Harvey Milk: From Bullhorn to Bully Pulpit

Had he lived, Harvey Milk would turn 80 this Saturday. In California, May 22 marks the first-ever Harvey Milk Day, an official statewide day of recognition. But Harvey's legacy isn't about one city or one state, so people across America and around the world will also celebrate the day a hero was born.

This celebration comes at a moment of great promise in the fight for a freer, fairer country for LGBT Americans. We're closer than ever to achieving key legislative victories in Congress. But even with clear majorities of Americans in favor of laws that would end legal discrimination against LGBT people, it's still a slog to convince enough members of Congress they won't suffer at the polls for standing up for what's right.

The same dynamic is playing out in state legislatures and city councils from coast to coast, and so our work continues. The only question now is how best to change the hearts and minds of the powerful.

For some, the answer to that question has changed recently. Hot with anger and tired of following the rules, they've begun to protest and demand action, putting a face on the growing outrage over political plodding on issues of simple fairness and equality.

That's how Harvey Milk got his start. He had little patience for the establishment -- even the gay establishment. Furious about police raids on Castro Street bars, Milk entered politics hoping to draw attention to the treatment of gays and lesbians, but the city's political elites told him to wait his turn.

After years of running for office, and finally winning a race for the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, Milk took his seat at City Hall. Almost immediately he began to speak for the people who had put him there --"the gays, the blacks, the Asians, the seniors, the disabled -- the us's," he called them.

Milk left street activism to sit alongside the powerful and whisper in their ears. And they listened. Within months he helped pass the city's first gay rights ordinance at a time when the earliest of these were being reversed in many places across America.

Cleve Jones, who three decades ago fought alongside Milk and helped get him elected, recently told the New York Times about Milk handing off his iconic bullhorn when he became an elected official. "He knew he was going to be on the inside. But he also knew that we needed to keep up the pressure on the streets," Jones said.

That's a fitting lesson this Harvey Milk Day. If we are going to win the freedoms we deserve as Americans, we must use both the bullhorn and the bully pulpit.

When the pace of change is too slow, we should demonstrate our passion, our anger and our outrage in the streets. But we must also seek seats at the table of power, on the inside, so we can whisper in the ears of colleagues and friends who can be convinced to do the right thing.

Change is never easy, but it's never more difficult than when those who really want it get discouraged and divided. Harvey Milk believed in achieving victory by fighting on all fronts and in many ways, but always arm-in-arm.

On this first official Harvey Milk Day, let us follow his example.