October 11th is Coming Out Day; October is also the month chosen for IUPUI’s Harvey Milk Dinner–an event sponsored by the university’s GLBT faculty and staff to bring “friends and family” together, to remember where the struggle for gay rights has been, and to remind us all that the fat lady hasn’t sung and the fight isn’t over. This was the fourth year of the event; I’ve been honored to emcee last two. This year, 275 people attended, including a significant percentage of the campus administration, from the Chancellor on down.
As I looked over the crowd, I couldn’t help wondering what Harvey Milk would think if he were still alive to see what he and a few other brave pioneers had wrought.
Harvey Milk was the first openly gay person elected to public office in California (and probably, in the U.S.). Born in New York in 1930, Milk moved to San Francisco in 1972, a time when there was a significant migration of gay men to the city’s Castro District. Once there, he became politically active.
Milk ran losing campaigns for political office three times before being elected. But he was by all accounts charismatic, and he ran what have been called “highly theatrical” campaigns. He finally won a seat as a city supervisor (what most places call city councilors) in 1977. He had served barely 11 months in office when he and Mayor George Moscone were murdered by Dan White.
Eleven months is a pretty short career. But Milk had started something and that something has snowballed. Since his death, relatives have established a foundation in his name, he was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and the Post Office has just announced the issuance of a Harvey Milk postage stamp.
Why did Milk have such an impact? Why did a brief 11-month stint in a relatively low-level office leave such a legacy?
I can only speculate, but I think most Americans—at least, those not deeply invested in hate and homophobia—respond to obvious injustice when they can’t avoid confronting it. What Harvey Milk did—and what every single gay person who has had the courage to come out has done—is insist on visibility.
I first recognized the importance of visibility several years ago, when I was the Executive Director of Indiana’s ACLU. We wanted to give one of our annual awards to the West Lafayette City Council for adding sexual orientation to their Human Rights Ordinance’s list of protected categories. (They were the first in the state to do so.) Since awards from the ACLU can be a mixed blessing to elected officials, I called the clerk to see whether the councilors would accept the honor. She turned out to be a chatty soul, and confided that when the amendment was first offered, she thought it was silly. No one was discriminating against gay people—at least, not that she was aware.
Then there were public hearings on the proposed amendment, and the church buses rolled. People came out of the woodwork to oppose the measure, and their behavior was anything but Christian. She was appalled. As she said, “I’d had no idea! Those people showed me how wrong I had been and how important the amendment really was.”
When you become visible, it is no longer possible for the “good people” to ignore bigotry and injustice.
October is the month GLBT folks and those of us who count ourselves as allies remember that lesson.