Current affairs Interview Interview

“When I was a teenager, I was living in a brutally homophobic society – it was still considered a mental illness,” says Stuart Milk, Harvey Milk’s nephew and co-founder of the Harvey Milk Foundation. “But I had an uncle who would say… “This is a wonderful gift.””

In London this week, Stuart spoke on Wednesday at a special panel about fighting stigma – organised by Levi’s as part of series the denim brand is putting on around this year’s European Pride celebrations. The events also align with the launch of the fourth Levi’s Pride collection, of which 100% of proceeds are donated to the Harvey Milk Foundation and the Stonewall Community Foundation. The series also includes in store talks across Europe hosted by Designers Against AIDS, and an exhibition in Madrid by Harvey Milk’s personal photographer Daniel Nicoletta – images from which are featured here.

Stuart has spent most of his adult life spreading his late uncle’s message of hope. As one of the first openly gay elected officials in the US, Harvey Milk’s fight against discrimination changed the course of LGBT history for the better. Though tragically assassinated in 1978, his story inspired change in his city, country, and around the world.

In light of London’s Pride Parade this weekend, Stuart reflected on his uncle’s legacy and, with Levi’s Chief Merchandising Officer Grant Barth, discussed the ongoing fight for universal equality.

Tempe Nakiska: Education and dialogue were cornerstones of Harvey Milk’s beliefs, and are the key to what the Harvey Milk Foundation does today. Why is education so important in fighting discrimination?
Stuart Milk: To me, education is the most powerful thing we can do. To bring visibility and a personal message and connection to schools around the world – education is where our future lies, it’s the foundation of it all. For example, we’ve partnered with the UK for eight years now – with LGBT History Month and Schools OUT UK. And in February in Manchester we went into a school that was predominantly Muslim, separated into a female school and a male school. After telling the story of my uncle, I talked about the interconnectedness with other minority groups, whether it’s women, people of colour, of different faiths… the fact that discrimination has a shopping list, it’s not just LGBT people. And there was a young woman who, at the end of the talk, started crying. I went over to her and she said, “I don’t have a connection, I don’t relate to my family’s religion, they don’t accept me.” So my question was, “When did you come out?” and she said, “I haven’t. But now all my friends know. But I have this piece of courage,” and she took off her jacket and she had the Pride collection’s ‘Milk’ tank top on under that. And she said, “This is what gives me this power.” We were there with a local charity called The Proud Trust which does work in schools, so we then connected her with a counsellor so that there’d be follow-up. Because she did intend to come out to her family, and we had to make sure she was safe. 

These are very powerful elements of education work. Because it’s one thing to teach people against bullying by telling them it’s wrong, but it’s another to be able to make an actual connection with people, to help them see that they could also be on that shopping list. My first question in schools is often, “How many people have a family history of legal discrimination?” And even in some groups of adults I’ll get only a couple of hands up. And I’ll say, “So you mean there’s no women in your family history?” People forget that women didn’t have the right to vote, the right to a legal inheritance, discriminated against everywhere. Sometimes we have to teach history to remember, and to keep us moving forward. 

Castro Street Fair, August 1976. Leon Lott, December Wright and Larry Williams. Photography Daniel Nicoletta.

“Sometimes we have to teach history to remember, and to keep us moving forward.” – Stuart Milk

There’s an element of remembrance with the Pride collection, and the new collection theme is Fight Stigma, Grant can you tell us about it?
Grant Barth: The Pride collection started a few years ago, with the idea of a collection based around a give-back model, to support charities that we thought aligned with our corporate and person values. [100% of the proceeds from the collection, which was launched five years ago, are donated to support the work of the Harvey Milk Foundation and Stonewall Community Foundation]. 

We wanted to do something to get a message going, and it was amazing how it was embraced, loved and supported across the company. We also wanted to use it as a storytelling and educational opportunity, so on the back of every t-shirt we put the timeline of the key catalytic moments of LGBT history, to remind today’s youth of the journey we’ve been on. The name of the first year’s collection was Stonewall, the second was Harvey Milk, and this collection came from the AIDS quote, “Fight Stigma”. We were the first company to really stand up for AIDS advocacy, the first to really stand up for LGBTQ same-sex partner benefits [in 1992 Levi’s became the first Fortune 500 company to offer benefits to same sex couples, and in 2007 it was the only California business to support same sex marriage by filing an amicus brief with the California Supreme Court], and we were a part of the original AIDS Memorial Quilt, we had squares in it before it went to Washington [for the first time in 1987].

In talking to employees there was this discussion about how we wanted to remind people of that pivotal time in history when people were dying and we didn’t know what the future was going to be. ‘Fight Stigma’ was a very powerful phrase then, but we also felt it was very powerful for today – that it could be for the transgender community, who are really under attack and need more support, or just as a reminder to stand up and fight for what you believe in. 

Levi's x Harvey Milk Pride collection.

