, I celebrated, and when five bullets cut his life tragically short, I mourned. He was the most prominent of the out LGBTQ elected officials, which at that time could be counted on one hand. His death was frightening, because all of us activists faced frequent threats and knew that forces of hate were determined to keep us down. But it was galvanizing as well, knowing it was our duty to add meaning to Harvey’s sacrifice.
When I lost my second race for city council as an openly lesbian candidate, I questioned whether I would ever run again. It was re-watching The Times of Harvey Milk and re-reading his biography that helped me understand how he coped with his campaign losses. It gave me insight and courage – and I won my next nine races, including three terms as mayor of Houston.
Four decades later, our community lives in an America that Harvey only dreamed of – an America making painfully slow but determined progress toward equality, and one where qualified LGBTQ leaders can run for office and be elected at some of the highest levels of government. It is difficult to imagine Harvey’s reaction to an election cycle being dubbed the “Rainbow Wave,” as this one has, given how isolated he was when he embarked on his historic run for the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. I wish he were here to see it.
In this series commemorating the 40th anniversary of the assassination of San Francisco Supervisor Harvey Milk, newly elected officials honor his legacy with their thoughts on what Harvey Milk symbolizes and means to them. Some of these leaders will be entering elected office for the first time, and others were just elected to new higher-level positions where they can make even more significant change.
After winning elected office for the first time, Harvey said: “It's not my victory, it's yours and yours and yours. If a gay can win, it means there is hope that the system can work for all minorities if we fight. We've given them hope.”
Hope, and the desire to serve, is exactly what these newly elected officials bring to our community and their constituents. I hope you enjoy their insights.
-President & CEO of LGBTQ Victory Fund Annise Parker
November 6, 2018, will be a night that I will never forget. Not only was it Election Day here in Indiana, but it was also my 36th birthday. There were moments when I forgot it was my birthday because of the emotional roller coaster ride that was transpiring when I won my State Senate seat that evening. Four years ago on Election Day, I was much less excited as I ended up losing my first State Senate bid. I vowed from that day on that I would set my heart and mind to winning this seat, and that is exactly what we did only three weeks ago.
I have always enjoyed learning about Harvey Milk’s life and personal story, and I drew some parallels to my own campaign. Milk was persistent in everything he did and relied heavily on deep, community-based organizing in his neighborhood. Even though he lost his first elections by slim margins, Harvey Milk didn’t give up. I knew that after my loss in 2014, I couldn’t give up either. Milk taught us that losing is not easy, but we must be graceful and not give up hope. Many people can relate to that story as we all must face adversity in our lives.
The accomplishment of being Indiana’s first out-serving member of the Indiana General Assembly is not lost on me. However, this path was already forged by people like Harvey Milk, and I realize that I am standing on his and their shoulders. I am humbled to be in a position where I can inspire many LGBTQ+ folks here in Indiana who look to me to be their voice on state matters. I am truly honored to be able to do this work.
Indiana State Senator J.D. Ford
Shortly after I took office in 2015 as a State Representative in Michigan, the GOP leadership put up a vote to allow state-funded adoption agencies to deny services based on religious convictions – a move that would undoubtedly result in discrimination against our community.
During the contentious debate, something happened that wasn’t possible in previous terms: LGBTQ voices were finally being heard on the House floor about the issues that impacted us directly.
Still, the bill passed.
When session adjourned following the vote that day, a Republican colleague from one of Michigan’s most conservative districts unexpectedly came up to my desk. This representative apologized to me for supporting the bill.
No member of the Michigan House could continue to blissfully escape the consequences of their decisions that harm the LGBTQ community without knowing someone that those decisions impact.
Harvey Milk said that just being out and visible can “break down the myths, destroy the lies and distortions.”
We have many challenges in Michigan, from a 1976 Civil Rights Act that excludes protections for LGBTQ Michiganders to that 2015 law that discriminates against loving parents. And there are many different approaches to resolve them.
Harvey Milk’s call to action, even forty years after his assassination, is still our community’s best way to make gains: “Coming out is the most political thing you can do.”
