Shortly before he died in 1978, openly gay San Francisco Supervisor Harvey Milk made some extraordinarily prescient audio recordings. On one recording, he famously said, “If a bullet should enter my brain, let it destroy every closet door.”
Today would have been Harvey’s 79th birthday but for Dan White’s bullet.
May 22nd, Harvey Milk Day, is a good time to reflect on whether we have heeded his call to live openly and fight hard for true equality. Would Harvey be proud of where we are in 2009? The truth is I think he’d be celebrating on Castro Street some days and marching up the National Mall on others:
–Today, many Americans are protected from job discrimination based on sexual orientation, but in dozens of states it’s still legal to fire someone simply for being gay or lesbian. Even fewer jurisdictions bar discrimination based on gender identity.
–Gays and lesbians can marry in five states and a handful of others extend some sort of partnership rights, but more than 20 states have written discrimination into their constitutions.
–The U.S. military is still kicking out patriotic, well-trained servicemembers who tell the truth about who they love, even though scores of former military officers and an overwhelming majority of Americans think that policy is wasteful and wrong.
Harvey Milk was the fifth openly gay person elected to public office in America. Today, more than 440 out officials are serving at all levels of government, but five states still have no out elected officials whatsoever, and another 15 have no out state legislators. While that number—440—may seem impressive, a little perspective is in order; there are more than 500,000 elective offices throughout the United States.
In many of those places where we are represented in government by an openly LGBT official, real progress is being made. In just the past few weeks—in places like Maine, Vermont, Washington State, New Hampshire, New York, and Connecticut—the presence of openly gay or lesbian state legislators is making a difference in the fight for same-sex partnership rights.
For out lawmakers, fighting for equality is personal. When they stand up to speak openly and honestly about their own lives and ask colleagues to treat them fairly, their authenticity changes hearts and minds, and sometimes it even changes votes.
That’s what Harvey had in mind when he asked all of us to come out to our parents, our siblings, our friends and our co-workers—not because it would make us feel better about ourselves, but because of the power he knew it could unleash. That power is on display in those state houses, as it was on the streets of California last November and on the battlefields abroad when brave soldiers gave honest answers to simple questions about loved ones back home.
This Harvey Milk Day, I think Harvey would be proud of our progress so far, but I’m absolutely sure he wouldn’t be satisfied by it. He faced a bullet. We have only to face down our own fears, come out and speak up.
–Chuck Wolfe is president and CEO of the Gay & Lesbian Victory Fund and Leadership Institute