Harvey Milk (AP Photo)
In the mid-1970s when homosexuality was considered a mental illness by some and criminal by others, Harvey Milk prepared for his first run for public office as an openly gay man. His nephew Stuart was 15 at the time. He remembers telling his uncle, "I don't know if you need to be so loud."
Milk's reply? Being out and proud was the only way to fight the lies and myths about homosexuality. It was the only way those who blindly hated would realize that their sons and daughters and friends and neighbors were gay and lesbian. It would destroy the distortions and perhaps bring people together.
"He said, 'It's important to be authentic. No one can make you hide,'" Stuart recalled recently. "'Do not put on any masks. Your authenticity is what the world needs.'"
Harvey Milk was 48 when he was assassinated 35 years ago in November 1978. He had held his seat on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors for less than a year.
In that brief time, he sponsored a ground-breaking civil rights bill outlawing discrimination based on sexual orientation and, perhaps more importantly, inspired and excited like-minded thinkers, igniting change that continues today.
As President Obama noted in 2009 when he awarded Milk the Presidential Medal of Freedom posthumously, "In the brief time in which he spoke and ran and led, his voice stirred the aspirations of millions of people."
Milk knew his politics and public pronouncements made him unpopular in some circles; he frequently predicted he wouldn't live past 50. "If a bullet should enter my brain, let that bullet also destroy every closet door," he famously said in one speech.
Stuart Milk was 17 when his uncle was killed. Stuart said he'd long felt "different." At the time, he wasn't ready to say gay. He confided in his uncle that "I felt the weight of the world, like I didn't see the world like anyone else," Stuart said. The pair had several long conversations about Stuart's feelings, but Stuart never said he thought he was gay and Harvey never asked. He gave Stuart a book that conveyed the message: Your differences are medicine for the world even if the world doesn't know it. The fact that you're different makes it even more important. Never give up.
Stuart made his first public speech as an activist at Oberlin College in 1984, when he joined a friend onstage to speak of Harvey Milk as a civil rights hero on par with Martin Luther King and to stress the importance of the LGBT equality movement. But it would take 25 years for Stuart and Harvey’s friend and campaign manager Anne Kronenberg to create the Harvey Milk Foundation, a non-profit that seeks global equality for LGBT persons.
This is how it happened: In 2009, Stuart went to Washington, D.C., to accept the Presidential Medal of Freedom on behalf of his uncle. Bishop Desmond Tutu was there. As Stuart described it, there was a brief but pivotal exchange, during which the South African human rights activist pointed at him and in a calm tone said, "You need to do more. Harvey Milk is a martyr. Martyrs have a way of freeing people"
"The weight of the moment was pretty heavy as it was," Stuart recalled. "Then you have a Nobel Peace Prize winner saying, 'You can free the world.'"
The foundation uses Milk's ideas to inspire people around the world. "Harvey believed broad public education and dialogue was paramount to his life’s work as a civil rights leader and, as if riding on Harvey’s shoulders, the Milk Foundation seeks to inspire individuals, communities and organizations to carry on his values," the organization's website says.
The foundation's focus is global because the U.S. already has a multitude of organizations with the same mission, Stuart said. He described the progress as "two steps forward, one step back." Some areas of the world, like Eastern Europe, not only continue to deny equal rights to the LGBT population but are also repealing the rights of other persecuted populations like Roma, Jews and women. The foundation advocates for marginalized groups to join together to speak with one strong voice. It's a strategy Harvey Milk used to great success during his run for office.
"His example of collaboration is really very powerful and probably is what got him elected," Stuart said.
Stuart has seen some slow change. On a recent trip to Germany, he was asked to speak during a Mass held at the Archdiocese of Berlin. "The priest that conducted the Mass talked about the movement of the Pope on issues of inclusion," Stuart said. "It was very moving to see the hope of the congregation."
Other trips have been less inspiring, but still show the movement is inching forward. Just this July in Lithuania, Stuart marched in the first Baltic Pride parade. He was pelted with eggs. When someone attempted to brush the eggs off him before he gave a speech, Stuart declined, and the image of him speaking while covered in eggs was picked up by the local media.
"I said, 'They can throw eggs at me. At my uncle, they sent bullets. But you cannot stop the message,'" Stuart said. "Everywhere we go in the world, people know Harvey Milk. We always look up to martyrs, people who put their lives on the line to move humanity forward but ultimately pay the price."
Natalie Pompilio is a freelance writer based in Philadelphia. Her lifelong love of obituaries raised eyebrows when she was younger, but she's now able to explain that this interest goes beyond morbid curiosity. Says Pompilio, "Obituaries are mini life stories, allowing a glimpse into someone's world that we're often denied. I just wish we could share them with each other when we're alive."