The cost of the new stamp commemorating Harvey Milk is 49 cents, but for those who attended a White House event Thursday unveiling the prize for philatelists and LGBT rights supporters alike, the legacy of the gay rights pioneer is priceless.
That was the sentiment expressed by the nine speakers at a two-hour White House event celebrating Milk, who won election as a San Francisco Supervisor in 1977, becoming one of the first openly gay people in the country to hold public office.
Stuart Milk, a gay nephew of Harvey Milk and president of the Harvey Milk Foundation, said his uncle never sought to achieve an honor such as being on a stamp, but knew the importance his shattering of a glass ceiling in 1977 would have for gay people 36 years later.
“He did see this day because he dreamed it,” Milk said. “It’s what gave him the strength to go into work with death threats, and to remain loud and remain with that call that we have to come out.”
Anne Kronenberg, co-founder of the Harvey Milk Foundation, worked on Harvey Milk’s campaign for supervisor and said she’s excited that his image would appear on people’s mail throughout the country.
“I find it a little bit ironic in a wonderful way that during his campaign, we didn’t have enough money for postage,” Kronenberg said. “One beautiful brochure that we put together, we couldn’t get it out. We relied on our volunteers to get it out to our constituents.”
The U.S. Postal Service made the decision to mint the Harvey Milk Forever stamp as a result of a national campaign led by the San Diego City Commissioner — despite reported opposition from social conservative groups and some members of the Citizens Stamp Approval Committee.
The event took place on May 22, 2014, which would have been Harvey Milk’s 84th birthday; he was assassinated in 1978 by Dan White, who was acquitted of murder and instead convicted on voluntary manslaughter charges.
Although Harvey Milk predicted his own death, Stuart Milk said his uncle hoped that event — and the later acquittal of White — would pave the way for the judicial system to grant equality for LGBT people. Such a vision would be consistent with recent court rulings striking down same-sex marriage bans in Oregon and Pennsylvania.
“It was a wake-up call, and, I think, today we can say we heard it,” Staurt Milk said. “It was truly Uncle Harvey’s dream that we could see a different paradigm resulting from both his assassination and that equally mean-spirited verdict. He hoped our justice system could be moved to not only uphold the rights of LGBT people, but to live free from violence and scorn, and maybe our justice system could even uphold the equality principles for our Constitution.”
The highest ranking member of the Obama administration at the event was U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power, who drew a connection between Obama and the legacy associated with Milk.
“I get to work for a president who is identified with two words: hope and change,” Power said. “But it is hard to think of words that more succinctly describe Harvey Milk the leader, the activist, the fighter, the elected official. Hope and change is about a deeply held and proud American tradition: a tradition of toil to ensure the triumph of progress; a tradition of love winning out over fear. Hope and change.”
Gautam Raghavan, the White House public engagement adviser and LGBT liaison, acted as unofficial emcee for the event. He said Milk would have welcomed the honor bestowed on him given his belief in being out.
“I wish he could have grown old and seen the legacy of the hope that he breathed into so many of our lives,” Raghavan said. “And I think he would have liked being a stamp because he knew the best way to change hearts and minds was for people to get to know us.”
Power also alluded to the administration’s support for passage of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act when talking about recent gains for the LGBT community, including the drafting of Michael Sam by the St. Louis Rams.
“While we now do live in an age where the National Football League has, for the first time, drafted an openly gay man, we still live in an age where the National Football League can fire him for being gay,” Power said. “Postage stamps will not change that. Legislation will.”
Other speakers at the event included Evan Low, a gay city council member from Campbell, Calif.; Ronald Stroman, deputy postmaster general; and Torey Carter, chief operating officer for the Gay & Lesbian Victory Institute.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) repeated her often-told narrative of the legislative process for repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” giving Obama credit for making it happen, but also remembered the death of Milk in 1978 before she was elected to Congress.
“I was thinking that day, ‘Is this how it ends? It this how it ends?’” Pelosi said. “But it really was the beginning, a sad sacrifice to pay, but it was the beginning of so much. And you all know what it is. I don’t need to elaborate.”
Pelosi said that Milk continues to be honored 36 years after his death because he believed in the “fundamental American value of equality” and “cared about the rights of everyone.”
Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), a black civil rights leader in the 1960s and one of the lawmakers who voted against the Defense of Marriage Act in 1996, said Milk’s fight and the fight for racial equality are one and the same.
“The activism for Harvey Milk came of age during the last social revolution in American history,” Lewis said. “It was a revolution of values and ideas that started in 1955 in the American South and gave rise to other movements in America. Good trouble, necessary trouble, that’s what Harvey Milk got involved in.”
Lesbian Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.) attributed her success at being elected to the House in the 1990s and becoming the first openly gay person elected to the Senate to the election of Harvey Milk.
“It’s incredible to look at a time when running for San Francisco supervisor as an openly gay man seemed like a revolutionary act,” Baldwin said. “Harvey knew that. He welcomed the attention. He weathered the insults. He shoved off the death threats. And it wasn’t to satisfy his own ambition, but rather to answer the call he felt to move the cause of equality forward.”
Saying more work needs to be done on civil rights, Baldwin also recalled the controversy over the Sam kiss upon his entry into the NFL, saying we heard the “peanut gallery” of conservatives complain about how they’re supposed to explain that to their nine-year-olds.
“We live in country where most nine-year-olds could probably explain that kiss to their parents without batting an eye,” Baldwin said. “They understand what love is. They understand what fairness is. America is ready to take more steps forward, but it’s going to take more acts of courage and conviction, like the ones that made Harvey Milk a hero.”
A significant portion of the event was dedicated to international LGBT rights as an emerging issue.
Power noted that progress has been made on the international stage, such as by passage of a U.N. resolution in support of LGBT rights, but other countries have fallen backward.
“Hope is about envisioning a world where leaders do not target their most vulnerable citizens with laws that criminalize their existence, as is true, now, in 76 countries around the world, including Nigeria and Uganda, where new legislation, further targeting LGBT individuals, was signed into law earlier this year,” Power said. “Change is about standing up to them when they do. And under President Obama we have.”
Stuart Milk also acknowledged relationships between gay people are still criminalized under law in one-sixth of the world.
“Their very existence is now illegal just because of who they love, just because of who they are,” Milk said. “We cannot allow the backwards march in Asia, in Africa and Eastern Europe. We can’t allow it.”
Among the estimated 150 people attendees seated at the event were gay Rep. Mark Pocan (D-Wis.); gay Rep. Mark Takano (D-Calif.); Democratic National Committee chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz; National Gay & Lesbian Task Force Executive Director Rea Carey; gay businessperson Mitchell Gold and gay New Hampshire Democratic Party Chair Ray Buckley.
Obama did not attend. At the same time the ceremony was taking place, Obama was speaking at an event at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in Cooperstown, N.Y.