Today is Harvey Milk day… A day to celebrate the life and achievements of this prolific gay activist and the first openly gay person to ever be elected to the US public office in California, who once said: “I know, I’m not what you expected, but I left my high heels at home.”
Harvey Milk was a visionary whose life and death had a profound effect on the LGBT community. His peers remember him for his passion and his perseverance in his quest for equality for all people.
On 27 November 1978, four days after Thanksgiving, Dan White walked through San Francisco’s City Hall with a revolver and shot and killed Mayor George Moscone and Harvey Milk.
Shortly before his assassination, in his famous speech entitled ‘Hope’, Harvey Milk said: “And the young gay people in the Altoona, Pennsylvanias and the Richmond, Minnesotas who are coming out and hear Anita Bryant on television and her story. The only thing they have to look forward to is hope. And you have to give them hope. Hope for a better world, hope for a better tomorrow, hope for a better place to come to if the pressures at home are too great. Hope that all will be all right.”
Those words were spoken in a time when US politicians, like John Briggs, received enthusiastic support for Proposition 6, dubbed the Briggs Initiative. This proposed law would have made firing gay teachers — and any public school employees who supported gay rights — mandatory. Singer Anita Bryant led a Christian fundamentalist campaign, called Save Our Children, against legislation that banned discrimination in areas of housing, employment, and public accommodation based on sexual orientation… she also blamed the drought in California on gay people.
Back then, it was not unheard of for gay men to be given electro-shock therapy to heal them from their ‘mental illness’. In fact, in 1973, five years prior the Hope speech, the American Psychiatric Association removed homosexuality from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM) as a sociopathic personality disturbance (This ‘classification’ still give me the shivers when I think about it).
Pride season is around the corner and this is always a time for me to reflect on how far we’ve come. The first Gay Pride March was held on Sunday 28 June 1970, in New York. The event was organised by Brenda Howard, who is now known as the “Mother of Pride“. Since the 70s, Pride marches have been crucial for LGBT people to mobilize against homophobia and transphobia, to stand against discrimination, to build bridges with mainstream society and to send a clear message to the authorities that they have a responsibility to ensure the rights of all people.
Step into 2014 and it’s understandable that many people in our community ask: Why do we still march?
We march because, firstly, we have a history of fighting back and showing resilience that should be remembered and honoured. Secondly, we have a lot to celebrate: Gay Marriage (though I prefer to simply call it ‘marriage’) has been legalised in the UK and it seems that every state in the US that challenges the Marriage Law, loses their opposition… and being LGBT is fast becoming the ‘new normal’ in many countries.
But most importantly, we march for the LGBT people around the world who are still held in the shackles of shameful legislation that brutalise, persecute, imprison and in some countries pass the death sentence to anyone who is (or might be) LGBT, include LGBT people (especially teenagers) who are bullied and kicked out of their homes, and ostracised from their families and communities simply because they are ‘different’.
The International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association (ILGA), lists 77 countries with criminal laws against LGBT people… but that number is more likely to be 81. In some countries, recent Pride marches have been blighted by bans and violent attacks. Discrimination and restrictions on the rights to freedom of assembly and expression plague the lives of LGBT people all over the world.
In a number of countries there is a marked lack of will to tackle homophobia and transphobia. The authorities in some countries even go so far as to encourage it by introducing and implementing legislation and regulations that undermine the rights of LGBT people to freely express themselves.
So, when someone asks me why we still march, my answer is simple:
I march because I want to give hope to LGBT people around the world who cannot express themselves freely. Hope that there is a better tomorrow waiting for them. Hope that it will get better.
With Pride season rearing to go all over the world, I invite you to take to the streets. Be PROUD and don’t leave your high heels at home.