LGBT activists have helped initiate significant progress in the West in recent decades. Same sex marriage is now legal in Australia, the USA, Great Britain, the Irish Republic, all across Western Europe, Scandinavia and several countries in South America.

However, many countries still view homosexuality as a crime and refuse to recognise trans and non-binary individuals. Stuart Milk, co-founder of the Harvey Milk Foundation, is acutely aware of this and has spent his professional life campaigning for LGBT rights around the world.

Stuart’s uncle was the iconic Harvey Milk, California’s first openly-LGBT elected official. Harvey served on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors for 11 months before being assassinated by another city supervisor, Dan White, in 1978.

Watch: How Harvey Milk changed the gay rights movement

Stuart was just 17 when his uncle died, but Harvey’s example encouraged him to not only be proudly out, but also commit to furthering LGBT rights around the world.

Milk was in Sydney for the 2020 Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras and The Brag spoke to him about the aims of the Harvey Milk Foundation, his experiences in places hostile to LGBT rights and the Morrison government’s proposed religious discrimination bill.

The BRAG: Obviously you’re Harvey Milk’s nephew, but how did you get started in LGBT activism and human rights campaigning?
Stuart Milk: When I was 17 and I came out – it was my first year in my university, Harvey had just been assassinated – I was asked to speak at an event by a very famous American, Frank Kameny, who started one of our oldest LGBT organisations.

Anyway, he told me I didn’t sound like my uncle and I wasn’t a good speaker. It was devastating for me to hear that and I went into the women’s rights movement where the last name Milk didn’t put a spotlight on me immediately.

TB: How did your experiences in the women’s rights movement shape your aims for the Harvey Milk Foundation?
SM: In 1985 I was working with the National Women’s Political Caucus. I got to go to Nairobi, Kenya to the closing conference for the UN Decade for Women. I was in Africa, but most people at the conference had my colour skin – which is white – so that seemed strange to me.

This conference [consisted of] 3000 extremely self-important people and this young Aboriginal leader named Lilla Watson began the conference. She got up to the podium, the room was buzzing, and she said “If you’ve come here because you want to help women or because you want to help people of colour or you want to help indigenous people, pack up your bags and go home. We have nothing to do together.”

And that room became deadly silent and she repeated it. She let that silence hang there for a long time and then she said, “But if you’ve come here because you understand that your liberation is bound with mine, then let us work together.” That was very profound for me to hear.

Watch: Lilla Watson on assimilation and a treaty

TB: Has this ethos carried over into the operations of the Harvey Milk Foundation?
SM: When we formed the Harvey Milk Foundation I set out to spend 75% of our time doing global support, because we are helping ourselves by going to wherever we’re emerging and struggling and reaching out across the globe. And it really is due to [Lilla Watson].

I used to say I was involved in the women’s movement because I wanted to help women. And I stopped saying that – I said I’m in the women’s movement because without women’s equality I won’t have equality.

TB: So the general principle is that everyone will benefit if you can help expand the rights and improve the quality of life for people who’re currently disadvantaged?
SM: We don’t help anyone. We work with people. It’s almost in a colonial sense, you’re helping someone. No we’re not helping, we’re working with and we work with communities that are marginalised and diminished. We focus mostly on emerging and struggling communities and we’ve worked in over 61 nations. I personally have been on the ground in over 60 nations.

Watch: “Dear Harvey, We’ve Got Hope” – A message from Stuart Milk

TB: What are some of the major international events you’ve appeared at on behalf of the foundation?
SM: We just finished a first-ever at the Munich Security Conference. We were the organisation that they invited in to host the first LGBT panel on LGBT rights as a security issue. So we had leaders from all over the world at that, including several countries where it’s illegal to be LGBT.

We had a UN event in November, which was also the first time ever that the Security Council had an event on LGBT rights. So we do a lot of work on the global stage. To us it’s very important that we don’t think only from a perspective of Western or American or North American, but that we do think of our LGBT community as a global community.

TD: That’s an important point – that it’s a global community. What big things have you learnt from visiting places that haven’t granted equal rights to LGBT members of society?
SM: In 2009 I didn’t know walking into Taksim Square in Istanbul that I was facing the national militarised police, that we had water cannons and rubber bullets faced at us. That doesn’t bother me. What really is scariest to me – believe it or not I’m going to talk about a EU country: Hungary.

We have been working in there for over a decade. They do a pride in June. They have that pride march and nobody waves back. Doors shutter, the balconies close. The silence to me is the scariest thing. It’s that old Einstein quote: “It’s not those who do evil, but those who sit by in silence.”

That’s what worries me the most. We have this rise of ultra-nationalism throughout the world and it’s one of the things that encourages that type of silence.

Watch: ‘Milk’ official film trailer

TB: Do you think there is a genuine threat to the progress made in the last half century or so – that it could be turned backwards?
SM: Absolutely. We have a recent example of India which had decriminalised nine years ago then re-criminalised LGBT five years ago, and now just decriminalising [again]. You’re talking about one sixth of the world’s LGBT people went backwards and forwards and backwards and forwards.

One of the things that’s positive, we had a proposal in Brunei of stoning LGBT people and there was an international campaign [against it] and they relented. It’s still not legal in Brunei, but at least they put aside the stoning law.

TB: The Australian Government is trying to implement these new religious freedom laws, which are essentially new permissions to attack LGBT people. And similar things are happening in the US.
SM: This is where I’m hopeful that we have enough people who are visible in these countries that society will rise up and say “no, we’re not going to go backwards.”

If someone says to me, “Who are the biggest people who have changed the face of LGBT rights?” My answer is always the everyday hero who simply has a kitchen table conversation with their mum and dad and has that emotional coming out process. It’s someone who stands up to a homophobic comment or a xenophobic comment in a corporate boardroom. Or someone on a school playground that comes to the aid of trans kid who’s being picked on.

These are the people who are changing the hearts and minds and this is what will sustain us moving forward.

Long-time partner of The Harvey Milk Foundation, DMK, is providing much needed funds through the Limited product collection, with 10% of all proceeds going to this magnificent cause. In 2019 alone, DMK raised over $135,000 for The Harvey Milk Foundation and continue their support by creating the first ever HMF float for this year’s Mardi Gras parade.’

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