Harvey Milk: What His Presidential Medal of Freedom Means to All Americans

When Stuart Milk accepts the Medal of Freedom tomorrow, it will be tinged with the thought of what might have been -- for Harvey, for our movement, and for our country.
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When Stuart Milk stands before the president and the country to accept the Presidential Medal of Freedom on behalf of his late, slain uncle Harvey Milk, it'll be a moment of incredible pride for the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community (LGBT).

Yet this is a moment that will transcend identity politics because Harvey Milk represents the aspirations of all Americans. More than 200 years ago Washington, Jefferson and Adams fought to create a more perfect union. They probably had no idea that their vision would be embodied in the late 20th century by a gay, Jewish camera shop owner in San Francisco.

Milk's story, as recounted in last year's Academy Award-winning movie Milk and books such as The Mayor of Castro Street, involves his struggle to become one of the first openly elected gay public officials in the U.S. His political ambitions coincided with the rising gay rights movement and resulted in him winning a seat on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors.

Simultaneous to his election, another candidate named Dan White won a seat on the board. In 1978, White resigned his seat only to later want it back. He became frustrated that the appointment wasn't going to happen, went to City Hall, and murdered Milk in cold blood along with Mayor George Moscone.

Milk's murder could have had a chilling effect on the then burgeoning gay rights movement. Many forces were already actively at work to put gays back in the closet including crusader Anita Bryant. Instead it's a testament to American idealism that in the 30 years since Milk's assassination, we have continued to appreciate and honor his political work.

In fact, there are now more than 440 openly LGBT public officials in our country who serve in states as diverse as Alabama, Idaho and Kentucky. That's real progress, but even that number seems small when you realize there are more than one half million elected offices in the U.S.
We believe that, in a country as diverse as America, truly representative democracy demands that all voices should have a seat at the table. The dialogue is enhanced when policymakers must look colleagues in the face and negotiate with them over important issues. It's much more difficult to demonize a segment of the population when you need a vote from an elected member of that community.

A case in point is the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" law dealing with gays in the military. It clearly has outlived its usefulness. Future Congressional action will be enhanced because there are three U.S. Representatives who are part of the LGBT community (Barney Frank, Tammy Baldwin and Jared Polis).

Even as the LGBT community commemorates Milk's role in our history, we recognize that achieving success in American political life requires a broad understanding of all its citizens. While Milk certainly received strong support from San Francisco's LGBT community, he knew how to reach out to others. His commitment to tackling every day issues is humorously remembered for his campaign to protect the city from the troublesome problem of dog waste.

Likewise, today candidates who are LGBT know that we don't live in a Balkanized country and to succeed in public office requires a deep commitment to being true to yourself while opening up your mind to the problems others face. This is the strategy that has led Lupe Valdez to twice be elected sheriff of Dallas County in Texas. It's also the way Houston City Controller Annise Parker is currently running for mayor. If elected this fall, she will become the first openly LGBT mayor of a major U.S. city.

Many had dreams that Milk would have been the first to stake that claim. His political future was bright. Before he was gunned down he had already been part of a successful effort in California against the heinous Briggs Amendment that would have banned gays from teaching in public schools (a measure so extreme that even Ronald Reagan came out against it). One has to wonder what role Milk could have played last fall in the Golden State when Proposition 8, the measure to ban gay marriages, was approved. Would Californians really have rejected the appeals from a man who had served as mayor of San Francisco or even as their Governor at one point?

When Stuart Milk accepts the Medal of Freedom this Wednesday we will beam with pride, but it will be tinged with the thought of what might have been -- for Harvey, for our movement, and for our country. And then we will remember what he taught us about perseverance, pride and telling the truth about who we really are, and we will press on.

Wolfe serves as the leader of the Victory Fund, a D.C.-based political action committee that identifies, trains and elects LGBT leaders to all levels of office. Further information is available at victoryfund.org.

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