As much as any other leader, Harvey Milk is my hero and inspiration. Like so many others, I drew tremendous strength from his belief in the fundamental goodness of all LGBT people in spite of what society too often tells us. Even though he was long gone before I came out, he challenged me to live openly because it was what I deserved and because doing so offered hope to those who were not yet living fully open lives. He understood profoundly that, particularly in the case of LGBT people, the personal is the political--the act of being out and talking about who we are combats the lies our opponents propagate and enables us to win our equality in the courts, the legislature, and at the ballot box.
More than any other, Harvey Milk lit the spark in me to fight, and gave me a vision and understanding of what that fight should look like.
When I used to visit San Francisco, I would pay homage to Harvey by reflecting on his life and his teachings as I gazed at what used to be his camera store window on Castro Street. Yet it felt wrong that there was so little recognition of Harvey, even in San Francisco. It seemed as though the homophobia that Harvey Milk spent his life railing against had ironically captured and closeted his legacy.
Not any more. The masterful film Milk changed all that and helped Equality California, Senator Mark Leno and so many others pass a bill to honor Harvey Milk and create an official California Day of Recognition in his memory. We celebrate the first ever Harvey Milk Day this Saturday May 22, on what would have been Harvey Milk's 80th birthday.
What would Harvey Milk tell us to do today? No question he'd want us to all come out. But I think he'd go a step further by telling us that coming out is no longer enough. One of the things I love so much about Harvey Milk is how he held a profoundly idealistic vision while embracing the use of the political process to achieve the vision. He knew that the way to bring about change was by changing hearts and minds so that we could win the votes of judges, electeds, and the public.
I can almost hear what I think Harvey would tell us if he could be here for his 80th birthday:
Brothers and sisters, 30 years ago, I called on all LGBT people to come out in order to break down the myths and destroy the lies and distortions. But today, as we fight for the right to marry the person we love, to be free from the fear that we'll be fired from our jobs, and to serve our country in the military openly and proudly, I tell you that coming out is no longer enough.
I implore you, don't sit quietly by while your family, neighbors and elected officials vote against your rights, satisfied that you've already come out. You need to tell them why it's important to you personally that you have that right, and ask them for their support. I know it's not easy, but losing our freedoms at the ballot box and having our elected leaders stand by while we face discrimination isn't easy either.
The belief in the power of our stories is why Equality California has embarked, over the past year, on perhaps the largest state-wide educational campaign for LGBT rights our movement has ever seen, one that embraces a strategy of face-to-face conversations. In the past year, we've opened nine field offices staffed by full-time organizers whose primary purpose is to get LGBT people and our allies to make the direct case to people who do not yet support the freedom to marry.
Going door-to-door in the heat of Fresno or Riverside and engaging in conversations with those who are not yet with us is challenging. But it works, transforming those to whom we are speaking and even transforming ourselves in the process. Our volunteers see that many people who aren't yet with us aren't hateful. Instead, they are conflicted and are sorting their way through an issue that is difficult for them. That's why 80 percent of our volunteers sign up to go door-to-door again and again.
We are having a great impact on the people with whom we speak. Of those we engage who are not with us, more than a quarter move to become significantly more supportive (our highest persuasion rate is with Latinos and African-Americans). And we find, in follow-up conversations several months later, the majority of these shifts in position hold over time. People tell our researchers that the conversation was respectful and that they appreciated someone taking the time to come to their door and engage them. Through our door-to-door work, as well as through engaging people at festivals, fairs, shopping areas, and wherever else people congregate, we've had 850,000 conversations in the past 12 months. These conversations have been with supporters who we've turned into volunteers and donors, as well as with opponents who have moved much closer to our position.
Polling shows that this work is making a real difference. According to the annual Public Policy Institute of California poll, support for the freedom to marry in California--which had stagnated between 44 and 45 percent between 2004 and 2009--jumped to 50 percent in 2010. And opposition--which had hovered between 48 and 50 percent--dropped to 45 percent. While we don't attribute all these gains to our work, there's no question that these conversations, and the conversations that they in turn have spawned, have had a significant impact in humanizing the issue and building support.
In the end, how quickly we grow support is up to you. Harvey was right--we are here to recruit you! We will train you, we will support you, we will give you reminder calls, but we will only be successful if you join us. If you've never done this work before, make the commitment to try it once--this Saturday, on Harvey Milk Day. Join Equality California, along with more than 100 partner organizations, dozens of elected officials, Dustin Lance Black, Cleve Jones, Dolores Huerta, and hundreds (hopefully thousands!) of volunteers. Help us make the first Harvey Milk Day the largest day of action in California LGBT history, a day that befits this giant of a person.