Thank you to everyone who came out last night for the screening of Gus Van Sant’s MILK, which told the story of the last eight years in the life of Harvey Milk, the first openly gay man elected to public office in the United States.  The film shows Milk’s life and his path from citizen to activist and politician in California, at the same time giving insights into the national discussion over gay rights, the American political system, and California’s history.

We were unable to have a discussion immediately after the film’s powerful ending, but I’d like to offer you some additional resources on this topic:

The Incredible True Stories from the Milk Mosaic.”  Focus Films has collected stories from all over the world from people whose lives were touched by Harvey Milk.  You can view the full mosaic here.

Here is one of those stories:

I would like to share a story from the “MILK MOSAIC” on the film’s website, submitted by an American:

I owe Harvey Milk my life. When I was in high school back in the 70’s in a small midwestern town I was contemplating suicide at the age of 16. Then I starting reading stories about some guy named, of all things Milk, out in San Francisco who was openly gay and just elected to a public office. I followed Harvey’s career and was devistated at his death. However I realized if he could succeed so could I. Not only did I not kill myself, but I went on to get my Ph.D and am now a teacher hopefully inspiring others. I wouldn’t be here today without the hope Harvey gave me. Thanks Harvey we sure need you now.

Harvey Milk’s election and assassination have had a significant impact on LGBT rights in the United States.  It led to the first of four “Marches on Washington,” in 1979. In 1983, Gary Studds from Massachusetts became our first openly gay Congressman.  In 1993, the Senate confirmed the first openly gay Presidential appointee, Roberta Achtenburg in the Department of Housing & Urban Development.  President Obama has nominated several openly gay people for his transition team and high-level government positions, including Ambassadorships.  

We cannot discuss the subject of violence against gays without mentioning the murder of Matthew Shepard in 1998.  Shepard, a 21-year old student in Wyoming, was lured from a gay bar by two other young men, who robbed and brutally tortured him, and left tied to a fence in a rural area to await his death.  He was found 18 hours later in a coma and died five days later.  This tragedy shook the nation, and the trial of Shepard’s murderers sparked a national discussion on hate crimes, which at that time did not exist in the State of Wyoming.  A basic national law from 1969 existed at the time, which covered crimes motivated by race, color, religion, and national origin, and only while the victim is participating in a federally-protected activity such as voting. 

On July 15, the U.S. Congress passed the Matthew Shepard Hate Crimes Prevention Act as an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act for 2010.  This act would cover crimes motivated by a victim’s actual or perceived gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, or disability.  It states that hate crimes can take place at any time.  It would also provide funding for state and local agencies to investigate and prosecute hate crimes and gives the federal government the power to investigate hate crimes that local authorities have not followed through on.  And it would add a requirement for the federal government to track statistics on hate crimes against transgendered people. 

The discussion on same-sex marriage in the United States is also complicated – some states perform it, others honor it, others have some variant form of domestic partnership, and some have legal bans on gay marriage.  On the federal level, in 2009, President Obama signed a referendum extending benefits to same-sex partners of federal employees. 

Although the United States does not have a single, simple position on gay rights as a whole, and Americans hold diverse views on issues such as gay marriage, one thing is certain: LGBT Americans such as Harvey Milk have made a lasting impact on our society, from protecting young people against violence to inspiring and working for the good of others, regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity. 

For the President’s remarks during LGBT Pride Month 2009, please click here and here.