Stuart Milk on Continuing his Uncle's Legacy and the Importance of Teaching LGBT History

Stuart Milk is a global LGBT human rights activist and political speaker. He’s also the nephew of the late US civil rights campaigner Harvey Milk. Stuart’s Uncle Harvey was the first openly gay person to be elected to public office in California, and was responsible for passing a gay rights ruling for the city of San Francisco in 1978. In that same year, Harvey was assassinated by Dan White, who was also serving in public office.
Stuart, who says that his uncle’s assassination destroyed the ‘closet door’ and inspired him to come out, is the co-founder and president of the Harvey Milk Foundation. Travelling the world speaking on public policy and civil rights issues, he’s received numerous international awards for his work.
Stuart is in Shropshire next month to speak at a National Festival Of LGBT History event. The festival forms part of the worldwide LGBT History Month. Stuart will be ‘sharing the podium’ with human rights campaigner Peter Tatchell and historian Dr Emma Vickers.
Here, he talks to Ryan Humphreys about the importance of his uncle’s legacy. He also explains why the teaching of LGBT history is so important – not only for gay people but also for the wider community…
How did Harvey inspire you when you were a young man, Stuart, and what was it like having an uncle who was so high profile?
It was a double-edged sword. When I was a young lad, it was still illegal in most of the US to be gay; it was still classed as a mental illness. I had a prominent and well-known gay uncle whose photo would be splashed all over the front page of the New York Times, accompanied by headlines such as ‘Devout homosexual runs for office again’. Harvey was my touchstone for authenticity. I couldn’t say anything to him that he wouldn’t delve into and want to understand. He would let me know that all my differences are important for the world – even when the world doesn’t understand that. As a young kid with the last name Milk, which is rare, and having this prominent uncle, it was kind of brutal. People would ask me if I was like my uncle. It was a tough time to be openly gay in the US, like it still is in some parts of the world today. But I would take a ribbing about my last name any day of the week in return for the type of moral compass my uncle was able to give me.
You once said that your uncle’s assassination destroyed the ‘closet door’ for you. How has his legacy inspired your work since?
It was Archbishop Desmond Tutu who said to me and Anne Kronenberg, who was Harvey’s campaign manager, that Harvey is the only gay person who knowingly gave his life for the movement. That wasn’t Hollywood. He recorded messages; he knew he was going to be killed. His messages said, “Let the bullets smash through my brain and smash through every closet door everywhere”. His primary purpose was to come out and take a bullet, so that nobody had to be masked anymore. Archbishop Tutu called on me to take his message around the world, so that people who’re marginalised and diminished, who’re LGBT and non-LGBT alike, will resonate that message and be fed and nourished by it. He hoped it would empower people to be self-accepting.
You co-founded the Harvey Milk Foundation. What are its main objectives?
Well, we primarily work around the globe, around Harvey’s legacy and how we need to continue that. There’s this myth that once we achieve marriage equality, or once we achieve some level of legal acceptance, the work is done. We can see that that’s simply untrue. In places, for instance, like New York City and San Francisco, LGBT youth are ten or twenty times more likely to be homeless than non-LGBT youth. We have a lot of work to do, and because we’re talking about LGBT History Month, one of our phrases is that unless we teach history, we’ll repeat it. We’ve seen that in human kind for a long time. It’s very important for people, for instance in the UK, and communities where there’s a level of acceptance to be reminded of those who came before us. It’s so great to have partnered with LGBT History Month because not only is my uncle part of global history, we’re all part of it. Some of the amazing figures in UK history from the LGBT community, we must hear their stories and we must learn not to go backwards. You’ve got political parties in Europe that will always be willing to take us backwards, meaning that LGBT people would be marginalised and diminished.
The National Festival Of LGBT History is heading to the Midlands in February, and you’re one of the event’s keynote speakers. Are you looking forward to it?
Oh, absolutely! I was honoured to be part of the first National Festival Of LGBT History; it was so inspiring. The work that’s done by Sue Sanders and Tony Fenwick and everyone associated with LGBT History Month is amazing. I’m thrilled to be in the Midlands; it will be a highlight of my trip. I’m looking forward to meeting everyone and hearing the community members’ own stories. That’s one of the great things about LGBT History Month – not only do we learn about history, we can also share our own history. That’s an important part of our legacy.
Why are events such as this, and the discussion of LGBT history, so important?
Well, like I said, if we don’t teach history, we repeat it. We must learn from all these amazing individuals that the UK has who have stood up and stood out when it was impossible to do so. You have these truly heroic figures, not only in literature, but people who challenged Section 28. I can guarantee there are young people who don’t even know that Section 28 existed. And you’ve got people – and we’ve got them in the US too – who’re running for public office who would like to take LGBT rights backwards. There’s a need to teach LGBT history for this reason.
How would you encourage people to get involved with the National Festival of LGBT History?
The organisers have put together a brilliant schedule, so please come out and join History Month. Some people think that history is boring, but it’s anything but! If you’ve ever heard me and Sue Sanders talking together, you’ll be anything but bored! It’ll be exciting! The other great thing about LGBT History Month is that the L, the G, the B and the T are all represented and not left behind. It’s important that we don’t leave any of those letters behind. So if you don’t know about the L, the G, the B or the T, come out and meet us, meet them and learn about it. You’ll be fascinated!
Do you think things such as LGBT history should be part of the curriculum in schools?
Absolutely! We passed a law in 2009, I’m very proud to say, where we got Arnold Schwarzenegger, who’s a Republican, to sign a bill establishing Harvey Milk Day. It’s the first state-sanctioned holiday, so that every year on the 22nd of May, it’s Harvey Milk Day in California.
California is the largest state in the US, where one in eight Americans live, and where they must teach about Harvey in the public schools. That’s now been expanded to teaching about LGBT history. Initially, LGBT history was opposed by a majority of the people who would be teaching it. Once they learned about Harvey, they didn’t oppose that. Once they saw that this wasn’t going to convert someone who isn’t LGBT to an LGBT person, they realised it embraces diversity. So we now have three states in the US where LGBT history is mandated to be taught in schools. It’s been a positive. Even businesses have embraced it, as well as communities and families. Teaching LGBT history in schools is a must.
Finally, what would be your message for young people worldwide?
The biggest message for young people for me is really personal. I would say accept yourself and accept your differences. Accept those people who are different around you, because if you look around those who are different, those who are do not fit into the colour, or the religion, or the sexual orientation of the mainstream are providing a unique and important perspective. You want them as your friends, you want to make sure that they’re nourished. You want to make sure that you’re taking care of yourself as a young person, you don’t want to spend your time wearing a mask and hiding who you truly are.
The National Festival of LGBT History will be taking place from Friday 12 to Sunday 14 February in Shrewsbury, Shropshire. For more information, visit and our National Festival Pages Here
Stuart Milk was interviewed by Midlands Zone magazine for the National Festival of LGBT History, available here