Harvey Milk’s lasting influence in the labor history of queer America

In this blog entry, Miriam Frank, author of Out in the Union, explores Harvey Milk’s political vision of union involvement and LGBT progress.

article-stamp-0404Two months ago the United States Postal Service issued a new “Forever” postage stamp to honor Harvey Milk. I remember when Harvey Milk won his seat on San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors in 1977. He was California’s first openly gay elected official.

A year later Milk was still campaigning, but not for himself. A new amendment to California’s state constitution was on the ballot for the November election. If Proposition 6 passed, it would require local boards of education to fire school employees for public or private declarations of their queer identities, as well as any school worker, straight or gay, who affirmed or advocated gay existence.

In June 1978, Milk spoke out against the menace of Proposition 6 to hundreds of thousands of gay people at San Francisco’s Gay Freedom Day rally. He challenged supporters to defy the threat by making their gayness more open than ever. “Come out to your friends, if they indeed are your friends,” he said. “Come out to your neighbors, to your fellow workers, to the people who work where you eat and shop.”

Milk organized hard against the amendment. Throughout the summer, he was on TV for interviews, or for debates with state Senator John Briggs, Proposition 6’s author. Milk’s prominence and charisma kept the battle in the news, but central to the fight were California’s lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender citizens: city dwellers, suburbanites, rural folks. Many so feared how the amendment would affect their lives that they did come out. Sons, daughters, friends and co-workers told the people in their lives the truth about what the amendment would mean for their futures. One by one they asked their families and neighbors to vote “no on 6.” And one by one, they broke through the secrecy and fear that had held them back from living open, authentic lives as equals in civil society.

The decision to come out had to be an individual one, but LGBT people who were fighting Proposition 6 were not alone. Harvey Milk was not only dedicated to the gay community of the Castro but had also supported the municipal workers’ unions and a successful Teamster-led boycott of Coors beer in the neighborhood’s gay bars. Unionists were familiar with Senator Briggs’ record of hostility to labor’s issues and opposed the amendment because it would undermine collective bargaining and legalize workplace discrimination. Three days after the Gay Freedom Day rally, the San Francisco’s Labor Council announced its unanimous opposition to Proposition 6.

Out in the Union_smUnion endorsements and donations enabled wide canvassing and publicity. By mid-summer, liberal religious groups and civil liberties organizations were also involved in the expanding grassroots campaign. Squads of queer activists knocked on doors in city and suburban neighborhoods and visited community meetings at union halls and country churches. In September, an endorsement of “No on 6” by former Governor Ronald Reagan, a right-wing rival of Senator Briggs, swung many more voters. Unions released the power of their political machine in late October with phone banks, a front- page editorial in the AFL-CIO newsletter and 2.3 million palm cards at the polls. On election day, Proposition 6 was rejected by 58 percent of California voters.

California’s successful defeat of Proposition 6 in 1978 was the first major political coalition to connect the fresh and angry power of gay liberation with labor’s long-haul commitment to fairness and equality. Many other great LGBT labor collaborations have flowed forth since then.

In my book, Out in the Union, I interviewed people who participated in those coalitions. My research began in 1995 and my search for stories continued for another several years. To explore the lives and achievements of primary activists, I conducted interviews in New York City, Boston, Detroit, Washington DC, Portland, Oregon, San Francisco, Seattle, Tacoma, Los Angeles, Salt Lake City and many places in between.

The lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender union members who have told me their stories have been newspaper workers, nurses and health technicians, bus drivers, telephone installers, construction tradespeople, store clerks, hotel and restaurant employees, factory workers, social service workers and employees of AIDS clinics. Their queer lives have taken them through extraordinary adventures and long phases of everyday routine; and their everyday jobs are as various and their unions as diverse as the labor movement itself. Some have founded new union locals; others have negotiated innovative contracts; and still others have fought to save jobs when their plants were being closed. They are the people of Out in the Union.

Harvey Milk did not live to see the great changes that his activism started.  But  I like to think that he would have been proud of all that the labor and LGBT movements have accomplished.

 

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