Harvey Milk and God each terrified me. In that order. I was a young white anti-apartheid activist in South Africa in the nineteen-seventies. To be openly gay filled me with more fear than the fight against apartheid. Yet I knew in my bones that Harvey Milk and anti-apartheid activists were pointing to the same truth about the magnificence of each person.
As a young man I rejected the theological and political notion that apartheid was divinely sanctioned. It was inconceivable to me that humanity could be denied to another person based on race. Yet that was the moral and religious justification claimed for a system based on the superiority of whites in South Africa.
My activism was strengthened by the courage of religious leaders like Desmond Tutu. They insisted that God loves every single person. Equality, justice and human rights were expressions of that love. As a young man I was certain that our differences were less significant than the oneness of our humanity. Except when it applied to me.
Learning about Harvey Milk’s election to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors in 1977 was shocking news. It seemed impossible to conceive of an openly gay elected official in South Africa where legislation gave impunity to the police to act against LGBT people.
I was a candidate for ordination to the Anglican priesthood in South Africa in the nineteen seventies. I’d witnessed the witch hunt conducted by the church against gay seminarians. I used to go to Mass each day to get on my knees to plead for God to change me; to take away my sexual orientation.
Following Harvey Milk’s assassination in 1978 I experienced an epiphany. If God had no use for hatred and exclusion based on race, surely the same was true about sexual orientation. The truth of this filled me with terror. Was Harvey Milk’s courage an invitation for all LGBT people everywhere to stop pleading to be changed?
The possibility of Harvey Milk and God offering an invitation to get up off our knees was an exhilarating truth. It would take me years to live fully into that liberating notion of becoming fully human. In the process I discovered that the root word for courage is the same word for love. Maybe Tutu was correct that the Holy loved all people without condition. I imagined God smiling on Milk’s courage.
Fifteen years later I asked Desmond Tutu when he would add LGBT people into his compelling vision that we are all “made for oneness.” He assured me that it would be after the fall of apartheid. This iconic leader has been true to his word. To the ire of many and the delight of others, Tutu is insistent that there are no outsiders with God or the human family.
The shadow side of Milk’s invitation to courage was violence. To be physically harmed or killed because of who you are is not something that most people seek. My experience of threats directed against me over the years because of my openness as a gay man remind me that we have a long way to go in the United States before LGBT people know that we are viewed as outsiders.
But Harvey Milk’s life continues to have a ripple effect. The young videographer who recently filmed me for a Seattle Men’s Chorus video unexpectedly told me that I’d been a hero of his. I could not imagine why. He said that as a high school student my prominence as an openly gay leader had given him courage in grappling with his own sexuality. It was a simple moment. In every encounter like that one I give thanks for the courage of people like Harvey Milk. A young millennial man took for granted his ability to be open about his identity. It seemed like reason enough to celebrate!
In the rural farming community of Eastern Washington where my partner and I spend time, we know that the politics is not as progressive as it is in cities like Seattle or New York. But we hear the stories of families who accept, love and include their LGBT members. For these families it is not a struggle, but a given. I imagine Harvey Milk and God smiling on such inclusion.
The terror that Harvey Milk and God instilled in me have long dissipated. Terror has made way for courage. My own experience of exclusion is a reminder that it is dangerous to dismiss or exclude any person or group of people. Harvey Milk’s courage is an invitation to celebrate oneness with our own self and others.
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