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Harvey Milk & Queer Progress Through the Lens of Queer History

By Sage Kuhlman

Harvey Milk via UAlbany Library Archives

In 1950, when future San Fransisco County Supervisor and gay rights activist Harvey Milk was still attending UAlbany, then the New York State College for Teachers at Albany, Congress was issued a report entitled “Employment of Homosexuals and Other Sex Perverts in Government” claiming homosexuality as a mental illness and stating it was a security risk to the nation.

Two years later homosexuality was added to The American Psychiatric Association’s diagnostic manual as a sociopathic personality disorder. That same year, President Harry S. Truman signed into law the Immigration Act, which banned homosexuals from immigrating to America. A year later in 1953 President Dwight D. Eisenhower banned homosexuals from working for the federal government.

The riots at Stonewall Inn in New York City, now considered the first pride, took place in 1969. The impromptu protest would be transformed the next year into marches for queer liberation.

The 70s were also the era where UAlbany’s first iteration of the Pride Alliance came into fruition. Formed in 1970 the club is now one of the school’s longest running student organizations on campus.

In 1974, three years before Milk was to be elected to his position, the first two lesbian women were elected to separate houses of office. Kathy Kozachenko held public office on the Ann Arbor, Michigan City Council, and Elaine Noble was elected as a Massachusetts state legislator.

In 1977, twenty-six years after graduating from UAlbany, Harvey Milk was elected county supervisor in San Francisco and became the third openly gay elected public official in the United States. While holding a seat on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors he introduced a gay rights ordinance protecting gays and lesbians from being fired from their jobs. Milk also lead a successful campaign against Proposition 6, an initiative forbidding homosexual teachers from teaching in California.

Just one year after this historic win Milk was assassinated along with Mayor George Moscone. Just months before, in June, Milk was able to witness the first time the Rainbow Flag was flown during the San Francisco Gay Freedom Parade. Since that fateful night a lot of progress has been made for LGBTQ individuals, here are some of the ups and downs of queer liberation that have occurred since 1978.

In 1987, homosexuality was completely removed from the APA list of mental disorders. In a time rife with AIDS panic and discrimination, Frank Kameny, who go his start in activism after being discharged from the U.S. Army in 1957 for being gay, managed to influence the APA to revoke their decision on the homophobic labeling.

In 1993, President Bill Clinton signed Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, a bill that allowed gay and lesbian people to serve in the military on the condition that they not speak of their sexuality.

Three years later President Clinton signs the Defense of Marriage Act into law that defined marriage as a legal union between one man and one woman and that no state is required to recognize a same-sex marriage from out of state.

In 2003, the Supreme Court decriminalized homosexuality in the decision with Lawrence v. Texas. When Illinois became the first state to decriminalize homosexuality in 1963, many states had followed suit until the country-wide ruling was enacted.

In 2009, a federal law passed called the Hate Crimes Prevention Act, a measure against bias crimes directed at or motivated by a victim's actual or perceived gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, or disability. This law was an expansion of the 1969 U.S. Federal Hate Crime Law.

In 2010, Don’t Ask Don’t Tell was repealed by President Barack Obama, so that queer people could serve openly in the military.

In 2015, The U.S. Supreme Court declared same-sex marriage legal in all 50 states with the ruling of Obergefell v. Hodges.

In 2020, the Supreme Court ruled that federal law protects LGBTQ workers from discrimination.

While this case is finally a win, discrimination still occurs in workplace environments and areas of adoption, housing, and healthcare. The high levels of inequality within both housing and healthcare access for LGBTQ individuals puts them in a particularly vulnerable position. Pride month is a time to celebrate the victories while also recognizing there is still a fight to be had.

In 2021, gay men are still not allowed to donate blood if they are sexually active. An archaic practice still in place since the AIDS epidemic in which queer people were heavily affected by the disease but were also heavily discriminated against for it.

While the pride flag flown at the capitol building and rainbow sidewalks are symbols of change it’s important to highlight the actions of grassroots activism that lead to national progress. As with everything, that change can begin locally, in the same place that Harvey Milk got his forged his career in activism , UAlbany.

“I've met so many queer leaders on campus, like Felix Simpson, Jae Rosenberg, Jake Evans, Gus Lovett, Simone Hassan-Bey, Kiara Goris, and many others. Those kinds of people are the people that I never would have imagined I would have the ability to meet unless I went to UAlbany,” said Ivan Kristhiane Daquial, UAlbany's Pride Alliance President.

The pull to a university with ties to such a historic gay activist may be clear for some, however some students such as Daquial believe the legacy is not honored or publicized enough to both prospective and current students.

“Orientation needs to heavily involve looking at the legacy of Harvey Milk, looking at the legacy of people that are still here, queer student leaders. And highlighting those not as queer scholars or queer leaders but as leaders,” said Daquial.

Although queer education and recognition are two areas thing that could be refined but on a deeper level, Daquial was worried about the University not properly serving their vulnerable LGBTQ students, specifically citing the lack of communication during the initial COVID-19 shut down in March 2020 that left queer students without many of the resources they enjoy while on campus, such as safe and stable housing.

“If I have one complaint about the university, it’s that they kicked everyone out on campus and they only gave 24 hours. Going home to houses that were not necessarily the most welcoming and accepting,” said Daquial.

Last semester UAlbany announced the addition of the Harvey House to its dorm offerings starting this fall. This residential hall specifically for LGBTQ individuals was made possible through the help of SA Director of Gender and Sexuality Concerns, Jake Evans. Named after Milk, the new housing hopes to provide a safe space for LGBTQ students and allies to live and learn.

“Now we have Harvey House, that's pretty awesome, the university does these things where they have all these resources but you're going to move into this dorm, and what happens next? What are you going to do for this community now? How are we going to protect them?” questioned Daquial.

“I'm very excited for the Harvey housing. I love seeing that we are creating this community, but I really hope to see drastic changes for queer experiences on campus,” he added.

In the area of making up for lax healthcare protection from federal sources, the Pride Alliance has hope for UAlbany’s tuition-fed programs, according to Daquial.

“I would love period products in all bathrooms, would love trans inclusive healthcare in CAPS,” said Daquial. “What I would really love to see is to encourage queer people, as scholars, as opposed to queer scholars.”

Last semester former Pride Alliance President Simone Hassan-Bey launched the Yoonhee Yoshi Kim Memorial Scholarship program for queer BIPOC students. This is one step the school has taken to encourage the LGBTQ community academically, in a way that was lead by queer scholars.

“The community that’s good for queer people is a community that queer people make,” said Daquial.


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