Annual awards ceremony honors GLBT civil rights advocates
‘The battle is not simply won by equal laws,’ says Harvey Milk’s nephew
Published Thursday, 26-Nov-2009 in issue 1144
A former California governor, the nephew of a late gay political activist and a plaintiff in a federal sex discrimination lawsuit were honored for their advocacy of GLBT civil rights at the annual San Diego Equality Awards at the Museum of Man on Nov. 14.
“I have the great honor to present an award to three individuals who have done extraordinary things to advance LGBT equality: Diane Schroer, Stuart Milk and Jerry Brown,” said Equality California (EQCA) Executive Director Geoff Kors, surrounded by 300 to 400 people in the museum’s first-floor gallery.
Schroer, who received the night’s first award, filed a sex discrimination lawsuit with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) against the Library of Congress, who hired her as a research analyst but rescinded the offer after she told her future supervisor that she was transitioning from a man to a woman. In 2008, four years later, a federal district judge ruled that the Library of Congress had illegally discriminated against Schroer and awarded her $500,000 in compensation earlier this year. The court’s ruling is seminal in finding that discriminating against a person for changing gender is a form of sex discrimination, which is protected under federal law.
“Most people would go home and find another job and move on,” Kors said. “Not Schroer. She fought back and won.”
“I took the road less traveled, and that has made all the difference,” said Schroer, who discussed feeling powerless after losing the job.
“When I was told [that] I ‘wasn’t a good fit [and] not what the library wanted’ because of my transition, I felt helpless,” Schroer said. “But just after the ACLU responded to my inquiry, I found out that I was not alone. I found out that I had an entire community standing with me.”
Kors next awarded Stuart Milk, nephew of late GLBT civil rights activist Harvey Milk, with an Equality Award.
“Over the years, Stuart has spoken at events about his uncle, accepted awards in his uncle’s name, and traveled not just the country but the world to speak out against inequality and to advocate for LGBT rights,” Kors said.
Stuart Milk worked with EQCA to designate May 22 (Harvey Milk’s birthday) Harvey Milk Day, an informal day of observance in California. State Sen. Mark Leno wrote the bill, and Gov. Schwarzenegger signed it last month.
“This guy used every connection he had to every other connection, and just to let you know, the governor was called, ambassadors, senators, celebrities, all because of what this guy did,” Kors said.
After receiving his award, Stuart Milk said that the name of his uncle is opening closet doors around the world and read a letter from a young woman he had received earlier in the day:
“My name’s Carson and I’m 13 years old [and] I’m a lesbian. I was going to kill myself. It was well planned. Then I came across a documentary story of Harvey Milk online. At first I smiled; then I heard Equality California passed a holiday for an LGBT person, and I cried. And then I found hope. Thanks to you, Harvey and everyone else there, I’m comfortable with this and out to most people in my school and family.”
In response, Stuart Milk said the battle for GLBT rights is “not simply won by equal laws but by people getting to know us, by coming out, which was Harvey’s message all those years ago.”
Attorney General Jerry Brown received the night’s final award.
“Here is someone who has really demonstrated a great deal of courage on LGBT equality,” Kors said.
In the late ’70s, Brown, California governor at the time, openly opposed the Briggs Initiative, a state proposition that sought to ban gays and lesbians from working in California’s public schools, and persuaded then President Jimmy Carter to publicly speak out against it. Brown also appointed the state’s first openly gay judge in the early ’80s.
“But really, we need to thank him for what he did after Prop. 8 passed,” Kors said.
Brown urged the California Supreme Court to overturn Proposition 8, which bans same-sex couples from marrying in the state, through a legal brief last December. In June, Brown again told a judge, this time overseeing a federal challenge to Proposition 8, that the measure should be struck down.
“He demonstrated what true leadership is,” Kors said.
“We are engaged in a struggle for gays, lesbians, bisexual and transgender people, in a struggle for all of us, for all of humanity,” said Brown, who recalled attending Harvey Milk’s memorial more than 30 years ago.
“I remember being at the memorial. There was such power; there was so much energy. I had never seen anything like it before. I see some of it tonight. I see it all through your community. I don’t quite know what it is,” Brown said. “But I think it’s born in part from an experience of oppression and an experience of courage and creating solidarity.”