Harvey Milk was the first openly gay man in the country to win public office as a non-incumbent. With this rarified position, Milk became a trailblazer in the arena of gay rights, and helped pass laws that ensured equal rights for LGBTQ citizens in San Francisco.
Today, May 22nd, has been dubbed Harvey Milk Day in his honor, as a means of celebrating and paying respects to the late politician. Today would have also been his 87th birthday. To learn more about the celebration, and Milk’s legacy, here are five fast facts you need to know.
1. Harvey Milk Day Was Started In 2009
Though Milk has been gone for over three decades now, a day designated in his honor has been a relatively new development. California citizens had been trying to make May 22nd an official holiday for years, and they eventually presented a bill to California legislature in 2008. It failed on its first go around, but would eventually be passed was was signed into law by Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger.
The first official Harvey Milk Day was held in 2009, which, as luck would have it, aligned with countless other developments in the LGBTQ community. The state had just passed Proposition 8, a ban on same-sex marriage, and Gus Van Sant’s film Milk, based on the late politician’s life, was released later that year. Harvey Milk Day has since become a tradition in cities like San Francisco and San Diego.
2. Milk Has Been The Focus Of Several Films
Gus Van Sant’s film was released to surprising box office and critical acclaim in 2008, including those who felt Van Sant’s portrait of Milk was “tenderly observed” and “smartly handled.” Sean Penn, whose casting in title role was tentatively received given his own political views, also won near-universal praise for her performance, winning numerous awards including the Academy Award for Best Actor.
For those who want a more factual, concrete account of Milk’s life, there is also the 1984 documentary The Times of Harvey Milk. The ninety minute film won the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature, and in 2012, The Times of Harvey Milk was also inducted into the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry for being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.”
3. It Is Also A Celebration of Other LGBTQ Activists
According to Out In Perth, Harvey Milk Day not only celebrates Milk, but countless other activists who stood up for LGBTQ rights. This includes Cleve Jones and the AIDS Quilt, Larry Kramer and ACT UP, Gilbert Baker, who created the Rainbow flag, Sylvia Rivera of the Stonewall riots, and Del Martin, the co-founder of the first lesbian organization.
What all of these activists have in common with Milk, however, is a shared battle to promote equality among LGBTQ citizens, and actions that are still being felt today in the eyes of the media and society as a whole. Earlier this year, the miniseries When We Rise documented the struggles that people like Jones, Martin, and Baker. Milk was seen sparingly, in archival footage, throughout.
4. Milk Was Posthumously Awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom
Though subject to extreme discrimination and controversy during his lifetime, Milk has since become an icon in San Francisco and a martyr in the LGBTQ community. His campaign manager Anne Kronenberg, said: “What set Harvey apart from you or me was that he was a visionary. He imagined a righteous world inside his head and then he set about to create it for real, for all of us.” As a result of his bravery, Milk was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2009.
Milk, along with other LGBTQ trailblazers like Billie Jean King and senator Edward M, Kennedy, were the recipient of this sacred honor, which was held by President Barack Obama. “Each has been an agent of change,” said Obama, “Each saw an imperfect world and set about improving it, often overcoming great obstacles along the way. Their relentless devotion to breaking down barriers and lifting up their fellow citizens sets a standard to which we should all strive.”
5. Milk Continues to Inspire on Social Media
Milk’s reputation has only grown in subsequent years, as is evidenced by the outpouring and support and celebration he has seen on social media. Check out some of the best tweets below: