Heroes of the Month: The Proponents of Harvey Milk Day

May 22, 2010 should be marked on all of our calendars.

A state government has decided to honor Harvey Milk and its gay community with an official day of recognition. That state is California. That day is Harvey Milk’s birthday. No, we don’t get the day off, but public schools throughout California will be encouraged to conduct lessons “remembering the life of Harvey Milk, recognizing his accomplishments and familiarizing pupils with contributions he made.” Harvey is only the second Californian to receive this honor; the naturalist John Muir is the other. Muir is on California’s quarter. Maybe someday we’ll see Harvey Milk’s smile beaming from, say, a $20 bill.

Having Harvey Milk Day officially sanctioned by the state and taught in schools is another one of those “I never thought I’d live to see the day” moments that I’ve been having a lot of lately. The contributions of LGBTs as LGBTs have always been in danger of being omitted from history. The broader society has effectively used silence, shame and violence to keep LGBT identities from becoming known, and in cases where those tools were insufficient, they were backed up with the threat of arrest and imprisonment. After all, it was only 2003 when sodomy laws were finally eradicated throughout the country.

How fitting, then, that Harvey Milk, the man whose motto was “come out, come out, wherever you are,” should be the first LGBT figure to be officially recognized with a day of significance for championing gay rights. Having his life commemorated in schools may well even save lives. LGBT youth are still committing suicide in California as elsewhere, and seeing a gay person celebrated may just give them the hope they need to survive.

Many people helped to make this day happen. A number of openly LGBT state legislators pushed the bill through, including Mark Leno, Christine Kehoe, Tom Ammiano and our new state speaker, John Perez. The bill was sponsored by Equality California. (I know, EQCA did a terrible job with the prop 8 campaign, but it does a great job of getting legislation passed.) And the 40,000 people who signed a petition urging Gov. Schwarzenegger not to veto the bill helped enormously.

Getting the bill passed was a struggle. The Governator had vetoed an identical bill in September, 2008, supposedly because he felt that Milk was a figure of merely local significance. But in the interim, the movie “Milk” was released and Sean Penn and Dustin Lance Black won Oscars for their work on it. A whole new generation of activists had arisen and was introduced to Harvey Milk. In July 2009, Milk was inducted into the California Hall of Fame. In August, Milk was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Clearly, Gov. Schwarzenegger could no longer base a veto on the excuse that Harvey Milk held only local interest.

Schwarzenegger dithered nonetheless. He was threatening to veto virtually all legislation on his desk if a multi-billion dollar water bill was not approved. He delayed signing anything until the last possible day. In the meantime, anti-gay forces were whipping people up into a frenzy over the Harvey Milk Day bill, which had become one of the most contentious legislative issues of the year. A special telephone line had to be set up just to field the Harvey Milk Day calls, pro and con. The Orange County school board decided to offer its input, and predictably voted 5-0 to oppose it.

While the water bill did not pass, Schwarzenegger caved in and started signing legislation. He signed our bill on October 11, 2009. That just happens to be National Coming Out Day.

Liz Newcomb is an attorney by day and committed LGBT activist by night and weekend. She has worked as a researcher at the Williams Institute. While in law school at UCLA, she was Articles Editor of the LGBT law journal. Liz lives in West Hollywood with her wife, Lynne. They are one of the 18,000 California same-sex couples who got married during the summer before proposition 8 passed. Liz has lived in California for over 20 years and brings a left coast perspective to AMERICAblog.

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