The Spirit of Harvey Milk Guides LGBTQ Pride Month, 43 Years After His Assassination, Nephew Stuart Milk Says

Harvey Milk, left, Stuart Milk
Stuart Milk, the nephew of the late gay activist Harvey Milk, sits next to a photograph of his uncle during a 2009 press conference announcing legislation to create Harvey Milk Day in California.Getty

Harvey Milk, an icon in the gay rights movement, was assassinated in his San Francisco City Hall office in 1978. His presence is especially felt during Pride Month.

If it weren't for Harvey Milk, there might not be an LGBTQ Pride Month at all.

The Legacy of Harvey Milk 

The trailblazing icon who implored the gay community to be out and proud was the first openly gay elected official in California history. His impressive life came to a violent end in 1978, when he was assassinated at San Francisco City Hall, where he served on the Board of Supervisors.

Mayor George Moscone was also killed. It was a brazen attack in broad daylight by angry former colleague Dan White, whose "Twinkie defense" got him a short sentence for shooting to death two beloved Bay Area politicians.

Harvey Milk and San Francisco Mayor George Moscone just months before their assassinations. - Getty

But nothing could kill Milk's spirit or his fight for freedom. His impact is immeasurable, and carries all the way to the rainbow flag, which Milk commissioned. Activist and drag queen Gilbert Baker designed the multi-colored banner at Milk's behest in 1978. 

In a later interview, Baker said his creation gave credence to the movement. “Our job as gay people was to come out, to be visible, to live in the truth, as I say, to get out of the lie," he said. "A flag really fit that mission, because that’s a way of proclaiming your visibility or saying, ‘This is who I am!’” 

Harvey Milk in his Board of Supervisors office in San Francisco. - Getty

Stuart Milk Carries on His Uncle's Fight

Perhaps no one feels that legacy more than Stuart Milk, Harvey's nephew, who came out the night his uncle was gunned down and hasn't looked back since.

He co-founded the Harvey Milk Foundation and travels the world encouraging people, especially young people, to be proud of who they are and to offer hope, in places where being gay or trans means shunning or even death, to those who feel life may not be worth living because of the stigma attached to their sexual identity.

"We live in a global society now. When any of us are not free, none of us are free," Milk told Inside Edition Digital this week. "It's still not an easy process in coming out, when you're telling your family that your different from the majority of the population."

In 2016, after the U.S. Navy announced it was naming a ship after Harvey Milk, who had been forced to resign from the Navy because of his sexuality, Stuart heard from a 15-year-old boy in Kuwait.

The teen wrote he had decided to take his life, and had committed to a plan to do so, when news reached him of the Navy's plan to honor the gay rights icon. If the Navy could do an about-face in its treatment of the gay community, perhaps there was hope for him as well, he thought.

The boy's letter said, "I was going to kill myself so my parents don't have to kill me," Stuart recounted. "It's called an honor killing. He didn't want to put the burden on his family," Stuart said. Being gay is illegal in Kuwait, and prosecuted under the country's "debauchery" laws.

That sentiment permeates even to theaters, which were banned by the government from showing the 2017 real-life adaption of "Beauty and the Beast" because it depicted LeFou, villain Gaston's sidekick, as openly gay.

There are several countries in the Middle East and beyond that still outlaw being LGBTQ, and that is where Stuart focuses much of his advocacy energy.

"You give them the hope that my uncle always dreamed of," he said. "If you travel the world, we have over 70 countries where it's still illegal to be LGBTQ, and over a dozen where it's punishable by death."

"Gotta give them hope," was one of Harvey Milk's favorite quips. Like his nephew, Harvey often recounted stories about hearing from gay teens in Middle America who reached for support. He often pointed to his own success at being openly gay and pleaded for others to come out as well.

"I'm out and I have a seat at the table," he was fond of saying. "If you don't have a seat at the table, you're on the menu."

Harvey Milk taught his nephew the beauty of being different, he said. He also shared his love of literature and Broadway theater.

"My uncle gave me, at a young age, my first lessons in self-acceptance and celebrating differences. In the late sixties and early seventies, he lived in New York City and worked in various occupations, including as a public school teacher and as an associate producer of 'Jesus Christ Superstar' on Broadway," Stuart wrote in 2011.

"In 1972, when I was twelve, Harvey gave me a copy of the Native American anthology Seven Arrowsinscribed with the words 'You, and all your differences, are the medicine that the world needs, even when the world does not recognize that.' This began our deeper, ongoing dialogue about authenticity and accepting oneself, a dialogue that came to a violent end when I was seventeen and in my first semester of college," Stuart wrote, referring to his uncle's killing.

Through Stuart Milk, Harvey Milk Lives On in the LGBTQ Movement

For years, Stuart has followed his uncle's footsteps, from making speeches to appearing in Harvey's stead when the slain hero was honored by Washington, D.C.

He accepted the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2009, from President Barack Obama, who said of Harvey Milk, "He fought discrimination with visionary courage and conviction."

In 2014, Stuart attended a ceremony by the U.S. Postal Service, which debuted a postage stamp commemorating the community leader, marking the first time an openly gay politician had received such an honor.

Stuart Milk says he is often asked whether he is saddened by his uncle not being able to witness the fruits of his labor — the widening acceptance of the LGBTQ community in America and the entire month of June being dedicated to honoring those members.

"I'm not sad because my uncle did see this," Stuart told Inside Edition Digital. "He dreamed of a day when when all of us could be who we are in this country.

"That's what gave him the courage to go in every day and risk facing those bullets. And those bullets eventually got him."

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