An Interview with Stuart Milk

Activist Stuart Milk accepts the 2009 Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Barack Obama on behalf of his uncle, Harvey Milk. (Source)

Activist Stuart Milk accepts the 2009 Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Barack Obama on behalf of his uncle, Harvey Milk. (Source)

In 2009, Stuart Milk, nephew of civil rights activist and politician Harvey Milk, co-founded the Harvey Milk Foundation with Anne Kronenberg, Harvey's friend and campaign manager. Through the work of the foundation, Stuart, Anne and others travel the globe in an effort to empower local, regional, national and global organizations to fully realize the power of Harvey's story. Having come out to my family and friends around the time that Gus Van Sant's Academy Award-winning biopic Milk came out in theaters, my life as a gay man has been hugely influenced by Harvey's courage and his message of hope. In an effort to better understand the struggles facing other LGBTQ people around the world, I reached out to Stuart with a few questions, which he answered recently via Skype.


CL: What are you up to these days? 

SM: A major focus of my work with the Harvey Milk Foundation is equality on a global scale. We try to lend ground support to our brothers and sisters who seek it out, in particular those wanting to utilize my uncle's inspiring story. Many people in the United States don't realize that the majority of the world's population live in nations where legal and societal discrimination against LGBT people is the norm. We also try to prevent the repeal and loss of human rights which is rampant right now in Central Europe. Additionally, we work to put forward a human face and story, one such example has been our work in Hungary, which I wrote about recently in The Huffington Post.

CL: How is what you're doing making a difference in the LGBT community? 

SM: Well, my uncle taught me, and all of us for that matter, that any form of civic engagement makes a significant impact on multiple lives. For LGBT people, being authentic and thereby standing up for your brothers and sisters whether at the office or at a public hearing is as important as anything one can do. So, first and foremost, I'm out. Although that might seem easy from the bubbles of inclusion that are Los Angeles, New York or San Francisco, you don't have to travel very far outside these cities to see how rough life can still be for LGBT people.

CL: What advice can you give to people who don't live in those cities and would like to come out but are afraid to? 

SM: It depends. Because I do so much work internationally where coming out can cost a person their life, I caution people to assess their own situation. Authenticity is always better than wearing a mask. People can only share their gifts with the world if they can be authentic. But because it's illegal to come out in 76% of the world, I can't tell everybody it's okay. In fact, the likelihood of people in the United States being thrown out of their homes is still very high. For instance, 72% of runaway youth in New York City are LGBT. As much as we sometimes move forward with equality in the United States, we still lag behind in social equality. Just outside of New York City, on Long Island where Harvey and I grew up, it's still a brutal place to be different. 

There's a gift to authenticity. A gift we give to ourselves and to the world. If their government and their society and their community are going to brutally condemn them, coming out may not be the best thing. But self acceptance is something everyone can do everywhere.

CL: What LGBT issue are you most passionate about? 

SM: Global LGBT equality. In Istanbul, I worked with the Turkish parliament to get parliament members to take part in the LGBT pride panels, but they wouldn't go to a transgender panel. I wanted to find out why, so I talked to 17 transgender youths and they all mentioned "The Tax." When they told me that if they go into a coffee shop or take a cab somewhere they have to pay three times the normal price, I thought the interpretation was wrong. But I quickly learned that the tax they speak of isn't an official tax, it's a societal tax. They are looked at as such a burden on society that the society as a whole says it's okay to charge them more money. It even happened in an American coffee chain there. I ordered a cup of coffee and was charged four Lira. When they got to the front of the line, they were charged 12 Lira for the same cup of coffee. These places are sending these kids the message that just their presence is such an annoyance that they can be taxed for it. You can imagine that it makes their sense of self so small. I should point out that Turkey was the first organized nation in the world to decriminalize homosexuality, but there are still honor killings where transgender people are targeted. Societal change doesn't happen just because of the law.

In India, they just decriminalized homosexuality two years ago and they're not sure they're going to keep it that way. They've opened up the case again. There's that same type of inequality in India. It's very dark for people in our community. In Iran, if you're discovered to be a gay man, you have the choice of death or a sex change. In Hungary, state-sanctioned hostility violates European law and they had been fined for it in the past. So now the government simply works the fines into their annual budget. 

The Harvey Milk Foundation has a philosophy that we got from Desmond Tutu (a member of the HMF advisory board) that you do nothing without them, meaning we'd never go into a place to impose our judgement. It's got to be the local people and we work with them. I don't consider myself brave by going to these places, because the brave people are the ones who live there, who are in that environment every single day. They have to come up with the best solution and we have to do that with them. Laws are not enough. Laws alone don't change things. They aren't the same as creating societal change. Laws and societal change have to be done together.

CL: Can you name one person whose contribution to the LGBT community has inspired you most?

SM: There are many wonderful leaders who have stood on my uncle's shoulders and through their leadership moved equality forward, but my uncle is still my highest inspiration. I remember one of my last conversations with him, in which he said the upsurge in death threats he was getting every day was evidence to him that he was making a difference in the world. The courage he had, knowing he would be killed, to carry on and to record a message that would be used to hurdle LGBT rights forward after that violent result happened is still a benchmark of courage rarely matched.

CL: If you could recommend only one book, movie or song with an LGBT bent, what would your recommendation be? 

SM: I know this will be a leap, but I personally believe that rights are all connected, including animal rights. The Harvey Milk Foundation doesn't work on animal rights, but I'm personally very motivated by that movement and Matthew Scully's Dominion: The Power of Man, the Suffering of Animals, and the Call to Mercy. It's not an easy read and many people that I've shared the book with have given it back to me, often saying, "I would rather not know."

Also, the film The Times of Harvey Milk. It's what I take with me around the world. It doesn't have Sean Penn in it, but it does have Harvey. If you have 96 minutes, watch The Times of Harvey Milk.

I was just at Creating Change, a national conference on LGBT equality, and they gave out three awards, two of them to Jose Vargas, a gay reporter who, until recently, was closeted and undocumented. When Jose got up to accept his awards, he said, "Let me tell you why I made this decision to come out. I watched a documentary called The Times of Harvey Milk and I knew that I was living a lie. To see this movie and to see this man who put himself in the line of fire knowing he'd be killed, the least I could do is be authentic. Right after I saw it, I called a press conference and I came out as gay and undocumented even though I put my work and my reputation at risk, and my very existence in the United States."

LGBT activists in Beijing showed The Times of Harvey Milk at a film festival, which wasn't allowed. One of them said, "We had been trying to figure out what to show and we got a copy of The Times of Harvey Milk and watched it. We had seen many human rights movies, but we all turned to each other after seeing this one and said, 'Let's take the risk. This guy took a bullet. The least we can do is this.'"


To learn more about the Harvey Milk Foundation, visit milkfoundation.org or follow them on Twitter.

Previous interviewees in this series have included LGBTQ athletes, authors, businesspeople, entertainers and politicians. For a complete list, click here.


Note: A portion of this interview appeared on Queerty on February 15, 2013. A link to this post appeared on Towleroad on May 24, 2013.