Harvey Milk’s Ideas about the Power of Coming Out Still Hold True Today

By Edward Cramp

Every gay person must come out. As difficult as it is, you must tell your immediate family. You must tell your relatives. You must tell your friends if indeed they are your friends. You must tell the people you work with. You must tell the people in the stores you shop in. Once they realize that we are indeed their children, that we are indeed everywhere, every myth, every lie, every innuendo will be destroyed once and all. And once you do, you will feel so much better.
Harvey Milk, 1978, available here.

Harvey Milk spoke these words in 1978, in a speech celebrating the defeat of Proposition 6 in California. Prop. 6 would have prohibited LGBT people from teaching in public schools. Ultimately, a wide coalition of leaders— from Jimmy Carter to Ronald Reagan— joined Harvey Milk in condemning the measure. It went down to overwhelming defeat. Today, it is a credit to Harvey Milk and countless others that it is unthinkable that such a proposal could make it to the ballot.

Harvey Milk’s idea was brilliantly simple and revolutionary. He knew that queer people were everywhere. He realized that everyone in America knew someone who was lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender, but that the powerful grip of shame (not to mention anti-LGBT laws) prevented them from living life as their genuine selves. He also knew that the only way to defeat that shame and overcome fear was to confront and overcome it by coming out.

At the time, this idea was outrageous. LGBT people seemed to have much more to lose than to gain by coming out. The shame associated with being queer created fear— fear of losing relationships, children, families, jobs and, due to anti-LGBT laws, personal liberty. Harvey Milk observed that coming out was a political statement, and he was right. Coming out meant that you stood for the right of people to be free to be who they are and that you were willing to risk everything for that right.

Harvey Milk’s ideas are now more than 40 years old. LGBT people have made great strides because he and others like him had the courage to come out and live their lives as their authentic selves. But, time and progress have not made these ideas any less relevant today than when Harvey Milk spoke them. Coming out is still the most powerful statement that any LGBT person can make— coming out takes away the power of shame and fear that comes with it. Shame and fear allow others to control our narrative. Coming out reverses that power dynamic and places us in control.

And, while coming out is by a personal decision by nature, it is one that has a powerful, positive impact on others. It does more than liberate one individual. It lays the foundation for others to come out too. When people see that someone they know, someone they look up to, or someone they love is living openly, it shows that it is ok for them to be who they are.

Happy National Coming Out Day. If you are out and living life as your true self, congratulations! If you are not yet out, perhaps this isn’t the right time and that’s ok. Just know that if and when you do, you will feel so much better.