Open And Out In Office

Nov 1, 2018

Harvey Milk in 1978 at Mayor Moscone’s Desk.
Credit Creative Commons

Harvey Milk was not the first openly-gay elected official, but is certainly one of the most famous. After two unsuccessful bids for a set on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, Milk won twice, Milk won in 1977 and proudly represented those on the fringes. He believed the only way for the gay community to gain rights was to have a seat at the table.

He was assassinated in 1978, but his legacy has lived on in countless books and films. He was posthumously awarded a Presidential Medal of Freedom by former President Barack Obama. A new account from scholar Andrew Reynolds looks at how Harvey Milk influenced generations of politicians that came after him. In “The Children of Harvey Milk: How LGBTQ Politicians Changed the World” (Oxford University Press/2018), Reynolds interviewed more than 100 elected officials about their choice to be openly-LGBTQ in office.

He joins host Frank Stasio to talk about the North Carolinians who are a part of this history, from Pauli Murray to Clay Aiken. Reynolds will host a panel discussion with LGBTQ statewide elected officials at Flyleaf Books in Chapel Hill on Nov. 7 at 4:30 p.m. Joining him are politicians Lydia Lavelle (Mayor of Carrboro), Damon Seils (Carrboro Alderperson), Billy Maddalon (former Charlotte City Council Member), and Mark Kleinschmidt (former Mayor of Chapel Hill and candidate for Orange County Superior Court Clerk) and LGBTQ Advocate and educator Candis Cox.

Interview Highlights

On the common thread connecting the people interviewed for this book:

Whether they are in the Netherlands or Britain or in South America or America, they’re making inroads into a society that is traditionally very homophobic or transphobic. But ultimately they succeed. And they succeed because they outwork their opponents, but also because they latch on to some kind of zeitgeist where people believe that finally LGBT people should have a place at the table.  

On leaders’ struggle to avoid being labeled:

A lot of these lesbian and gay leaders have embraced their visible role as representatives of the community … And some of them struggle to escape that hyphen labeling. Barney Frank for many years didn’t want to be the “gay” politician. He wanted to be a politician. But at the same time, he and others inevitably are the one voice in the room for that community that’s struggling [in] a whole variety of ways.

On the life and legacy of activist Pauli Murray:

[Pauli Murray] wrestled with that identity and also was wrestling with multiple identities: her race, her gender, her sexual orientation, her gender identity. Somebody who internally is wrestling with who she is, but at the same time contributes a remarkable amount to this nation and the world … I think personally Pauli Murray is one of the most undervalued and underappreciated Americans in the 21st Century.

On the impact of the HB2 debate on trans children:

I was particularly struck by the public health evidence over HB2 and the bathroom bill. We were having that big, general debate [on] the rights of trans people. Whilst at the same time it was estimated that on average each school in North Carolina had three trans or gender variant kids within each school. And the public health indicators were that their depression rates, their anxiety, their attempted suicide rates were astronomical when this debate was happening about them.