I am visible in the House – and, come January, will be the first out person to ever serve in the Michigan State Senate – because Harvey Milk demanded it, and because he blazed a trail to make it possible.
It isn’t easy. Society forces us to carry a heavier mantle because of who we are and who we love, but through that, we grow stronger.
The voices of out LGBTQ Michiganders have changed the conversation at the State Capitol. Every year, we get a step closer to creating the more fair, just and equitable society that Harvey Milk fought and died for.
-Michigan State Representative Jeremy Moss
From the golden gates of the City by the Bay, Harvey Milk’s fight for equality and change has now spanned nearly 5,798 miles across the Pacific Ocean to the U.S. territory of Guam, where America’s day begins.
Forty years ago, Harvey issued a most effective call to action – his plea for gays and lesbians to come out: “Gay brothers and sisters, you must come out. Come out to your parents... Come out to your relatives. Come out to your friends... your neighbors, to your fellow workers, to the people who work where you eat and shop… But once and for all, break down the myths. Destroy the lies and distortions. For your sake. For their sake.”
It’s true what Harvey and others have said. Coming out to my friends and family gave me the strength to save myself from the alternative, a lifetime of denial and deceit. It inspired confidence and determination in all aspects of my life.
This call to action is also the foundation of the social justice movement of our day. It has saved the lives of countless young people struggling with the emotional toll of being rejected because of their sexuality, or the way they look or act. Violence against gays and lesbians is now prosecuted as hate and not ignored. We can openly serve in the military and marry whoever we love. It has resulted in the mainstream election of LGBTQ candidates, even in Guam.
Guided by intellect and emboldened by bravery, Harvey could be the antagonist, strategist, or reformer, depending on the moment. His work banning discrimination against gays and lesbians in San Francisco has inspired so many around the world. His fight lives on through those who seek social justice, demand safety and protection, and pursue equality and respect for all - in every society and in every language. Si Yu’os Ma’ase, Harvey.
Joshua Franquez Tenorio is Guam’s first openly gay man to have been elected to the office of lieutenant governor. He will take his oath of office and begin serving the people of Guam alongside Guam’s first female governor, Lourdes Leon Guerrero, on January 7, 2019.
-Guam Lieutenant Governor-elect Josh Tenorio
During my teenage years (in the Sixties) I had heard about Harvey Milk and his efforts to fight for the GLBT Community in San Francisco. I didn’t realize how his efforts might help me as a transgender youth, because I was hiding my secret from the world. But I did recognize that he was bold and persistent in his actions to create awareness of a community that had been victimized and was not treated equally by the rest of the City of San Francisco.
Much like Harvey Milk, I was just an average person trying to educate people about the injustices the Transgender community faced. I became a Speaker for Speak Out Boston and educated a lot of people and organizations. I started a support group for transgender people and their families. I joined PFLAG NH to support Parents and other GLBT people. Most importantly, I was helping others.
During those years there were no antidiscrimination laws in NH to protect Transgender people like me. In 2009 I was contacted by a NH State Representative and a Lawyer from GLAD, to become the spokesperson for a Transgender Nondiscrimination bill in our Legislature. I became an independent lobbyist, educating Legislators on both sides of the aisle. The Transgender Bill didn’t pass that year, but it was close.
In 2017 and 2018 we submitted another transgender equality Bill. This time it passed. In 2017 I also ran for the Somersworth, NH School Board and won! There was no discussion about me being a Transgender person. In 2018 I ran for the NH State House and won! There were no major issues with me being a Transgender Woman.
What I learned from Harvey Milk is that you can’t accept failure. You need to keep trying! Becoming a Politician was not on my list many years ago. Now it’s my passion!
-New Hampshire State Representative-elect Gerri Cannon
I was only 5 years old when Harvey Milk was killed, and could not have known at the time the impact his life and death would have on me. Today, forty years later I represent Harvey’s district on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors.
