What would Harvey Bernard Milk say if he were alive today?
Wherever we turn there are many troubles, where the innocent, the vulnerable and the disempowered are targeted by the forces of non-love. What would Harvey Milk, who would have been eighty-seven on this day, say about our current political climate? Harvey’s personality was in the tradition of our biblical prophets. He was frequently angry, passionate, colorful in his speech and not afraid of speaking difficult and confrontational truths. Like Amos, he was fiercely on the side of the poor. Like Jeremiah, Harvey put his message ahead of self-preservation, risking his life in almost every public appearance. Like Second Isaiah, Harvey cared about compassion, rachamim. In his youth, he had a conversation about rachmanos with a Rabbi that stayed with him for life.
Here is what I think Harvey would say. Number One: We are in the fight of our lives. We must be visible, outspoken, persistent, creative, and loud in defending not just LGBTQIA rights but the rights of anyone, anywhere, that is being threatened. Harvey would want us to work as a united front within the many different LGBTQIA groups, as well as with Black Lives Matter Activists, Immigrants/Refugees, Muslims, Native Americans, Women, Unions, Seniors, and people with disabilities in our country and in every country. Harvey would advocate against the Death Penalty, for prison reform and would support the legalization of marijuana. He would especially advocate free public transit, ecology, economic justice, major reforms of our health care system, our taxation system, and our voting systems.
Number Two: Harvey would want us to do something even more difficult: work as a united front within the many different LGBTQIA groups. Harvey worked with Republicans even after he became a Democrat. For something as serious as Chechnya, which would break Harvey’s heart, this is no time for inner squabbling. Harvey would want us to fight for the rights of those in Chechnya. He never forgot the Holocaust from the time his parents told him about the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising and wore the pink triangle on his arm at the June 1978 Gay Freedom Parade.
Number Three: Harvey would insist that coming out now is more important than ever. Under the current regime in the US, there has been an upturn in people coming out. As more and more anti-LGBTQ laws are being proposed across the country, presenting to our loved ones and to strangers the human faces of the LGBTQ Community LGBTQ both as individuals and as couples is the single most effective way of winning over hearts and minds.
Number Four: Although Harvey had quite the temper, he was not a man of hate. Criticism rarely bothered him and he seldom took things personally. Rather, he believed in dialogue when appropriate. Harvey would remind us to model ourselves on Martin Luther King, Jr. a man Harvey admired deeply, and not hate those who wish us dead or worse. Fight not because you hate the opposition but because of your love of humanity, your love of your LGBTQ family, because of your love and pursuit of justice. Making fun of the opposition has its time and place, but hatred is simply not an efficient fuel for the huge battle in front of us. For some it may be a useful starting point, but we can do better.
Number Five: We do not know how things are going to play out. But we do know that there is a cause for hope. The beautiful and powerful way our community and others have come forth in support of our trans sisters and brothers is inspiring. We cannot live on hope alone but knowing that all of our efforts at justice and social action matter tremendously, regardless of their immediate outcomes, is the manna that can keep us fighting day after day even though we are tired, even though we are worried, even though we are outfunded and even though it feels as though every day there is something new to break our hearts.
A few months before he died, Harvey decided to do something he had not done in a long time:. He he went to schul for Yom Kippur. For Harvey, it felt like home. Harvey, who loved singing at Seders, who loved speaking Yiddish phrases for fun, who made matzoh meal pancakes as a courting ritual (see https://harvalan.com/2016/12/09/harveys-special-pancake/(, whose shocking sense of humor is best understood in a Jewish context, was a Jewish man and a Jewish prophet, through and through. Just as Moses was a Levite on both sides, Harvey was a Litvak on both sides. Perhaps it is not so odd that Harvey’s birthday, May 22, is also nearly death day of the Ba’al Shem Tov (May 21), who, also had quite the temper and like Harvey, also had visionary experiences, loved his people, and was so poor he had holes in his shoes. But that, perhaps is another story.
LEARN MORE ABOUT HARVEY: RECOMMENDED SOURCES
The Times of Harvey Milk (Documentary).
The Harvey Milk Interviews: In His Own Words, ed. Vince Emery.
An Archive of Hope: Harvey Milk’s Speeches and Writings, ed. by Jason Edward Black, et. al.
Double Play; The Hidden Passions Behind the Double Assassination of George Moscone and Harvey Milk by Mike Weiss.