The Agenda

Williams: Harvey Milk matters nationally and internationally

The Gay & Lesbian Victory Fund recently began a campaign to recognize Harvey Milk as a national hero. The campaign was prompted by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s veto of a bill that would establish a Harvey Milk Day in California. The governor claimed that Milk was merely a local hero.

This is one of the responses we received, coming from a professor at the University of Southern California.

This is my response to the assertion that Harvey Milk was only of significance in San Francisco, and not to the entire State of California. As a historian I can state with certainty that not only is Harvey Milk of significance to the State, but nationally and internationally as well.

In the late 1970s and early 1980s I was a professor at the University of Cincinnati. I was also one of the co-chairs of the Greater Cincinnati Gay Coalition. I founded and edited THE YELLOW PAGE, which was southern Ohio’s first gay newspaper. At that time, the most inspiring person, on whom I modeled my activist role, was Harvey Milk. In fact, I was so moved by his speech that he gave on June 25, 1978 to the San Francisco Gay Freedom Day parade, which was reprinted in a number of gay newspapers around the country, that I used it as the basis for my own speech at the Cincinnati Gay Pride rally.

When Harvey was assassinated, I was in shock. Though I had never met him, I felt as if I had lost a teacher, a mentor, and a close friend. It was because of his call for a March on Washington that I started organizing to make sure that southern Ohio was represented at the march which he called for. I was the southern Ohio coordinator for that march, and I did the hard work of organizing as a memorial to Harvey.  I was proud that we had over a hundred people from Cincinnati to attend that historic first national March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights,  in 1979. There were following marches in 1987, 1993, and 2000. All of that was part of the national direct heritage of Harvey Milk.

My boyfriend attended that 1979 March with me, and he told his parents that he was going with me on an academic research trip of mine. But he was so inspired by the march that when he came home he came out to his parents and sister, and told them that I was not just his roommate but also his partner. They were, to his surprise, very accepting. They told him that they admired him sticking up for his civil rights by participating in that march. There were thousands of people who were likewise affected by that march, and it was Harvey Milk who inspired us to do that.

Also growing out of this march, in 1979 I and a friend who also attended the March co-founded and became the first chairs of, the Committee on Lesbian and Gay History. A few years later this organization became an affiliated society of the American Historical Association.

In 1984 I was hired as a professor at the University of Southern California, to teach a class on Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Studies. I am proud that I was one of the pioneers in this field, and I have over the years published a number of books on LGBT subjects including my latest book Gay and Lesbian Rights in the United States: A Documentary HIstory (Greenwood Press). In this last book, I devote quite a bit of attention to Harvey Milk.

All of this, I would like to submit, is evidence that both longtime activists and historians consider Harvey Milk to be of much more significance than a local hero. Harvey Milk was a figure of national and international significance, comparable to Betty Friedan in the women’s movement. In the future, historians will recognize Harvey Milk as one of the most historically significant Californians of the twentieth century. He inspired a whole generation of volunteer activists like me, and his legacy continues to the present.


Walter L. Williams, Ph.D.

Professor of History, Anthropology, and Gender Studies University of Southern California

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