'There's a fear that we're up against' - an interview with Stuart Milk

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Deputy Arts Editor Avital Carno talks homophobia, human rights and Donald Trump with activist and Harvey Milk Foundation President Stuart Milk.

After meeting Stuart Milk, I left the interview room having met a famous activist, the nephew of a gay rights icon, the Founder and President of the Harvey Milk Foundation and a frequent visitor to the White House. Hunched over a laptop, scrolling through Google, Milk’s bravery and dignity had filled me with admiration and respect. And yet despite his intimidating list of awards and achievements, my overwhelming impression of Milk was that of a person whose humorous calm and quiet kindness seemed to diffuse into the atmosphere around him, leaving those in his vicinity wearing irrepressible smiles.

I was, unsurprisingly, deeply inspired by Milk, but moreover I found that I liked him. Because Stuart Milk is undeniably, infectiously, inherently likeable. Effusive and American, a tall, broad man with a gentle smile and pierced ears, he warns me that he talks, a lot, and that in his last interview he only managed to get through a single question.

‘inclusivity is the full array of diversity’

Milk’s first reply sets the tone of the interview, as I ask how he thinks campuses can become more inclusive and welcoming of their LGBT communities. He corrects my question, telling me that I should rather be asking him how campuses can become more welcoming of diversity, explaining that ‘you can’t have a campus that is more welcoming of LGBT people that is closed to people of different faiths, […] different genders, or […] people from different immigrant statuses, because the LGBT community is part of all these different communities’.

Milk brings up President Trump’s promises to protect LGBT citizens and explains why, in his opinion, these are false- he argues that Trump’s attacks on the Muslim community, people of Mexican origin and those of uncertain immigration status are attacks on the LGBT community, because ‘we are Muslim […] we are Mexican […] we are immigrants’.

'I’ve faced off with nationalized police, I’ve had machine guns and water cannons faced on me’

According to Milk, ‘inclusivity is the full array of diversity’. He believes that ‘the opponents of inclusivity and acceptance would love us all to be divided, and we see that going on around the world’. Milk gives the example of the 2016 gay nightclub shooting in Orlando, Florida and the ensuing political backlash against Muslims, and stresses the importance of not allowing such incidents to turn one minority group against another.

As we’re on the topic of Trump, I ask Milk how far back he thinks the Trump administration will set LGBT campaigns. In Milk’s opinion, it is Mike Pence who is the larger threat to the LGBT community specifically, while regarding Trump he feels ‘like we’re dealing with a schoolyard bully’. Cautiously, I ask Milk if it’s ok to quote him on this and he replies, laughing, that he’s said the same on TV. His voice becomes more serious as he explains that Pence believes ‘in his heart’ that ‘at best we [the LGBT community] are misguided, and at worst […] we are evil’. He reminds me that only two years ago Pence passed and signed right to discriminate legislation in the state of Indiana, which allowed shops and businesses to put up ‘no LGBT allowed signs’.

‘you can’t have a campus that is more welcoming of LGBT people that is closed to people of different faiths, […] different genders, or […] people from different immigrant statuses, because the LGBT community is part of all these different communities’

The almost unbelievably archaic legislation was only repealed due to intense public pressure, and Pence himself never apologised. Milk stresses the extent of Pence’s bigotry with the statement ‘even Trump realises that Mike Pence has got a problem with the LGBT community’. He describes the backwards push of Trump’s government against progress for equality, telling me that American schools have now stopped installing gender neutral bathrooms after an executive branch directive was repealed, and that an attempt to ban transgender service in the military was only stopped by the constitutional courts.

The conversation moves from politics to religion. Milk, who was raised as Jewish, claims that he does not identify with any organised religion, but considers himself spiritual. He says, half-jokingly, that ‘if someone identifies me as Jewish and they’re attacking the Jewish community, then I’ll identify as Jewish’, while he’ll also occasionally identify as Muslim in the face of Islamophobic attacks.

'regarding Trump he feels "like we’re dealing with a schoolyard bully"’

When asked if he believes that religion is unavoidably homophobic, he replies that ‘religious dogma is inherently not life-affirming. […] I don’t mean that faith is not life-affirming, I mean strict religious dogma. So it doesn’t matter what religion it is, but if it’s black and white and there’s no grey area then what you do is you cut off life’.

However, Milk does believe that religion and the LGBT community can coexist, especially when one looks at religion as a business concept. Milk explains that ‘what big business has learnt […] is that being LGBT inclusive is good for business’, and describes marriage equality as an important spur for urging religious institutions to welcome LGBT congregants as part of a bid to survive.

'Two-thirds of the world’s population still live where it’s either illegal or completely unacceptable to be LGBT […] 14 countries still punish LGBT people by death’

In his career as an LGBT activist, Milk reports having ‘had all kinds of things thrown at me all over the world. I’ve faced off with nationalized police, I’ve had machine guns and water cannons faced on me’. But, according to him, ‘that’s not scary to me’. Milk instead gives the example of the 2010 Hungarian pride parade as one of the most frightening events in his career. The protesters hugely outnumbered the marchers, but were kept away by riot police. But when the parade went down Andrassy boulevard, a ‘big, wide boulevard with all kinds of shops […] everything closes, you see these balcony windows close, you see the shades go up in the shops, you see the doors close, nobody waves back’.

He says that the incident reminded him of the Albert Einstein quote, ‘the world is a dangerous place, not because of those who do evil, but because of those who look on and do nothing’. For Milk, such times are when he feels most afraid. He believes that it’s important ‘to think globally about human rights. Two-thirds of the world’s population still live where it’s either illegal or completely unacceptable to be LGBT […] 14 countries still punish LGBT people by death’. He reminds me that India, ‘the world’s largest democracy, where one out of every five people live’ recriminalized LGB people (not trans) just two years ago.

'everything closes, you see these balcony windows close, you see the shades go up in the shops, you see the doors close, nobody waves back’

Milk believes that the fight against homophobia is effectively a fight against fear, on both sides. On the one hand, the LGBT community fears that their basic right to exist is constantly being threatened. On the other hand, Milk identifies homophobia as stemming from people’s ‘fear […] that their whole life is based on this dogmatic tradition, and if we pull out that thread […] the whole tapestry unravels, and they have to rethink […] everything’. He feels that this argument applies particularly to religious fundamentalists, as when someone says ‘this belief is wrong and there’s nothing ungodly about LGBT people then they have to look at everything they believe, and that’s very uncomfortable’.

A knock on the door brings the interview to a close. Before he has to leave, Milk says he has time for one last question- so I end with an issue that’s most relevant to me, a lefty-ish twenty-something from a relatively conservative background (a description which I feel also covers a large proportion of the Bristol student body). I ask if he believes in confronting every single person who expresses homophobic views- every single bigoted statement, homophobic joke, the abrasively right-wing family friend, the set-in-their-ways grandparent? Milk’s answer is simple: ‘I believe in having conversations with everyone. I believe that when people get to know other people, that we can change hearts and minds. It doesn’t happen overnight […] but at the end of the day, it’s kind of hard to hate people when you get to know them’.

Featured image: Unsplash/Peter Hershey


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