March 19, 2014 | by Thom Senzee
The story behind the Harvey Milk stamp
Harvey Milk stamp, gay news, Washington Blade

The Harvey Milk commemorative stamp is set to be released this spring.

While no specific date has been announced for the official release of the United States Postal Service’s first-ever Harvey Milk stamp, the Washington Blade has confirmed that the release date will be in May—not as late as June, as has been reported by several media outlets and as the postal service’s own Web site still indicates is possible.

“It will be May, not June,” said Susan McGowan, director of USPS Office of Stamps and Corporate Licensing. “And we hope people will turn out to experience a very special release ceremony.”

The stamp’s coming out party promises to be a big affair for the postal service—one that’s been nearly a decade in the making.

“Let’s just say it’s going to be a great celebration,” McGowan told the Blade.

Today, Harvey Milk may seem like a shoe-in as a candidate to be honored with the issuance of a U.S. postage stamp bearing his likeness.

But according to organizers of the National Harvey Milk Stamp Campaign, there was fervent opposition from some of the country’s most fundamentalist religious groups, as well as from some members of the Citizens Stamp Approval Committee (CSAC), which votes to approve about 25 stamp requests out of about 1,000 requests each year.

“I know for a fact that some of the stamp committee members were absolutely opposed to the idea of a Harvey Milk stamp or a stamp honoring any homosexual leader,” said San Diego City Commissioner Nicole Murray Ramirez, head of the International Imperial Court System, which led the national campaign to win approval for the stamp.

“That was early on, of course. I think as the process moved on and they saw how much support we had not only from Democrats, but from top Republicans, support grew.”

Although she couldn’t say whether the Citizens Stamp Approval Committee’s vote for the Harvey Milk stamp was divided or unanimous, USPS’s McGowan was adamant that there is no story of impassioned opposition to the stamp on the committee.

“I think you’re trying to find controversy where there wasn’t any,” she said. “It’s quite possible the vote was unanimous; we don’t keep those details because all that is needed is a simple majority for approval.”

What matters, says McGowan, is that the committee did approve the Harvey Milk stamp, and that it will be released in May.

Ramirez said the process for winning approval for the Harvey Milk stamp was arduous. But he added that he and his colleagues on the stamp campaign, including Stuart Milk — Harvey Milk’s nephew who is also a gay civil rights advocate — GLAAD, the Human Rights Campaign, the Harvey Milk Foundation, the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, numerous senators and members of Congress, mayors and others, were gratified that it succeeded.

“I don’t think it was as hard as it would have been 20 years ago,” Ramirez said. “In the end, I think we were treated fairly and we got approval for the stamp faster than a lot of other stamp campaigns.”

Still, some organizations such as Save California, a right-wing religious group, plan to protest the postal service’s decision to commemorate Harvey Milk, whom they call a “sexual predator.”

Nevertheless, Ramirez said national symbols, such as commemorative stamps, speak louder and resound for longer than any words of hate or bigotry espoused by angry ultra-conservatives.

“The fact that we now have the image of one of our greatest GLBT leaders on a beautifully designed United States postage stamp says more than anything else about how far we have come as a country fighting against the hatred that we still face as gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people,” said Ramirez.

Ramirez knows about that history through his own experience. He helped lead historic marches for LGBT rights in the early 1970s in downtown San Diego and other California locales to protest police abuse of gay people.

“Young people don’t know how bad it was,” Ramirez said. “You could get beat up or worse by the police, just for being in a gay bar. This stamp honoring Harvey Milk shows that by fighting for our rights and never giving up, we can change the way the majority of people behave toward minorities, whether it’s racial minorities or GLBT people.”

According to McGowan, the postal service received thousands of letters of support for the Milk stamp.

“It was overwhelming,” she said. “We get about 30,000 letters of support for stamp proposals every year, but that’s for all of the thousand or so annual stamp proposals combined. The amount of public support for this stamp was really amazing.”

The stamp campaign began with a simple letter, dated Oct. 20, 2009, signed by Ramirez in his capacity then as chair of the City of San Diego’s Human Relations Commission, asking the Citizens Stamp Approval Committee to consider and approve the design and issuance of a U.S. postage stamp commemorating and bearing an image of San Francisco City and County Supervisor Harvey Milk.

In essence, the Harvey Milk campaign asked the postal service for the first time to specifically honor a person for being a tireless soldier in the battle for equal rights for LGBT people—and for having the courage and tenacity to become one of the nation’s first openly gay elected public officials.

Ramirez and his fellow signers of the San Diego Human Relations Commission’s letter to CSAC wrote in 2009: “The governor of the state of California, Arnold Schwarzenegger, recently inducted Harvey Milk into the California Hall of Fame, saying ‘he embodies California’s innovative spirit and has made a mark on history.”

By citing California’s then Republican governor’s support for the stamp, the campaign hoped to demonstrate the principles Milk stood for crossed party lines.

“Harvey Milk is recognized nationally and globally as a pioneer of the LGBT civil rights movement for his exceptional leadership and dedication to equal rights,” the letter continued.

That same year, the film “Milk” won Sean Penn an Oscar for best actor in recognition of his critically acclaimed portrayal of the slain civil rights leader. The hit film also brought home an Oscar for writer Dustin Lance Black for best screenplay.

That was also the year that President Obama posthumously awarded Harvey Milk the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Now, five years later, a postage stamp featuring Milk’s smiling face will finally be released. The stamp will find its way into the stamp collections of philatelists throughout the world.

According to one gay stamp collector, given the fact that this is the first stamp expressly honoring an openly gay American hero, it is conceivable that the postal service may get a whole new generation of LGBT philatelists as stamp-collecting customers.

“Harvey Milk continues to inspire us all to strive for a society that provides unlimited and equal opportunities for all our citizens,” wrote Rep. Nancy Pelosi to CSAC when she was still speaker of the House of Representatives, imploring the committee to approve the stamp. “The United States Postal Service has yet to honor an LGBT American hero with a stamp, commemorating the life and efforts of Harvey Milk would be a testament to Harvey’s courage and a symbol of pride to anyone who has ever felt discrimination or cared about those who have.”

Recently, a new stamp campaign was launched for another openly gay Presidential Medal of Freedom recipient.

In January, the Blade broke the news that many of the same people and organizations that won approval for the Harvey Milk stamp have joined with Walter Naegle, Mandy Carter and the National Black Justice Coalition (which Carter cofounded), to win approval for a United States postage stamp commemorating the life and work of the late Bayard Rustin.

Along with A. Phillip Randolph, Rustin was chief organizer of the 1963 March on Washington for Freedom and Jobs, where Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his historic “I Have a Dream” speech.

“The current campaign is a new effort, but there have been letters written for more than a decade suggesting that Bayard be honored with a stamp,” said Walter Naegle, Rustin’s surviving partner. “Perhaps an increase in the number of supporters will help, but the postal service doesn’t seem to be influenced by such efforts.”

Naegle is currently engaged in an ongoing Rustin awareness campaign, focusing his efforts on a multitude of fronts. He promises to do what he can to help the Bayard Rustin National Stamp Campaign succeed.

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