Meeting Harvey Milk was the single most important event of my life. He was a good friend and wonderful mentor. We were always talking about politics but I also went to him for solace and encouragement whenever I was discouraged or confused. He was very kind to me and I am still haunted by the sight of his lifeless body on the floor in City Hall that terrible day in November 1978.
I think of Harvey often, especially when there is news of progress for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people. He would deserve to be proud of our achievements because so much of what we have accomplished is directly connected to what he taught us almost 40 years ago.
He taught us that we had an obligation to ourselves and to our community to come out of our closets and live our lives honestly and openly. He understood that hatred and fear would be defeated only when LGBT people revealed the truth of our lives and our love to our friends, families, co-workers and neighbors. Harvey knew that not everyone could be an activist, but that we could all contribute to the movement simply by living openly.
He also taught us that our struggle — the fight for LGBT rights — was part of a larger effort, the global movement for peace and social justice. He understood our connection with feminism, the anti-war movement and the campaigns against racism. He taught us the importance of building coalitions with other minority communities and, in particular, with the labor movement. He didn’t just champion the cause of his own people; he stood up for senior citizens, the disabled, children, renters and the poor.
When the AFL-CIO boycotted Coors Beer in 1977, Harvey saw an opportunity to build alliances with labor unions as well as organizations representing African-Americans and Hispanics. He and other LGBT pioneers reached out to the Teamsters and other unions and joined the boycott. Coors was removed from almost every gay bar in the country and their market share in California plummeted from 40% in 1977 to 14% in 1984.
In 1978, a conservative California State Senator from Orange County named John Briggs succeeded in placing an initiative on the state ballot that, if passed by the voters, would have made it illegal for LGBT people and their supporters to work in any public school in the state. The teachers’ unions saw this as a grave threat that could easily be used to divide, intimidate and silence teachers regardless of their sexual orientation or gender. Harvey again saw an opportunity to build the alliance between organized labor and our community. The campaign to defeat the Briggs Initiative brought gay activists and union organizers together and the result was the overwhelming defeat of Briggs’ Proposition 6 that November.
Thirty years later, Harvey would have recognized his legacy in the boycott of the Manchester Grand Hyatt, whose owner, Doug Manchester, helped finance Proposition 8, which stripped same-sex couples of the right to marry in California. The hospitality workers union, UNITE HERE, joined LGBT organizations, Latino groups and other unions to boycott the hotel and pulled millions of dollars in convention business out of the Manchester until “Papa Doug” sold the property in 2011.
Within a few weeks, the Supreme Court of the United States will announce their decision on the marriage equality cases. It seems likely that we will win and that marriage equality will become the law of the land. Harvey would be proud of us, I’m sure. But he would also remind us that our struggle is not yet over, not as long as workers are harassed and fired for their sexual orientation or gender identity, not as long as gay and trans kids are being bullied into suicide. Our struggle is far from over but the way forward is clear and Harvey showed it to us.
Today, partnerships between labor and the LGBT community are more important than ever. There are tens of thousands of workers who have protections in states where members of the LGBT community are under attack—Indiana, Arkansas, Georgia, Montana, Texas and beyond. How? They are members of unions with contracts prohibiting employer discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity. While we fight for comprehensive changes under the law, we have the opportunity organize and win gains that we can see today.
He would remind us that our struggle is part of something larger, a global movement for peace and justice. He would encourage us to build coalitions and continue to organize and fight. And most importantly, in Harvey’s own words, he would tell us, “Brothers and sisters, you must come out!”
Happy Birthday, Harvey.