May 22, now known as Harvey Milk Day, is the birthday of the activist and pioneering local elected leader. This day presents an opportunity to celebrate his advocacy for the LGBTQ community. As a community leader, Harvey Milk utilized his personality and organizing skills to build a campaign that would uplift the LGBTQ community in coalition with other residents who felt unheard. This campaign resulted in his election as the first openly gay municipal official in a major US city. He took his seat on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors in 1978.
While serving in local office, Milk advocated for the LGBTQ community by spearheading another historic win. He introduced an anti-discrimination ordinance for the City of San Francisco, which was approved. He was also a leader who sought out policies that uplifted all residents in his city. His work tackled affordable housing, childcare for working families, public safety, and enhanced neighborhood services like libraries. Milk was a skilled champion of civic engagement, getting people involved in issues big and small at the local level with his upbeat and cheerful persona.
Like the members of our modern-day LGBTQ+ Local Officials group, Harvey Milk served not just as an advocate for LGBTQ+ people but as a leader who served all of his constituents. Celebrated as a forerunner, Milk’s goal was simply to serve the community. Supervisor Milk was a tireless advocate for addressing the gaps in city policy and standing up for his residents. He was a proponent of positive change and a leader who wanted what was best for the people.
Today, there are over 700 local elected officials who identify as LGBTQ+, according to the Victory Institute. Although this number has increased significantly since Milk’s historic run for office, there are still many challenges faced by the LGBTQ+ community in visibility and ensuring the continued protection of rights. One step to help advance the community is recognizing and uplifting LGBTQ+ history that many Americans are still unaware of to this day. By adopting a proclamation in recognition of Harvey Milk Day, your municipality will show that LGBTQ+ history is American history and can give disheartened residents the hope that it is possible to make their voices heard – even in hard times.
Many local leaders who are part of NLC’s six constituency groups (American Pacific American Municipal Officials, Hispanic Elected Local Officials, Local Indigenous Leaders, National Black Caucus of Local Elected Officials, and Women in Municipal Government) are often the first or only of their demographic in city hall. These networks serve as spaces to discuss their experiences and engage with fellow elected officials and residents back home while participating in discussions on new ideas and sharing policy best practices.
Milk famously said, “If a gay can win, it means there is hope that the system can work for all minorities, if we fight.” As our nation moves forward from today’s divisions and disagreements, there is an opportunity for local leaders to commit to promoting equity and building cities that uplift all their residents.
About the Author
Victor Aguilar is the President of NLC’s LGBTQ+ Local Officials Constituency Group and Councilmember of the City of San Leandro, CA.
NLC’s LGBTQ+LO Constituency Group has drafted a proclamation to recognize Harvey Milk’s groundbreaking actions and story and invite NLC members and local leaders across the country to adopt the proclamation and share the story of Harvey Milk’s life and work with your community.