Interview: Stuart Milk of The Harvey Milk Foundation
Illustration by Sam Russell Walker
Harvey Milk was a civil rights activist and the first openly gay elected official in California’s history when he was elected to the San Francisco Board Of Supervisors. This week marks the 40th Anniversary of his death- Harvey was assassinated on November 27th 1978. I met his nephew Stuart Milk, who runs The Harvey Milk Foundation in Stockholm for the Pride celebrations.
Jack: What does Harvey Milk means to you personally?
Milk: It’s impossible to talk about Harvey without talking about his connection to the LGBT family, because I’m a member of that family. For me personally he was my touchstone to my own authenticity. He was the only person in my life that I could tell anything to and there would be no judgement back. Harvey knew that I was gay. He told everyone in San Fransisco that I was gay. He never brought that up with me although I frequently talked to him about his being gay. You know I had the same last name. It’s not a common last name. When I was a teenager, he started running for office when I was 12, I was in a brutally homophobic system. The New York Times would say ‘avowed homosexual runs again in San Fransisco, Harvey Milk’. It was never, ‘openly gay man’… it was, ‘homosexual asks people to join his deviancy and come out.’
Jack: So there was always a negative precursor?
Milk: I mean it was illegal when he started running for office…
…It was still considered mental illness by the American psychiatric and psychological association. Kids were still getting electric shock therapy who came out to their parents. So there was no societal acceptance, not limited, there was zero…
And so I would say to Harvey, ‘you don’t have to talk about it constantly’. He would say…if he wanted to convince you of something he was really quite brilliant about it. So he would say to me ‘I agree with you’, and so immediately that puts down your defence. Then he would go on for three hours about why it was important to mention that he was gay.
Jack: So his technique there was to disarm you so you’re not being defensive.
Milk: Yeah and take an agreement and then start to peel it back and start to explain why that’s not effective. And with me personally, he drew out the fact that I felt different. He never forced me down the road about being gay, although I knew I was. But I did felt different in many other ways to other kids. When the Vietnam war was going on I used to be devastated by that news and other kids were like, who could care? I felt the weight of the world as a young kid and he was like, ‘That’s amazing, that’s powerful.’ I would tell that to my mum and she’d say, ‘You’ll outgrow it, don’t worry’.
Jack: So many young kids today need that, they need to be told their sensitivity, their feeling different is actually something precious and it needs to be protected.
Milk: Yeah, more than anything especially when I speak in UK schools with very diverse student populations they get that. When I tell them about this book that Harvey gave me in 1972 called Seven Arrows, it’s a book of native American traditions, and primary to that is a story that’s 3000 years old about Jumping Mouse. So older than all of our organised religions. It’s a mouse that sees the world differently and gets forced out by the other mouse community but actually sees the world in all of its fullness, doesn’t see a limited part of it, and has a much more broader view of life and is a much more successful mouse. But he wrote in the cover ‘you and all your differences are the medicine that will heal the world even when the world doesn’t accept that’. That was such a powerful message for me.
Jack: How old were you when he gave you that?
Jack: Wow! That’s such a formative time to receive that message. So what you’re in a school and you’re explaining really simply who Harvey Milk was to kids, what do you say?
Milk: Well, you know I take a couple of tools that are helpful to me. So one of them is, I’ve got a video of me and President Obama talking about Harvey.
Jack: That’s quite a good introduction, ‘I’ve got this video of me and Obama!’ That’s a very drop-mic situation.
Milk: It’s really good and it’s at the White House. It’s one of the nights where President Obama whispered in my ear on stage, so the kids immediately say ‘what was he whispering to you?’ So that helps. Then just to tell the story. You always know the LGBT kids. Sue Saunders is the founder of global LGBT History Month. It was started in the UK. She’s always amazed by the kids who will stay behind and say, ‘Are there really other people like me?’ So even today with the Sam Smiths or whatever, they seem abstract to some of the young kids. There was one kid who was like, ‘you mean there’s really other kids like me in the world?’ So we travel in the UK usually with The Proud Trust because usually they have counsellors everywhere, so that we can do follow up.
Jack: Ok so you’re not just dropping in and out of their lives - you can really connect.
