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30 Years Later,
We Can Still Learn from Milk 

30 Years Later,
We Can Still Learn from Milk 

COMMENTARY: Thirty years after the death of Harvey Milk, Americans can still learn from his inspiring and profound work as an activist, politician and friend. With the story of his life opening in theatres this week, Lane Hudson takes a look back at how Milk's legacy lives on -- and what we can to do pay tribute to the legend.

"My name is Harvey Milk and I'm here to recruit you!"

That is how gay rights icon Harvey Milk would start his speeches. The refrain became more and more familiar and inspired a new generation of activists in San Francisco and throughout America to fight for equality for gays and lesbians. Harvey broke barriers, won hearts and minds, changed our movement and was assassinated 30 years ago today. With his death, we lost the most transformational leader our movement has ever seen.

Today is Thanksgiving. I'm thankful for the lessons that we can learn from Harvey Milk. Yesterday, a film went to wide release that chronicles his life. It is an instant classic that provides us an accurate accounting of the life of the man so many of us draw inspiration from.

As I sat in the movie theater, I was taken with the parallels that exist with what Harvey was up against and the dynamics of our movement today. We often hear that very little progress has been made in the past thirty years. I wonder how different things would be today if Harvey had not been taken from us.

We have lost sight of what Harvey sought to accomplish. Our movement has become professionalized, funding mechanisms to ensure our organizations operate day to day; so many more gays and lesbians live openly today then ever before. He understood how every one of our accomplishments resonated further than lives of the individuals who made them. At one point, he said that he wasn't a candidate, but it was the movement that was the candidate.

Harvey heard from young people around the country who had read about him and been inspired to avoid suicide and instead become an activist. There is a wonderful YouTube video that uses Harvey's own words to address this and the importance of electing gay people to office. Watching it will be time well spent:

In early February, understanding that I needed to know about Harvey Milk, I traveled to San Francisco to take part in the filming of the movie that was released yesterday. Before the filming of some of the march and protest scenes began, all of the extras were treating to a viewing of the documentary The Life and Times of Harvey Milk. It was my first exposure to Harvey and it has changed me. I found a kindred soul and so should you.

As an example of how amazing Harvey is, I would point to Proposition 6 in 1978, also known as the Briggs Amendment. Senator Briggs sought to fire every gay that worked as a teacher as well as those who supported gays. It was the culmination of anti-gay referendums in different cities around the country.

Proposition 6 started 60% down in the polls. In a meeting with the Democratic establishment, Harvey soundly rejected their strategy of appealing to the better nature of straight people. Instead, he set out on his own campaign of bringing gay people and their lives to the voting public. Ultimately, Harvey's effort resulted in the defeat of Proposition 6 by a two to one margin.

You have to wonder how Harvey would have demanded that the campaign against Proposition 8 be run. In a time of reflection on major losses for our movement and much activism and talk about a new generation of leaders, I believe we should look back to Harvey for both inspiration and guidance.

He was not only a man ahead of his time, but made time catch up with him. We can both honor his memory and recapture his spirit by doing the same thing. He hoped that if his life was ended by a bullet in his head, that it would remove discrimination from the minds of people everywhere. That hasn't happened yet and we need to work to realize Harvey's dream. We are better off because of him and owe him that.

When we have achieved what Harvey set out to do, then we can rest. Until then, Harvey Milk is still is here to recruit you. What will you do to honor him and his life?

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