Reinventing Harvey Milk’s message

We shouldn’t forget our heroes’ ideas when they’re still relevant today.

by Trent M. Kays

Last Tuesday was an important day. It probably passed unnoticed by many, but it is a day that holds significance to a community in the U.S. Or maybe you did notice but only because some person in your Facebook feed posted some ill-thought platitude.

Last Tuesday was the anniversary of the death of Harvey Milk.

Milk was the first openly gay man elected to public office in the U.S. He was elected to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors in 1977 and spent 11 months working for the citizens of the city. Then, in 1978, a mere 11 months into his term, Dan White assassinated Milk and city mayor George Moscone.

This little history lesson may not hold much value to some, as it happened more than 30 years ago, but it is significant to me. I never knew Harvey Milk. I wasn’t even born yet. My parents weren’t even married yet. But I love him. I love Harvey Milk.

This statement might seem a bit odd to you, but I assure you, I am not consumed by necrophilia. I love the idea of Milk, I love his story and I love his tragedy. I’m upset even 30 years later that a conservative demagogue gunned him down. Milk could have done a great many things, and we have been deprived of his brilliance. I can only know Milk through his story. I can read about him, I can watch a movie about him, but I can never really know him.

I can never know his passion in person. He’s gone. In his short time as an elected official, he pushed through one of the most stringent equal rights laws in the U.S., guaranteeing that gays and lesbians would have fair and equal treatment in San Francisco. He is a hero.

So you can imagine my irritation that the anniversary of his death passed without much notice. Facebook friends posted the occasional note about him, but do they understand what it means to be Harvey Milk? Can they? Can anyone? Milk seems to have become a glimmer in the past, nothing but a hiccup in the civil rights history of the U.S.

I’ve been told that he was just a man. No, he was more than a man. He was a martyr for the LGBT cause. He was a leader; a righteous man in an unrighteous world, and a crazed gunman stole him from my generation.

What does it mean to forget or to be born after the death of a martyr? It means a great deal. What is not in the forefront of our minds is often forgotten, and I don’t want that to happen to Milk. He was too great of a hero to be left to a small entry in a history textbook. Instead, we should honor Milk by being like him: energetic, passionate and willing to work to make our communities better. We should not be beholden to bigotry, and we should not tolerate the hate of ignorant individuals.

Regarding Milk, I often wonder what I’ll tell my children. By the time I have children, it’ll probably be 40 or 50 years after his death. What can Milk mean to us in the 2020s or the 2030s? He can serve as a hero in history, though I hope his significance isn’t diminished by our progress. Perhaps he’s more powerful dead than he ever was alive. Now he is omnipresent, serving as a guide and a source of passion for future generations of activists who will dare to stand up to hate and power.

We’ve surely had other activists come and go, but my love for Milk is unwavering. The fact that I can never know him forces me to love him and his ideas. Equality is achievable, it is available, and we need to fight for it. The LGBT community and the greater public owe Milk a great debt. He stood up when no one else would. He became a martyr for a cause to change the world.

Milk once remarked, “If a bullet should enter my brain, let that bullet destroy every closet door.” A bullet did enter his brain, but some are still behind closet doors. It is not a failure of Milk’s; it is our failure. It’s our failure to not make a society where people are happy to be who they are. In the greatest of feats, Milk left this world and became a martyr, yet we have forgotten what it is to fight for some things.

I’m not OK with us forgetting Milk’s powerful message of equality. He died for that message, and we should remember that our world might have been quite different had he not stood up to fight. In the end, Milk was too righteous for our world. He asked too much, and as such, he was taken from us.

But, now is the time for us to reinvent Milk, to bring him back from the dead and show the world that we have not forgotten his message. I would rather fight for equality than live in an unjust world. That’s Milk’s true message, and we should never forget it.

So next year, let us remember Harvey Milk’s legacy. Let us work to end inequality, and let us demand the fair treatment that everyone deserves. This is our time and our world. We shouldn’t waste time twiddling our thumbs, but instead we should see that our children and our children’s children understand our struggle and our fight. We should see that future generations understand the legacy of Harvey Milk and know that we sought to preserve that legacy and fight.

Like I said before, I never knew Milk, but I love him, I miss him, and I wish he were still alive. I wish he was still fighting the good fight and working for equality. In some ways, he does. Through those he inspired, he fights and lives on.