Milk: Yeah I’ll go to universities and sometimes I’ll go to secondary schools and make sure the secondary school has a mechanism. But middle schools and primary schools I won’t do unless there’s an organisation like The Proud Trust there. Then I’ve done Muslim majority schools. We did one last year in Manchester. It was a girls school, even though it was a public school. In Liverpool or Manchester they still have schools that are just girls or boys. All of the girls had headscarves on and I drew the correlation of how ‘divide and conquer’ in my uncle’s day was the strategy of those fighting LGBT people. You know, ‘we’ll leave the jews alone if you join us in attacking the gays.’ I said that that’s what bullies do on playgrounds. In that particular case I made a particular effort to talk about the immigrant movement and the anti-immigrant movement and how as LGBT people we, at least my colleagues who are leaders, feel it’s very important that we stand up for immigrants and for the rights to dismay the labels and innuendoes and lies about those communities. So I try to put it in that way and talk about the issue of faith and talk about how we’ve struggled with faith. Even some of new, good dilemmas that we have… like in the US we have a lot of faith organisations that historically for a long time have been against us that are now saying ‘how do we recruit LGBT people?’ Because they’re businesses and they don’t wanna lose their business.
Jack: Does that give you a huge amount of hope then, if even traditionally religious oppressive organisations are accepting? Or does it make you cynical?
Milk: Not cynical…when you say hope, some people wanna define to hope as an end date and I can talk to you about that. I think my uncle at the end of the day did believe in some type of end date but historical civil rights leaders have never believed in that.
Jack: It’s a progression.
Milk: It’s like what Martin Luther King said, that it’s an arch and we try to bend it towards justice. Or President Obama that said civil rights doesn’t just move forward in a straight line, we have to keep moving it forward…
Or even one of the founders of our country, Thomas Jefferson, was asked very publicly ‘when does the battle for equality and injustice end?’ and he said it would never end, as long you had ‘a minority that were subject to the tyranny of a majority’…
So we always must remain vigilant. He said that in defence of having a constitution that was simply that equality was an unalienable right and that the constitution sits above all the other elements of government.
Jack: So how did you first start the Harvey Milk Foundation Stuart?
Milk: So it was actually, I had been doing… everything for me is a longer story. When I was 17 Harvey was killed and I came out.
Jack: Can you tell me about that?
Milk: I came out publicly as well as to my family and friends. I was going to gay bars. It was my first year in college and university. So it wasn’t a huge leap for me. But people weren’t coming out then. So everyone who I knew who was gay was not out.
Jack: What year was this?
Milk: ’78, when he was killed. So when I came out, Frank Kameny who’s a really historic figure in US gay rights, he started an organisation called The Mattachine Society, a real curmudgeon-y character and a little sleazy.
Jack: It was the 70s!
Milk: Well he ran a hotline that was a basically a way to get young boys.
Milk: That’s the reality.
Jack: Let’s not whitewash history.
Milk: Yeah, but I called him and when I first moved there. I didn’t call him, I called the hotline and said ‘where can I go to a gay bar where no one can see me going in?’ He said, ‘honey they’re all in back alley entrance ways’, which is true. He said ‘but you don’t have to go to a gay bar, you can come over to my house’.
Jack: That was nice of him. Alarm bells! Go to the gay bar!
Milk: But after Harvey was killed and I was part of the gay group at the American university I was at, there were four of us… and Frank found out that I was Harvey’s nephew and he asked me to speak at an event a couple of months later. I was terrible and he let me know that. He’s like, ‘oh my god you’re nothing like Harvey, don’t do this again’. I was a very young 17 year old and I had a very low ego.
Jack: That’s crushing.
Milk: I would always be compared to Harvey. So I went into the women’s rights movement. But San Fransisco called probably about a decade later and I started doing things in San Fransisco and started working for some companies that were very pro-LGBT, including a division of the federal government and started doing more LGBT things globally and abroad. Then the White House thing came up and we worked for about a year…
Jack: Don’t say ‘the White House thing’ like it was just nothing!
Milk: Well it was President Obama’s first actual action on LGBT rights because there was never an openly LGBT person given a Medal of Freedom, which is like your OBE or something. It’s the highest civilian honour you can get in the US and we worked out a lot of details with the White House and the day of the event I wasn’t really prepared for the sureness of it. There was a whole group of people drinking champagne downstairs and having a good time, while I was upstairs in the White House with the First Lady and the President, one aide and 16 of the recipients. Actually 14 recipients and 2 accepting on their behalf. So Kara Kennedy, who’s Ted Kennedy’s daughter was accepting on behalf of her father who was alive but too sick to go.
Jack: And you were there on behalf of Harvey Milk?
Milk: Yeah with Sydney Poitier, with Chita Rivera, with Desmond Tutu… you know, I mean these amazing people… Sandra Day O’Connor.
Jack: Quite a strong line up.
Milk: First female justice of our Supreme Court.
Jack: How did you hold yourself together?