In 1977, Harvey became the first out LGBT person elected in California and one of just a handful in the entire country. Harvey famously said that news of his election would create two new opportunities for queer people throughout this country; move to San Francisco, or stay where they were and fight. They did both. A few weeks ago, 150 out LGBTQ people were elected across the country to positions from school board to the US Senate.
It’s an honor to hold the same seat on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors that Harvey Milk held. I know that I owe not only him, but all of his LGBT successors elected to the Board - Harry Britt, Carole Migden, Roberta Achtenberg, Tom Ammiano, Susan Leal, Leslie Katz, Mark Leno, Bevan Dufty, David Campos and Scott Wiener and the countless fierce activists upon whose shoulders they stood. The work that these leaders and activists did following Harvey’s death, leading us through the AIDS epidemic, and through our civil rights struggles, changed the world. It created a future for young queer people filled with opportunities that did not exist when I was born.
Of course we are daily reminded that we cannot take that progress for granted.
Fortunately, Harvey left us with a roadmap - one that includes uniting the LGBTQ community with other communities facing oppression, never giving up, never shutting up and fighting like hell until win. Thank you Harvey.
-San Francisco Supervisor Rafael Mandelman
Harvey Milk was bold and unrepentant, clear about who he was and why he served.
He did not sacrifice his identity to win people’s votes, and he wasn’t going to wait his turn.
But he also believed the fight for civil rights and representation could unite people.
In the 40 years since the assassination of Harvey Milk, California has swung like a pendulum on LGBT rights.
The shock of the Milk and George Moscone shootings came just weeks after Californians rejected a statewide proposition to ban LGBT teachers from public schools.
Thirty years later the passage of anti-gay Proposition 8 followed the summer of weddings in San Francisco.
If there’s one thing we Californians know, it’s that progress is not inevitable, and that we have to remain vigilant in defense of our constitutional values.
Today we are expanding healthcare while working to lower the cost.
We are confronting the havoc of climate change, which contributes to devastating California wildfires. This year’s destruction is only prelude if we do not prepare.
We are integrating immigrants into our economy, demanding equal pay for women, and rejecting intolerance.
We have so much more to do.
As Insurance Commissioner I will support families as they rebuild their homes and lives. I will keep fighting for universal healthcare. I will keep California in the forefront of the fight against climate change that threatens our very existence.
I will hold insurance companies accountable when they discriminate against members of the LGBT community or put up obstacles to life-saving medications like PrEP.
If Milk were alive today, I believe he would be proud of California’s progress, and impatient like I am for what we can build when we work together.
-California Insurance Commissioner-elect Ricardo Lara
As a business owner, educator, and just recently, the first openly Black Gay man elected to the Illinois State House of Representatives, I stand on the shoulders of Harvey Milk, the first non-incumbent openly gay man in the United States to win an election for public office. He was elected to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors and became a courageous pioneer of hope for the 1970’s Gay Rights movement and the ever advancing LGBTQ/Human Rights movement of today.
Harvey Milk’s tenacious resolve to protect and promote the human and civil rights of the San Francisco gay community propelled him through three unsuccessful runs for political office during a time of tremendous hostility and intolerance towards same gender loving men and women everywhere. His historical victory on his fourth attempt at running for public office came to serve as a symbol of tremendous hope and possibilities for gays, lesbians, and other disenfranchised minority communities all across the nation, many of whom had already lost hope in their voices ever being heard.
A true visionary, Harvey Milk once said, “If you want to change the world, start in your own neighborhood.” This statement exemplifies his strongly held belief that individuals can bring about positive change everywhere by taking steps to bring about positive change right where they are. This basic principle serves as a guiding light for me as I begin my political career and continue to promote educational reform, economic empowerment, and a state government that is responsive to the needs of each and every member of my community no matter their race, sexual orientation or financial status.
Today, 40 years following his abrupt and tragic death, the legacy of Harvey Milk’s brief political career and community activism lives on through the many social advancements and political victories of LGBTQ communities all around the world. His legacy of courageous resolve continues to serve as an inspiration for me to be a resolute voice and advocate for the needs, concerns and hopes of all my constituents while freely living my own life out — loudly, proudly, and full of hope.