Honoree carries forward famous uncle's legacy

  • by Matthew S. Bajko
  • Tuesday June 24, 2008
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Stuart Milk can thank his uncle Harvey for handing him a closing line for speeches that never fails. Whenever he speaks publicly Milk cribs his famous relative's signature line: "You've gotta give them hope."

In doing so, Stuart Milk does not just keep alive the legacy of the late Harvey Milk, the country's first openly gay man elected to public office, but embodies his vision of a future where LGBT people would be afforded the same rights and privileges as their heterosexual neighbors.

"I think I can represent Harvey's legacy in the sense that, number one, I was his immediate family. But on another level, I was one of thousands of LGBT people the night he was killed who became more authentic of who they are and came out and started to move on a path of self-acceptance," said Milk, who is quick to add that unlike his uncle, "I am not that special."

He will be this Sunday, at least, as he helps lead this year's Pride Parade as a celebrity grand marshal.

"I really don't see myself �" I am uncomfortable of the celebrity title of grand marshal. I think it is great one of the us's, as Harvey would say, is up there," said Milk, who plans to carry a sign mimicking the "Harvey Milk lives" graffiti someone spray-painted on a staircase at Dupont Circle after his death. "That stayed up the whole time I was in school. I saw it on a daily basis."

It is the first time he has been given such an honor, said Milk, whose first time marching in a gay Pride parade was the summer of 1979, seven months after his uncle was assassinated along with then-Mayor George Moscone in San Francisco City Hall by former board colleague Dan White.

"It was Washington D.C.'s second Pride celebration," said Milk, at the time a college student at American University. "It was amazing to me, even though there were only several hundred people."

Milk, 47, lives in Wilton Manors, Florida, which he describes as that state's Castro district. The city is one of seven in the country with a gay majority on its City Council and the main street, Wilton Drive, is peppered with mostly gay-owned shops and restaurants.

The city of roughly 13,000 people is surrounded by Fort Lauderdale and is encircled by rivers.

"It is an island. Really, there are no non-gay establishments left," said Milk, who has called the city home since 1998. "It is nothing like San Francisco in terms of political activism, that is a big difference. We are working on that, trying to get folks active."

Milk, who is currently single, works for a human service company that has him flying all over the globe for his job. He often travels to San Francisco, since his employer operates the Treasure Island Job Corps Center.

"I live on airplanes," said Milk. "We run these workforce programs all over the world."

Nearly 800 at-risk youth live at the Treasure Island center, many of whom identify as LGBT, said Milk, who has brought both Mayor Gavin Newsom and openly gay Supervisor Bevan Dufty to visit with the residents. He is working with the regional administrator for the Job Corps Center to convince the U.S. Department of Labor to place at the local center a smaller version of the recently unveiled bust of Harvey Milk in City Hall.

"They did do a site visit with the regional director so it is a possibility. I think it would be pretty exciting to have Harvey on U.S. Department of Labor land ... to inspire the youth there," said Milk.

Milk was 17 when his uncle was killed. He had not come out to him, though it is likely that Harvey Milk suspected his nephew was also gay.

"He was a person I had deep conversations with. I talked to him about his being gay, not about me, and he never pushed the issue," recalled Milk, who came out to his college roommate the night of his uncle's death and to his family two weeks later. "I asked him why he was pushing that on folks. We had a three-hour marathon session about it when I first talked to him about being gay."

Before Harvey Milk moved out to California in the early 1970s, he lived in Manhattan and worked on Wall Street while Stuart Milk, the younger son of Harvey's late brother Robert, grew up on Long Island. The two would see each other at family events. His uncle, who directed Broadway shows, gave him tickets for opening night of Jesus Christ Superstar , which Harvey Milk co-produced and helped stage.

"He touched me on a personal level not necessarily about my sexuality, but he said, 'I understand you feel different, but the world needs to accept that gift. The world doesn't always have the eyes to see that.' He said if I stay on that path I will get there," said Milk. "He reached me as a beloved family member but also reached me as he reached so many other people by what happened to him. I could not say I got there overnight, but he definitely put me on that path."

To this day Milk said he feels different, particularly within the LGBT community.

"How can you come out when you have never been in? I have never been part of the circuit crowd or the mainstream gay community either," said Milk. "I do human service work because I care about people. I do as much as I can in my own simple way as I think hundreds of thousands of LGBT people out there do to accept our movement as equal citizens as everyone else."

When he travels to gay centers in other countries, whether it is Sydney, Australia or Sao Paolo, Brazil, Stuart Milk is constantly amazed at how well known his uncle is outside the states. Having appeared in the documentary The Times of Harvey Milk even he gets recognized from time to time, as he did while part of the San Francisco contingent that traveled to Sydney this past winter to celebrate the two urban centers' sister city relationship.

"In Sao Paolo the Pride folks know just as much about Harvey as your average Californian GLBT person. The fact they knew so much about this local politician in San Francisco shows the impact one life can have on basically our global social conscience," said Milk. "There is no way we would be where we are today in terms of LGBT rights without San Francisco and without people like my uncle and the community who was behind him."

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