[Commentary] Milk’s Assassination Changed Our History Forty Years Ago

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Forty years ago today,  the trajectory of LGBTQ political visibility, rights and progress was altered in an act of violence following the assassination of San Francisco Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk, California’s first openly gay elected official.

Milk and Moscone were assassinated by Dan White, a former police officer and former city supervisor who had clashed with Milk over LGBTQ among other issues. After shooting the Moscone, White entered Milk’s office and shot him five times at his desk.

Milk inspired a generation of young, LGBTQ persons to become politically active, including Cleve Jones, an intern for Milk who went onto to found the AIDS Memorial Quilt project.  Recently, he told KQED in San Francisco that after the assassination, he feared LGBTQ rights would suffer a setback. Jones organized a candlelight march following the assassinations and realized his fears were unfounded.

“And we marched to Civic Center and filled it with candlelight,” he recalled. “And I remember standing in that huge crowd and realizing that of course it wasn’t over. It was, in fact, just beginning.”

Milk’s power and inspiration stems from his realization that our community could not move forward until and unless we came out of the closet and engage with the entire community.

In this month’s mid-term elections, 400 LGBTQ candidates ran for state, local and federal offices nationwide. Many made history, including the first openly gay member of the Virginia Beach City Council, openly gay governor in Colorado and a first for Kansas following the election of a Native American lesbian to Congress. You can easily trace their path to victory back to Milk’s camera store in San Francisco’s Castro neighborhood over forty years ago.

If you are unfamiliar with Milk’s story, I strongly recommend viewing the 1984 Oscar-winning documentary “The Times of Harvey Milk” as it chronicles his life, campaigns, fight against the Briggs Initiative and the men and women that helped him succeed in over 40 years ago.