Milk: It was just surreal. Desmond Tutu actually came and sat down next to me. Kara was sitting with me and Sandra Day O’Connor and ambassador Nancy Brinker and Chita Rivera, and he said to Kara, ‘I really admire what you’ve done for your uncle’s foundations, Robert and John’. She sat on those foundations for former President Kennedy and the assassinated senator Robert Kennedy. Obviously her father was still alive so he’s not gonna say anything about his legacy. He wasn’t dead. He was close. Then he turns to me and says ‘I know you’ve spoken out and done things in particular around the world, but where is the Harvey Milk Foundation?’ So when you have a Nobel Peace Prize winner…
Jack: Was that Desmond Tutu?
Milk: Yes…behind those spectacles, pointing a finger at you and saying where is the Harvey Milk Foundation? Wo I always look at what would be Harvey’s thoughts in my mind and said, ‘Well will you help?’
Milk: And he said yes and Ambassador Brinker said yes and Chita Rivera said yes.
Jack: I would say Stuart, how healing that is, to hear someone who’s the public face of the church internationally turning to you and asking you to start a pro-gay advocacy group. That’s an incredibly powerful moment.
Milk: When I went downstairs and told Anne that we’re gonna do a foundation, she had tried it three times before and been unsuccessful, so it was a difficult… she was like, ‘Stuart you have to raise money’. I said ‘well I got all these people’.
Jack: Obama and Desmond Tutu are upstairs and they’re in1
Milk: Then the other thing that we just wanted to make the Milk Foundation global, not just US focussed…
Jack: So simply put, what is the mission statement of the Harvey Milk Foundation?
Milk: So it’s to use Harvey’s story. One of the conversations that people like Desmond Tutu always say about Harvey is this is someone who martyred themselves, who knew they were putting their, that they would likely… I mean it was not Hollywood. Harvey knew that he was gonna be assassinated. He knew that was the trajectory of the civil rights movement.
Jack: Was that something that he ever talked to you about?
Milk: Yeah I mean it’s something that he would write to us about. We have two letters from him saying ‘I won’t see until the end of 1978’. His death threats were constant and many of them were not anonymous. He didn’t know it would be Dan White, he didn’t know when but he knew someone was going to do it. He knew it was going to happen.
Jack: And he still did it.
Milk: That is a place where our community still has such a societal struggle. It’s such an empowering message that someone would knowingly give their life so that they could be unmasked and authentic. So for instance Milk the movie did best in countries where it’s still much more of a societal struggle than in places like Spain where when Milk the film came out, already had gay marriage.
Jack: I’m really struck by the fact that you are doing such incredible public work but also this is the midst of real personal tragedy for you. Someone that was instrumental and important to your development as a gay man and just as a human being, then you’re also doing this public-facing work. How do those two things intermingle in you? The sense that you’ve got this personal tragedy, then you’re also doing this really important global work.
Milk: Well I mean at this point I came to realisation that this is what Harvey would want, that his message be out there, that people know he had a dream and that they were making that dream come true… Young activists who really have taken on almost Harvey Milk-like roles in other countries, that have met with unfortunately the same fate as my uncle. So I go to difficult places, but the real heroes are the people who stay behind in places where it’s uncommon to take off their masks and speak out for their community and then connect with other communities.
Jack: That’s what I find really exciting about the Harvey Milk foundation. It’s the fact that you’re connecting up people that would otherwise be alone in their struggle and their country and you’re connecting them and creating a global network.
Milk: The global piece? I have to give credit to another iconic individual who I met in 1985. So after being compared to Harvey I kind of went into the women’s rights movement and started working on the equal rights there and started working for the International Women’s Caucus. I was 25 and it was my first time overseas, it was the closing conference for UN Decade For Women in Nairobi, Kenya. I was in this hotel ballroom with 4000 of the most self-important people. But they had my colour skin even though I was in Africa. So that was one of the first shocking things to me. The conference began with this person who’s my friend, this little aboriginal leader from Australia, her name is Lilla Watson. She got up on stage. She could barely fit over the podium and she said to this crowd that was not stopping talking, ‘if you’ve come here because you wanna support women or you’ve come here because you wanna help people of colour or you’ve come here because you wanna help indigenous people, GO HOME. Pack up your bags, we have nothing to do together.’ You could hear your pin drop at that point. They stopped talking and she repeated it. She said, ‘If you’ve come here because you wanna help women, you wanna help people of colour, you wanna help indigenous people, go home. Pack up your bags.’ Then she let this pause hang for the longest time. Then she said…
‘If you’ve come here because you understand that your liberation is bound with mine, then let us work together.’ She went on to describe, don’t do things from an altruistic point of view, don’t do things because you think you’re helping other people. Do it because it’s in your self-interest. That’s much more powerful, that’s much more meaningful, that’s much more effective…
So that stayed with me. That’s what I tell businesses and business leaders like Levi’s. They love to say ‘this is the right to do’ but it’s more important for you to say, ‘it makes your company successful’.
