Harvey Milk was elected to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors forty years ago today. His legacy has never been stronger, nor more important. He was not the first openly gay person elected to public office – he was the sixth in America – but he was the first to make being a proud and open gay man the cornerstone of his campaign.
Yesterday, Danica Roem became the transgender Harvey Milk. Her victory made her an instant role-model to hundreds of thousands of trans people who are in desperate need of voice and hope. Roem will take her seat in the Virginia House of Delegates after beating Bob Marshall, a 26-year Republican incumbent and crusading transphobe. The race personified the battle between the past and the future. Marshall did all he could to make Roem’s gender the issue. He deliberately and repeatedly mis-gendered her and his campaign authorized transphobic robocalls. But despite all that Roem turned a solid Republican seat blue.
Harvey Milk Justified his run for office with the mantra that for gay people to be treated equally they must have a seat at the table. Visible gay leaders, out of their closets, needed to run and be elected, to shatter the fear generated by the myths swirling around their invisibility. And he has been proved right. LGBT elected officials have changed the hearts and minds of, not only their constituents, but their legislative colleagues. They give voice to the silent and shatter stereotypes by giving a human story to a community often hidden.
Last week a global survey of over 115,000 people in 77 countries conducted by the International Gay and Lesbian Association found that 41% of respondents knew someone who was gay and 73% of that group supported equality. However, among those who said they did not know a lesbian or gay person only 44% supported equal rights. Visibility is powerful in every walk of life but out elected officials are more than symbols – their presence demonstrates legitimacy and success – and they drive the passage of more just laws.
But Milk’s legacy is vulnerable. Despite all the evidence that participating in politics and public life lessens homophobia, the number of high ranking LGBT politicians has begun to wane. There are fewer out LGBT US statehouse members than there were a year ago and the number of LGBT parliamentarians globally has fallen from its high point in 2015.
Danica Roem’s success will be rightly celebrated but transgender people around the world remain misunderstood, distrusted and despised. A tiny number of transgender people have a public platform, let alone political voice, and the number of people who say they know a trans person remains low. Just as Harvey’s children took up his flag after he fell, now a new generation of transgender leaders must be nurtured, supported and empowered. There was one other bright spot yesterday – the first transwoman of color, Andrea Jenkins, was elected to the Minneapolis City Council.
Harvey Milk had it right forty years ago –Danica Roem’s victory is his victory too.
Andrew Reynolds is the author of the forthcoming The Children of Harvey Milk: How LGBTQ Politicians Changed the World (Oxford).