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Got Milk?

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Tuesday, May 22, is Harvey Milk Day, commemorating the openly gay City Supervisor who was assassinated (along with San Francisco Mayor George Moscone) by a fellow Council member in 1978. As the first openly gay elected official in the nation, Milk has become an icon and martyr for the gay community.

Milk famously told his gay and lesbian constituents that coming out is the most political thing they could do. Once they actually know us, he said, they won’t vote against us.

Less than forty years later, the President of the United States cites his experience of knowing and respecting gay and lesbian couples, both civilian and military, as what helped him evolve to a position of support for gay marriage.

It is difficult to overstate the importance of President Obama’s declaration of his support for marriage equality. It is a stunning milestone on the road to full and equal civil rights for America’s gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender citizens.

Much has been made of the President’s own admission that his views on marriage equality have been “evolving.” But this should come as no surprise to anyone who is honest about the process of change in attitude about such a social issue. As more and more men and women – and youth! – come out, attitudes in the general public toward gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people are changing – because when one actually knows someone gay, they are less willing to believe the derogatory things said about them, now understanding that such criticisms are untrue. Yes, the President, along with the rest of American society, has been “evolving.”

Still, there is no way to overstate the power and influence of such a personal evolution being articulated by the President of the United States. And the President told us how that evolution happened: knowing and respecting his own gay and lesbian staff members and military personnel who are faithfully loving their partners and responsibly raising families, exhibiting the best of family values.

Elected officials, including the President, can either merely try to manage the situations with which they are presented, calculating what is politically expedient, or they can lead. On this issue, President Obama has chosen to lead. Wherever Harvey Milk is, I think he must be smiling.

The Rt. Rev. V. Gene Robinson is Episcopal Bishop of New Hampshire.

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