Jack: There are a huge number of studies that prove, and this is something that I’m working on at the moment, that if you have an inclusive society with equal rights, just with an evil business hat on, your city will be more successful, you will make more money.
Milk: Absolutely. It’s the same thing with a family. Just think about it, in a family unit, if you exclude someone or worse, you force that person to hide either their faith or their ethnic background or their sexual orientation, how much of their potential can they bring forth?
Jack: In my career I spent so many years and so much energy not letting people know who I am.
Milk: We’ve all done that, hiding who we are.
Jack: But the day I stopped that I had 40% extra capacity. I thought what am I gonna do with all this extra energy? I’m been monitoring how I talk, how I walk, how I stand, what I talk about… just constantly in the back of your brain. So in freeing yourself you then become the person you’re supposed to be and the possibilities are endless.
Milk: Right, and it’s the same for the individual and the same for the family, the same for the community, the same for the state, the same for the country and for the world. If we can…it’s not just an LGBT issue. It’s an issue of people who are different.
Jack: You free yourself to free others.
Milk: There’s a great analysis of African American civil rights… those who could pass as non-African American and the tremendous oppression that that caused for them in their own creativity and their own success. We understand it, for our community in particular. This is why my uncle was so adamant about people coming out because all the lies and myths and gay people and innuendoes would be maintained. Less people knew them personally in their life. Even Justice Ginsberg, Supreme Court Justice… she was asked after Windsor and Obergefell cases that gave us marriage equality in the US, why now? She said, ‘If it came up ten years ago I wouldn’t have voted for it, because I didn’t personally know gay and lesbian people. They weren’t out to me.’ This was, 15 or 16 years ago. They weren’t out to her. She said ‘This is the same for most of my colleagues, that the game changer in the world is marriage equality’. Marriage equality is a visibility act. You don’t go to a tolerance ceremony. You go to a celebration. People put their same-sex partner’s picture on their desk.
Jack: Once you’ve had to buy someone a plate to celebrate their union, you’re sold. You’re in. So really quickly, just to finish up, what next? With Trump being in power are you worried about rights being rolled back. Are you worried about oppressive laws coming in? Is this a global fight? Is this a fight at home? What’s next for you?
Milk: We continue to do the work, the majority of the world. Just three and a half years ago India recriminalised its LGBT population. [India just decriminalised it - a massive win for global equality.] So that’s one fifth of every human being on earth going backwards. They join a list of the three most populous nations where it’s illegal to be LGBT. So we have 78 countries where it’s illegal, 14 where it’s still punishable by death and societal non-acceptance in many other places. In Bermuda people are trying to role back something like marriage equality, so it’s important to keep up the fight. Trump should not surprising Europe because we’ve been working in Europe for the last decade and we’ve been focussed on places like Hungary and Poland where you have Trump-like characters, or Italy where there was kind of Trump before Trump, where Berlusconi was caught with a 16 year old girl and said ‘well at least it wasn’t a boy’. He would say the most ridiculous things and would stay in power. So ultra-nationalists win by dividing people and saying people who are different are hurting us. Again I think our biggest answer is folks like Levi’s, companies - their argument is that we are not economically prosperous, that we are struggling. The UKIP people were like, we are being weakened economically by immigrants and being part of the EU and our tax dollars are supporting people coming here and having their medical care and all this other rubbish. So companies standing up and saying ‘no diversity’s actually good’ is great.
Jack: Economically, not just morally, but economically good.
Milk: It’s good for countries and companies creativity. For instance if you had just white… old white men…
Jack: It would close down tomorrow- get some gays in there!
Milk: Get some people of colour, get some women, get some trans people!
Jack: Absolutely, then your job is to go around the world sharing Harvey’s story and connecting up our global LGBT+ community.
Milk: Our work is focussed on, as Lilla said, those who reach out to us and wanna work with us and want to come up with their solution. Every culture is different. We can’t come in and say this is your way forward. You have to look at each culture.
Jack: But that’s how you facilitate change isn’t it? By connecting person to person. You are very different to Harvey, but in a really brilliant way and I found it really inspiring talking to you. Thank you very very much.
Milk: You’re welcome.
Sam Russell Walker is an Illustrator based in Glasgow. He graduated from the Glasgow School of Art in 2015 and his work is inspired by film, pop culture, the human form, plants and fashion. His process is also heavily influenced by the act of mark making and creating textures through this process.