As a student of Harvey Milk, it makes absolute sense that Ireland is voting on marriage equality today, May 22. Today would have been Harvey’s 85th birthday. Today is the 6th annual Harvey Milk Day in California, a day dedicated to the first openly gay man to run for major public office in the United States and win… at the ballot box. As the citizens of Ireland head to the polls today, the parallels between what’s happening there and what happened in California in 1977 are tangible—the Irish government may not have been aware of the significance of May 22 when they chose the date, but in doing so, they’ve drawn an accurate, powerful parallel.
When Harvey was running for political office, homophobia was a force so strong within society that it hardly warranted questioning. Openly gay, he wouldn’t have won his seat without the unlikely alliances he forged. By reaching out to real people on the ground, by meeting with voters face-to-face and addressing their concerns and their interests, Harvey was able to find common ground with folks like firefighters, seniors and union workers. “Unless you open the walls of dialogue,” he once said, “you can never reach to change people’s opinions.” By starting a frank, personal dialogue, Harvey was able to gain support from groups never before seen as particularly pro-gay, and he won at the ballot box in this far more homophobic time.
In Ireland, support for marriage equality has also come from unexpected corners. Not only does it have the backing of all major political parties across the spectrum, it also has advocates in big business, in major charities, in the Islamic Center of Ireland, in Dr. Paul Colton, the Anglican Bishop of Cork, and in the Irish Congress of Trade Unions. As with Harvey, such widespread support hasn’t come from theoretical legal or philosophical arguments; it’s come from personal interactions and personal stories. In a tight-knit community like Ireland, the power of personal relationships are keenly felt. When it’s family members, friends, and neighbors asking for recognition of the legitimacy of their love, a vote on equality becomes less a matter of politics or religion—it becomes one of a shared humanity.
Today in California, May 22 is a day when students learn about the life and work of Harvey Milk. It’s a day when young LGBT students are taught that they are capable of greatness, that to be LGBT does not mean that their future needs to be “less than” those of their straight peers. Now, thanks to so much hard work in Ireland, I feel certain future generations of young people will mark May 22 as the day they too knew their love was equal in the eyes of their nation.
The time I’ve spent in Ireland, the people I’ve met who are working so hard to bring about the right result today, have inspired me. Now I urge our LGBT brothers and sisters in Ireland to get to the polls, to bring their friends and family and neighbors with them, and to vote YES for equality. Because when they do, I feel sure that they will liberate the dreams of LGBT people in places like Dublin and Galway and Kilkenny, and send a powerful message to those in other nations still fighting for their own May 22. As Harvey said in 1978, “The only thing they have to look forward to is hope. And you have to give them hope.”
Give them hope today Ireland. I know you will.