Harvey Milk has always had a big impact on my life and the lives of other LGBT elected officials, but on May 22 that impact grew when the U.S. Post Office dedicated a forever stamp to Harvey Milk at a White House ceremony. This marked the first time an openly gay elected official was featured on a U.S. stamp. Since his death a little over 35 years ago, Harvey Milk has been an inspiration to the equality movement and aspiring LGBT elected officials across the country.
His legacy opened the door for former Rep. Barney Frank and Senator Tammy Baldwin to break down barriers and forge new frontiers for the LGBT community. I was honored to follow in Senator Baldwin’s footsteps when, for the first time, a congressional district elected back-to-back openly gay citizens to Congress.
As a small business owner and elected official, Harvey Milk has proved to be an inspiration to my personal journeys in business and public service. Whether operating a small print shop with my husband or serving the people of Wisconsin in Congress, Harvey Milk’s legacy of hope and tolerance has been central to my efforts in both my personal and public life.
Hope and tolerance have never been more at the forefront of the equality movement. Together we have reached many historic milestones over the past 12 months. Barriers to equality continue to be broken down almost weekly as marriage equality is now recognized in 19 states and the District of Columbia. On May 19th, a federal judge struck down an anti-marriage constitutional amendment in Oregon that restricted marriage to different-sex couples. One day later a federal judge appointed by President George W. Bush ruled in favor of the freedom to marry in Pennsylvania, striking down the state’s ban on marriage for same-sex couples. It has become unmistakable that supporters of marriage equality have the country and the Constitution on our side.
Additionally, the Senate made progress when they passed the Employment Nondiscrimination Act (ENDA) for the first time and included LGBT language in the Violence Against Women Act. As a co-chair of the Congressional LGBT Equality Caucus and member of the Education and the Workforce Committee, which has jurisdiction over ENDA, I called on Speaker John Boehner to honor the equality deserved by all Americans. ENDA has bipartisan support in the House and must be a top priority in the coming months to stop the discrimination one in every five LGBT employees faces in their work environment because of their sexual orientation or gender identity.
Furthermore, Senators Brian Schatz (D-HI) and Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) introduced my “Restore Honor to Service Members Act” to the Senate in January. The bill, which I introduced in the House, would close the book on “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell.” It ensures that gay and lesbian veterans who were discharged because of their sexual orientation receive the honor and recognition they deserve. We owe it to these veterans to provide them with dignity and support.
But in a year of milestones for the equality movement, including the one-year anniversary of the Supreme Court striking down the Defense of Marriage Act, we know we have more to do. The next generation of LGBT leaders must continue to honor Harvey Milk’s legacy and build upon the successes of the past year. For instance, Michael Sam, the first openly gay football player to be drafted by an NFL team, could still be fired from a job in Wisconsin simply because of his sexual orientation.
As we celebrated what would have been Harvey Milk’s 84th birthday on May 22nd, his message of hope and tolerance still resonates with Americans across the country. I look forward to carrying on his legacy with the new generation of LGBT activists and elected officials as we fight for equality for all.