Harvey Milk's lasting legacy

  • by Mark Leno
  • Wednesday November 1, 2017
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Though I arrived in San Francisco in 1977, I never met Harvey Milk. Because of his work and the legacy he leaves behind, many have tried to claim Milk as part of their own stories. Those who did know him - people like Anne Kronenberg, Cleve Jones, and Dan Nicoletta - have colored our history with firsthand accounts of Milk's in-your-face activism and infectious charisma. But like countless others across America and around the world, who only know Milk through stories, speeches, and photos, he changed my life. Others knew him better, but the truth is, his story belongs to us all.

I know from personal experience the life-changing power of telling Milk's story. During my 14 years in Sacramento, our Legislative LGBT Caucus partnered with Equality California to bring dozens of students to the Capitol for our annual Queer Youth Advocacy Day. The advocacy day gives young people an opportunity to learn about the legislative experience through training and lobbying activities every year, but one year resonated with me deeper than the rest.

When I met Kimberly, a 17-year-old lesbian who had recently come out, I learned that she'd never been to the Capitol. She came from a rural part of California where she lived a troubled home life and knew few, if any, other LGBT people. The only other lesbian in her life was her mom, who struggled with addiction and was the only model of queer existence Kimberly knew of. But when she learned about Milk's life during Queer Youth Advocacy Day training - how he changed the course of history for our community - her belief in what she could accomplish as a queer person changed forever. From stories like Kimberly's came our legislation to create Harvey Milk Day and the Fair, Accurate, Inclusive and Respectful Education Act. And on the eve of the 40th anniversary of Milk's historic election to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, remembering the message behind Milk's story is more important than ever.

Milk is remembered as a closet-door shattering, hope-inspiring leader of gay liberation - but his role as an organizer serves as arguably the most important lesson of Milk's legacy. He understood the power of electoral representation for all minorities, and believed that if we don't have a seat at the table we'll never get "a piece of the pie." One of his earliest opportunities to deliver queer representation presented itself in an unlikely partnership in 1974, three years before Milk finally won elected office. When he learned the truck drivers' union, Teamsters Local 888, was boycotting Coors beer in protest of the company's refusal to sign a new contract, he saw a unique opportunity to build queer political power by joining forces with labor. By organizing gay bar and business owners to join the beer boycott, Milk formed an alliance between labor and the LGBT community that would later be key to his election and remains strong to this day.

Milk remembered this lesson when California state Senator John Briggs authored a statewide initiative to fire gay and lesbian teachers and their allies. He understood that to win the No on Proposition 6 campaign - to achieve political power and defeat dangerously discriminatory laws at the ballot box - LGBT people would have to build broad coalitions beyond the comfort of our own community. And thanks to the efforts of No on Proposition 6 campaigners like Milk, Tom Ammiano, Hank Wilson, Harry Britt, and so many others, we built a grassroots movement up and down the state unlike anything California had ever seen. We extended our arms and built trust among workers, families, seniors, and LGBT people to create a newly galvanized voting bloc and a populist agenda that brought people together despite our differences.

This is Milk's lesson from which we must learn and act on in 2017. For too long, we've let our differences divide and conquer us, risking hard-earned opportunities to advance our shared values of justice and equality for all. Facing the loss of over 1,000 Democratic seats in state legislatures, governor's offices, and congressional districts around the country during the last decade, our only hope lies in our willingness to do what Milk did so well. We must reclaim our core values, put aside our differences, and find the common ground we'll need to get our seat back at the table.

And it starts here at home. Let's honor Milk, by bridging our divides to ensure every elected official in City Hall is pushing forward progressive values true to the San Francisco that Milk envisioned for us all. When we build a broad-based coalition that weaves across communities, our city's contagious movement for equality will win.

Mark Leno is a former state senator, assemblyman, and city supervisor. In May he announced his candidacy for San Francisco mayor in the 2019 election. For more information, visit www.markleno.com .