Harvey Milk, was a visionary civil and human rights leader who became one of the first openly gay elected officials in the United States when he won a seat on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors in 1977. Milk’s unprecedented loud and unapologetic proclamation of his authenticity as an openly gay candidate for public office, and his subsequent election gave never before experienced hope to Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgendered (LGBT) people everywhere at a time when the community was encountering widespread hostility and discrimination. His remarkable career was tragically cut short when he was assassinated nearly a year after taking office.
I, Coach Leslie, am choosing to honor Harvey Milk in tomorrows class because I absolutely believe that human rights are non-negotiable. The struggle for equality and justice for the LGBTQ community has impacted my life in a way that many people might find surprising.
As most of you know, I was in the US Marine Corps from 1989-1995. This was before "Don't Ask, Don't Tell." Back then it was illegal and a crime to be gay in the military. You could not serve if you were gay, and you could be legally prosecuted and discharged if you were found to be gay.
While I was deployed to Saudi Arabia during the Persian Gulf War (also known as Desert Storm) I was stalked and eventually sexually assaulted by one of my fellow Marines. Lucky for me, my flight or fight response is highly developed for fighting and I successfully fought off my attacker with a knife. However, at the end of the assault he threatened to kill me if I told anyone about the incident.
As most women (and I suppose some men) do, I told no one about the attack. It wasn't until I was with a bunch of other female Marines that I felt brave enough to tell them about the "crazy thing" Cpl. White did to me. After I shared my story, about 5 other women said, "Me, too." This was in 1991, a full 27 years before our current #metoo movement. We all decided to report Cpl. White's abuse to our Sergeant Major. Lucky for us, this crusty old Vietnam veteran took swift and decisive action and Cpl. White found himself on a plane bound for the US where he would remain in custody while awaiting trial.
After all of us returned home the Court Martial began. Cpl. White's defense argument was that all 5 of us women were a band of "man-hating lesbians with an axe to grind." Because he accused us of being gay the Court Martial shifted. All 5 of us now were legally obligated to prove that we were not lesbians. Remember, he stalked most of us for 3 months, assaulted all of us, and threatened to kill the rest of us. However, at this point in the Court Martial none of that mattered. The entire focus of the Court Martial was on us women to prove that we were not lesbians. How where we obligated to do this? We had to provide personal testimony from a man with whom we had sex. Yep. It's true, I had to bring a male witness to legally testify that he had indeed had sex with me. It was one of the most humiliating experiences of my life. I was 19 years old.
Eventually, all of us were able to convince the court that we were heterosexuals and the Court Martial could continue. Cpl. White was found guilty of conduct unbecoming with regard to the women who were equal to our above his rank and sexual harassment with me because I was lower rank. You see, back then, the Code of Military Justice did not recognize sexual harassment from a person of lower rank to a person of higher rank.
Since then, because of the brave souls of lesbians and gays in the military, the laws have changed. Don't ask, don't tell was repealed (believe me, this was stupid law) and gays and lesbians can serve openly. Since then, because of these brave souls, transgender people can serve openly. Since then, because of these brave souls, military sexual harassment laws have changed to no longer be specific to rank. Since then, because of these brave souls, women and men who are stalked, assaulted and abused do not have to have their sexuality on trial.
All of these human rights are only possible because of the courage of early leaders like Harvey Milk. He stood tall and proud in the face of unbelievable hate. In one of his eloquent speeches, Milk spoke of the American ideal of equality, proclaiming, “Gay people, we will not win our rights by staying quietly in our closets. … We are coming out to fight the lies, the myths, the distortions. We are coming out to tell the truths about gays, for I am tired of the conspiracy of silence, so I’m going to talk about it. And I want you to talk about it. You must come out.”
Harvey knew, as did Martin Luther King, that equality and justice will elevate our entire society. Dr. King said, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” Harvey Milk knew this. His fight for equality and justice for LGBTQ community ripples across all of humanity.
Please join me tomorrow as we honor Harvey Milk.
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