Honoring Harvey Milk’s Legacy in Europe

Nancy Brinker (Ambassador to Hungary, 2001-2003; Chief of Protocol, 2007-2009)

Cross-posted from Ambassador Brinker’s November 19, 2014 post on The Huffington Post.

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Harvey Milk did something that few people ever do — he started a movement that changed the nation. His legacy lives on through the great work being done by his nephew, Stuart Milk, who accepted the Presidential Medal of Freedom on Harvey’s behalf posthumously in 2009, the same year that I humbly received the same award for my work with Susan G. Komen. Meeting Stuart that day changed my life, and gave me a new cause to pursue — achieving equal rights for the LGBT community in our nation and across the world.

Last month, I was extremely pleased to join the U.S. Embassy in Budapest to honor both the legacy of Harvey Milk and the incredible work that the Harvey Milk Foundation is doing to promote LGBT inclusion and acceptance across the globe. I did so not just as a former U.S. Ambassador, but as a proud American who believes in inclusion and not exclusion.

It is an honor to serve in a leadership advisory role and stand with the incredible Harvey Milk Foundation that is supporting LGBT visibility on all corners of the globe, doing so with a strong grace and successful efficacy. It is imperative to raise awareness about the LGBT community around the world, and the only way to do that is to educate those around us, everywhere we go.

One of the late Harvey Milk’s core messages was visibility. When I promised my sister, Susan G. Komen, that I’d do everything I could to stop the heartless progression and social stigma of this disease, the word “breast cancer” wasn’t even fit for polite conversation, let alone a national discussion. Slowly but surely, we changed that through visibility. And while the LGBT community has made enormous strides in the U.S. there still is significant work ahead at home and abroad.

36 years ago, Harvey Milk said:

You must come out. Come out… to your parents… I know that it is hard and will hurt them but think about how they will hurt you in the voting booth! Come out to your relatives… come out to your friends… if indeed they are your friends. Come out to your neighbors… to your fellow workers… to the people who work where you eat and shop… come out only to the people you know, and who know you. Not to anyone else. But once and for all, break down the myths, destroy the lies and distortions.

Today, we are seeing the incredible impact of those words. Just recently, Apple CEO Tim Cook announced publicly that he was gay. He did so because he believed that sharing his story with the world could “help someone struggling to come to terms with who he or she is, or bring comfort to anyone who feels alone.” He couldn’t be more right, and by coming out to the world, he paved the way for many others to be honest with their friends, their family and their peers about who they really are, and for them to be accepted with open arms by all.

The Harvey Milk Foundation is doing terrific work in helping people like Mr. Cook feel comfortable about being who they are by coming out to their friends and family. Recently, the Foundation helped establish the annual Harvey Milk Day in California. They were also successful in working with the United States Postal Service to issue a Harvey Milk stamp, which will go a long way in educating our nation about the decades-long effort to bring about real change for the LGBT community.

Today 65 percent of Americans say being gay is just the way some people are, not something people choose to be and they should be accepted and have equal rights. These are remarkable statistics because gay people like Tim Cook had the courage to be honest with themselves and their families. This turnaround is also due to the education work being done by the Milk Foundation and the other LGBT civil society organizations that move the LGBT community towards greater acceptance and equality every day. But the work is far from over – just last week a federal appeals court upheld gay marriage bans in four states. We must double our efforts to ensure that every American can spend their life with the person they love.

And although I have long supported LGBT visibility in everything I have done, it is personal for me. Not only because of dear friends who are members of the LGBT community but because one of the most important and inspiring people in my life, my son, is a proud and wonderful gay man. I could not be more proud of my son Eric, and am so pleased that he was able to join me in Hungary as we work for equality for the LGBT community in central Europe and across the globe.

There is much more to be done to ensure that the LGBT community is endowed with the same rights as all humans across the globe. But what I saw in Hungary last month gives me hope. People like Tim Cook give me hope. And my own son, who works tirelessly for the cause, helps me believe that we will someday bring about real change in the world for justice for all.

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