Stuart, what are some of the strongest lessons Harvey taught you?
Stuart: When I was about twelve, apparently he told all of his friends that he had a gay nephew, but he never brought it up with me. With me it was the fact that I told him that I felt different from everyone, and his relationship with me was such that instead of taking me down the road of LGBT, he simply wanted me to accept my differences as gifts. In 1972 he gave me a first edition of a book of native anthology called Seven Arrows, and he wrote in it, “You and all your differences is the medicine that will heal the world, even when the world doesn’t recognise that.” And that became one of my composites in which to live life, even when it was difficult. When I was a teenager, I was living in a brutally homophobic society, it was still considered a mental illness, but I had an uncle who, when he was in New York or on the phone, would say, “What happened today that made you feel different?” and I’d be like, “Oh, I don’t even want to go there,” but he had excitement in his voice, he would say, “This is a wonderful gift.” 

“When I was a teenager, I was living in a brutally homophobic society – it was still considered a mental illness – but I had an uncle who would say… “This is a wonderful gift.” – Stuart Milk

Harvey Milk photographed by Daniel Nicoletta.

He was assassinated when I was seventeen and I dabbled very briefly in LGBT rights in first year in college after I’d come out. Another big figure in the LGBT rights movement in the US, Frank Kameny, asked me to speak one time, but I was not very good and he let me know that. So I kind of hid in the women’s rights movement, I worked for the National Women’s Political Caucus and the National Organisation for Women, and when I was 25 I got to go to the closing conference for the UN Decade for Women in Nairobi, Kenya in 1985. Now, most of the people at this event had my colour skin. And this aboriginal leader from Australia, Lilla Watson, got up to the podium and said, “Look, if you’re here because you want to support women, or people of colour, or indigenous people, go home, pack up your bags, we have nothing to do together.” You could hear a pin drop, it got deadly silent. And she went on, “But if you’ve come here because you understand that your liberation is bound with mine, then let us work together.” And she went on to explain the power of that – that it’s in your self-interest that nobody is marginalised or discriminated against. She became a mentor and friend of mine, and that stayed with me, it was so powerful. So today when the Harvey Milk Foundation does work around the globe, we like to say that it’s all of our self-interests at risk when anyone is marginalised, when anyone is diminished, when anyone’s full potential is cut short. If, for instance, Australia doesn’t have marriage equality (which they don’t), even though New Zealand does and and Taiwan now does, we still are denying that full equality not just for Australians, but for ourselves. 

So it’s about understanding and unity, the idea that everything that impacts you and that you do has a ripple on effect to the world. Speaking about more recent events now, it was widely reported that Donald Trump didn’t recognise Pride Month in the US this year. What did you think about this?
Stuart: OK. For some background, Don’t Ask Don’t Tell [the official US policy that for seventeen years prohibited qualified gay and lesbian Americans from serving in the armed forces] was removed four years ago, but transgender service was only instituted last year. Very recently, Secretary Mattis [the United States Secretary of Defense] put out an LGBT Pride statement – not LGB, LGBT. They haven’t implemented the transgender service yet, it’s legal but they’re still working out the implementation, and he put out the most forceful pro-LGBT Pride statement that any US department had done previously. And it was followed up the next day by Secretary Tillerson [the current United States Secretary of State]. So to me, the fact that we can have someone in the White House who acts like a bully not put out a Pride statement, is less important than how much these institutions have moved forward. They’re giving out a very clear message, that we’re not going to move backwards. There was no message from the White House that our embassies around the world were to fly the rainbow flag as there had been for the previous eight years, but embassies all around the world flew it anyway. 

It has to be said that while he has not attacked the LGBT community, he has actually said that he will protect the LGBT community. But you can’t say you will protect the LGBT community, and attack women. You can’t protect the LGBT community, and attack Mexicans. You can’t protect the LGBT community and attack immigrants. Because we are women, we are Mexicans, we are immigrants. We are those communities. 

But I do not see our national government moving in lock step backwards. There’s a US Navy Ship called ‘Harvey Milk’ being made right now. This is an institution from which my uncle was forced to resign from less than honourably, discharged because he was found out to be gay. The removal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell simply means, “We’re not going to discriminate against you.” Building a navy ship that 2,000 men and women are going to serve on, that cost a billion dollars, that’s going to go in the Pacific and Atlantic fleet to dozens of ports in places where it’s illegal to be LGBT – that, to me, sends a more powerful message than any tweet or lack of ceremony. 

Photography Daniel Nicoletta.

“I’ve always been a big believer that activism starts in your own backyard.” – Grant Barth

Equality is such a huge issue with so many facets and roots – what can individuals do in their day to day to help spread the message?
Grant: For us, it’s about encouraging employees to feel very motivated and inspired to get out and just talk to people. I’ve always been a big believer that activism starts in your own backyard. And it can be overwhelming otherwise. So we’re trying to give people the tools, the voice and the support to go and get out in their own community and start a conversation. An example is our team in Japan – where details of your personal life are not really discussed, let alone being out and gay – they felt it was important to do something to encourage conversations within the youth of the community, so they went out and gave away t-shirts and had discussions in cafes and so on. It can be something as simple as that, all the way up to the scale of what’s happening in London this weekend. 

The London Pride Parade 2017 is tomorrow, Saturday 8th July. For more information head to the website. 

The Levi’s x Harvey Milk Foundation collection is available online now at levi.co.uk100% of the proceeds from the collection will be donated to support the work of the Harvey Milk Foundation and Stonewall Community Foundation.