35 years ago, Harvey Milk was assassinated while serving as a member of San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors. Although his term ended after just 10 months, Milk’s contributions as a gay rights activist and politician helped ignite a cultural shift toward LGBT acceptance and legal equality. Today, he is remembered as a civil rights legend.
Milk was the first openly gay candidate to secure office in California, and he did so in a time of intense cultural turbulence and homophobic intolerance: police persecution, sodomy laws, and gay bashing were common throughout the United States, and the Stonewall riots in New York City were fresh in public memory. Yet despite receiving death threats throughout his candidacy, Milk persevered.
Once in office he helped pass a bill that made discrimination based on sexual orientation illegal and he fought against the infamous Briggs Initiative, which would have prohibited gay teachers from public schools. This work coupled with his theatrical speeches contributed to the moniker, The Mayor of Castro Street – a name which alludes to his close connection and service to the Castro District community.
However the legacy of Harvey Milk represents more than political offices or legal bills. The reason people celebrate his name is that, above all, he had what was known in the 70’s as gumption. He had guts. He had ambition. He not only became the first openly gay politician in California and accomplish impressive social milestones in a short time span, but he did all of that with fearless enthusiasm that was unmatched by any other progressives of his time. He was a radical in not just doctrine, but also his humor. It takes courage to face adversity, but it takes something else to face adversity with a smile.
In particular, Milk worked tirelessly for gay young adults by petitioning to older professionals. He thought if every gay doctor, lawyer, and architect could come out, then “that would do more to end prejudice overnight than anybody would imagine.” Without that prejudice, the next generation of aspiring students would be free to live and express themselves without fear.
“You have to give them hope,” he said referring to young gays. “Hope for a better world, hope for a better tomorrow, hope for a better place to come to if the pressures at home are too great. Hope that all will be all right.”
Over three decades after his death, the same hope and encouragement Milk expressed in his campaigns has surfaced in the popular readership of young adult novels. Increasingly, YA authors are engaging LGBT protagonists in compelling narratives that are meant to encourage those marginalized by their sexuality.
For example, David Levithan (Boy Meets Boy) and John Green (The Fault of Our Stars) wrote a collaborative book titled Will Grayson, Will Grayson, which spotlights gay protagonists. In the same spirit that Milk states, “You must come out. I know that it is hard… but once and for all break down the myths, destroy the lies and distortions,” Will Grayson says, “Maybe there’s something you’re afraid to say, or someone you’re afraid to love, or somewhere you’re afraid to go. It’s gonna hurt. It’s gonna hurt because it matters.”
Milk knew the potential dangers associated with coming out, but because he also knew of the benefits of living honestly, he adamantly encouraged everyone to fulfill that hope. “Coming out is the most political thing you can do,” he stated.
It is safe to say then that Milk would be proud of Emily Danforth’s protagonist Cameron Pos, who makes that choice in The Miseducation of Cameron Post. She says, “You can’t catch somebody doing something when they’re not hiding,” referring to her lesbian love affair.
In addition to individual authors, several publishing houses have taken a stance in the issue through Dan Savage’s It Gets Better video series. Both Penguin Group and Hachette Book Publishers have entries dedicated to giving hope for their young readers.
Milk stated “Hope will never be silent.” In the literary world, that statement holds true. Words, whether expressed in person or on page, have the power to inspire entire cultural movements.
This article originally appeared on Zola Books.