Harvey Milk is an American hero, and was rightly honored as such when President Obama awarded him a posthumous Medal of Freedom.  Milk was an openly gay man who was elected to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors in the 1970s, at a time when gay men were randomly attacked in the Castro neighborhood of the city.  He was either the first or one of the first openly gay or lesbian people elected to public office in the United States.  Milk sponsored a bill prohibiting discrimination in San Francisco based on sexual orientation–the bill was signed into law.  30 years later, only 21 states have laws prohibiting employment discrimination based on sexual orientation.  Milk was way ahead of his time.  He also successfully campaigned against the infamous Briggs Initiative, an attempt to pass a law barring gay and lesbian teachers in public schools–and also to mandate the dismissal of any school employee who "encouraged" or "advocated" private or public homosexual activities (i.e. straight allies).  Milk was an example for gay and lesbian teenagers who were terrified to live their lives openly.   Here’s a great discussion of Milk’s historic accomplishments.

Milk received death threats, and knew that his life was at risk–he famously declared "if a bullet should enter my brain, let that bullet destroy every closet door in America." Milk understood the risks, but kept fighting and, ultimately, was killed by a political rival.

Milk is now rightly honored.  But some people disagree.  The Family Research Council has a post declaring that Milk was awarded a presidential medal "based on a sex life"--read if you dare, it’s pretty painful stuff, and only goes downhill from the headline.  That’s a shameless smear.  Lesbian gay, bisexual and transgender people are often defined first–or only–as sexual beings.  This diminishes their humanity–we’re all more than the sum total of our sexual experiences.  The FRC dismisses Milk, saying served as Supervisor for less than one year, so he "hardly qualifies" for a medal.  That’s a novel way to dismiss someone’s achievements–don’t actually confront what Milk achieved, dismiss him as not being around long enough.

Milk was a hero.  He inspired, and continues to inspire, many Americans.  He took an incredible risk by living his life openly as a gay elected official in the 1970s, something which, in and of itself, is remarkable.  It’s still difficult for LGBT people to live their lives openly in many contexts.  30 years ago, it was far more difficult.  I have heard one man who came of age in that era explain that, as a teenager, he was afraid to go to sleep at night because he was afraid he would talk in his sleep and reveal to his family that he was gay.  Milk stood up against bigotry, fought for equality, and provided an example to members of a marginalized minority.  He is deserving of the recognition he has received, and the FRC’s bitter piece reveals far more about the anti-gay feelings that persist than it reveals about Milk.

Chris Edelson

Chris Edelson

Chris is a lawyer and professor at American University who writes frequently about current political and media issues. His writing has also been published in The Philadelphia Inquirer, Metroland (Albany, NY), and at commondreams.org