Harvey’s Enduring Legacy

The Times of Harvey Milk is one of the defining monuments to the life and legacy of my late uncle Harvey Milk. It has also been a companion in many ways during my own journey as the openly gay nephew of arguably the most famous human rights champion the LGBT community has ever had. It is difficult to put into words the great honor I feel in having been able to take Harvey’s story, and his universal message of equality, around the world over the past two decades. With me on this journey have been all the conversations and stories I shared with Harvey, as well as the documentary, whose timeless resonance reverberates through every audience, no matter the continent, language, or screening conditions.

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. I was a preteen in the New York suburbs, and he introduced me not only to the theater and the color of city life but also, in many ways, to the ideas behind Jesus Christ Superstar—the struggle of challenging prevailing prejudices, potentially at great personal cost, and the substantial impact one person can have in teaching a new paradigm. We had many long conversations in those days about finding one’s purpose and passion in life, and about the essential ingredient of authenticity. My exposure to the open and embracing world of his thoughts vastly expanded my own vision and horizons.

Harvey seemed set on providing me with a compass with which to navigate an often harsh and intolerant world. He explained to me the Milk family history of leadership and community service, exemplified by his grandfather Morris Milk, who founded a well-known and successful business, Milk’s Department Store, as well as two synagogues, but more importantly used both business and faith to bring different communities together. In 1972, when I was twelve, Harvey gave me a copy of the Native American anthology Seven Arrows, inscribed 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.

I came out the night Harvey was killed. Coming out was still extremely rare back then, yet I would be joined by thousands of other LGBT people across the nation who would read about and hear the prophetic message my uncle included in one of the political wills he recorded the year before his assassination: “If a bullet should enter my brain, let that bullet destroy every closet door.” Almost seven years later, in the summer of 1985, I shared a stage with the producer of The Times of Harvey Milk, Richard Schmiechen, at a convention of progressive organizations, and gave my first public address. After that, in my twenties, I took on the role of spokesman for my uncle’s small immediate family, and grew more determined to keep the flame of his legacy lit throughout the world and for new generations. The Times of Harvey Milk has continued to accompany me as I travel the globe relating Harvey’s not only still relevant but also desperately needed message of hope and courage. I’ve seen the weeping faces of Muslim women and men in Istanbul and Damascus who yearn for a connection to the man who has come to life for them during a screening, giving them a never imagined hero and a belief in their own worth. I’ve heard heartfelt stories of newly discovered pride and renewed faith in their own futures from young Central and South Americans, Chinese, and Eastern Europeans, who’ve often waited after my postscreening talks to touch me, as if my blood connection to my uncle could link them directly with him.

I’ve shared many of these experiences with The Times of Harvey Milk director Rob Epstein: film festivals, premieres, commemorative events, and even the Academy Awards ceremony in 2009 (for Milk). And it was clear to me that I should bring Rob to the White House when I accepted the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Obama on behalf of my uncle, also in 2009. It was his documentary that I showed to leaders I was working to persuade that year to support the now annual Harvey Milk Recognition Day in California, and that Maria Shriver and I put on a loop in the first major museum display for a LGBT civil rights leader at the California Hall of Fame in 2010.

I eventually became close friends with Harvey’s San Francisco inner circle—Anne Kronenberg, Danny Nicoletta, Tory Hartmann—and I found out that Harvey told them that he knew I was gay, which was surprising to me. Upon reflection, it seems clear that he felt it was much more important to set his young nephew on a path of authenticity and confidence than to simply confront questions of sexuality—a path he advocated not just for me but for all of us. My new relationship with Harvey’s beloved campaign manager and close friend, Anne Kronenberg, led to our cofounding the Harvey B. Milk Foundation in 2009. Its core mission, to continue spreading my uncle’s message of hope, his vision of acceptance and inclusion, and his example of extraordinary courage, has no better tool than the film that I continue to witness move masses.

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