I’m embarking on a series of paintings of civil rights leaders, and the first is Harvey Milk.
After winning an election to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors in 1977, Milk gained international fame as one of the first openly gay elected officials in the United States. His election to public office both solidified his status as leader of the LBGTQ community and amplified his calls for their equality.
At this time, anti-gay sentiment in the U.S. was reaching a boiling point. In fact, if you saw either of two inspiring films about Milk’s story, The Times of Harvey Milk (documentary) released in 1984 or Milk, released in 2008, you are probably familiar with California’s Proposition 6, also known as the Briggs Proposition. It proposed a ban on gays from working in California public schools.
The proposition’s more formal name was The School Employees, Homosexuality, Initiative Statute of 1978, and had it passed, would have prohibited public schools from hiring gay teachers, aides and counselors and would have also required the schools to fire any that were already working in the system if it was determined that their homosexual conduct “…rendered them unfit for service.” Those pushing this proposal warned parents that gays were plotting to ruin their kids. And this belief was written in the proposed statute. Below is an excerpt.
Your rights as a parent, a citizen, and a taxpayer are under attack. A coalition of homosexual teachers and their allies are trying to use the vast power of our school system to impose their own brand of non-morality on your children.
Well, as it turned out, and not surprisingly, homosexuals were not conspiring to impose their immorality on the children as evidenced by the fact that Proposition 6 died a swift death, thanks to Milk’s bravery and leadership. But it’s not hard to imagine that without Milk and his close-knit circle, Proposition 6 would have passed. And who knows where California or the rest of the U.S. for that matter, would be today if it had.
Although Milk has long since passed, his legacy continues through The Harvey Milk Foundation, which was established by Stuart Milk, Harvey’s nephew; and Anne Kronenberg, Harvey’s campaign manager. According to its website, the foundation aims to empower organizations of all sizes through the power of Milk’s story, style and collaborative relationship building. The foundation envisions equality for all, regardless of sexual orientation, age, race or disability.
I am deeply grateful to Daniel Nicoletta for allowing me to use his photograph for my painting.[Feature Photo Credit: Supervisor Harvey Milk, March 7, 1978, by Daniel Nicoletta]