Yesterday afternoon I was invited by Levi’s to meet an icon of LGBT campaigning; Stuart Milk. As Stuart explained to me, his surname is very uncommon so it may resonate with you also: he is the nephew of the visionary San Franciscan politician and LGB (the T and Q had not yet been intorduced into the acronym) campaigner Harvey Milk who transformed the lives of millions of gay, lesbian and bisexual people throughout the 1970s. As co-founder of the Harvey Milk Foundation which champions and helps transforms the lives of many men and women in countries which have a poor track record of LGBTQ rights, Stuart had flown to London to promote the Levi’s LGBT Pride Collection. The collection consists of jeans, jackets, t-shirts and accessories adorned with emblems and logos resonating with the famous rainbow flag and as well as the foundation with a proportion of the proceeds benefiting his foundation which started in 2009. I sat down with Stuart to talk style, campaigning and what it means to be LGBTQ in the 21st century.
LSoD: You have just come back from Baltic Pride; how was that experience?
Stuart Milk: It was thrilling and progressive this year. As the region does not have a great track record of LGBTQ rights, we have been working with them for 5 years and the national government and city government has always tried to stop the pride parade and march but this year it didn’t happen.
LSoD: So you will be attending Pride in London this weekend?
SM: We don’t usually do the big successful prides as our work takes us to the less progressive ones, however with the Levi’s collaboration it was a big no brainer. We have an amazing Levi’s float which you are the first person to see the mock up! I love it it is really cool. It will probably out do San Francisco this year.
LSoD: Why are collaboration such as these so important?
SM: One is that it is a really good fit for the Harvey Milk Foundation, as we have had other brands approach us but they are not great fits for many reasons. Firstly Levi’s is San Francisco based and there is a nice connection with Levi Strausse himself. The brand was out front first internally supporting LGBT colleagues and then supporting the community outside and using a global brand to promote that is very important. Coming back from Baltic Pride where it is seen that supporting minority groups does not make economic sense however this partnership gives gravitas and sends an important message that it is an important thing to do as well as being good for business.
LSoD: What is the main objectives of the Harvey Milk Foundation?
SM: The Milk Foundation was really founded with the help of Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the Nobel Peace Prize winner, who approached me at a White House dinner and challenged me to do more formally with my uncles legacy. Along side the other co-founder and my uncles campaign manager Anne Kronenburg the focus is on the global emerging and struggling LGBT communities and I would love to tell you we don’t have much work on the horizon but unfortunately we have a tremendous amount of work to do. We have this whole darkness east of Istanbul where 75% of the worlds population live, and with 72 countries where is illegal to be LGBT and 12 of those it is punishable by death; we had India go backwards when they re-criminalised their LGBT rights so a twelfth of the words population went backwards and your very existence is illegal. There are a pockets of hope such as Vietnam where they are hoping for marriage equality very soon and we have been to Hanoi and Ho Chi Min City which is progressive and of course Israel which has a great track record of LBGT support but for the most part it is really dark with honour killings in Turkey. There is a lot of work to do, even in Europe with the rise of the ultra nationalists. They may say that they are only against immigrants but as my uncle would say, “they have a shopping list”, meaning they have more on their agenda which often includes the LGBT community.
LSoD: Your foundation and your uncle has inspired millions of people but who inspires you?
SM: I am really inspired by the local activists that we work with around the world. There was one in Hungary who I wrote about for the Huffington Post but this one is more recent story from Lima, Peru.
So we did an event as there are no rights or recognition for the LGBT community and the only one openly gay politician Congressman Bruce took me there to give me an award. It was the highest award they have called the Diploma of Human Rights and then that day it was timed for the vote on civil union but as it was voted down I gave them back the award and planned a march from Congress to Liberty Plaza which the press were very critical over my giving it back and the fact we were marching. Then they turned to a young guy in the crowd called Cezar and asked, “are you here to support the gay people?” to which he replied “yes”. They asked why and he responded with “it’s the right thing to do” to which they then asked “are you gay?” He paused for a moment and said “yes” and as quick as a flash they asked when he came out. He paused and said, “just now. Hi mum. Hi Dad” which then became the story of the day and carried over. It was a very brave thing to go as his mother was very strict, tied to the Catholic church and had made a lot of homophobic remarks and actively encouraged the family to do so also. So we put him up the front of the march and learned how homophobic his family were towards him, partially his calling him names. His uncle saw him on the march and called his mother and said her son was a faggot (but in Peruvian) and was on the march. So at the end of the march we saw a woman approach Cezar, crying and it turned out it was his mother who had found her way down to embrace him whilst saying; “everything I have told you is wrong. I love you; you are perfect, ignore everything I have said”. They cried and embraced which again made the national press and became the lead story.
That alone made more progress than me and Congressman Bruce could ever do as it humanised the story. People can understand that a mother wants to love their kid, with a lot of backstory work by the press and making him visible really moved Peru ahead. Those are some of my heroes. They are the everyday people who are staying in those countries doing the real work in taking things forward and standing up for their self and beliefs.
LSoD: Do you find that these stories are becoming more regular or only occasional?
SM: Where we are seeing society progress we are seeing more and more of these stories however I expect at Pride this week there will be a bunch of young people, perhaps growing up here in London expecting a support system for them to enable them to be visible and help them come to terms with their sexuality. They will come out and see this fabulous grouping of people who are not only LGTB but supporters, faith groups, business likes Levi’s out there where they may want to work one day and think they can take of this mask I have been wearing and can come out. In places such as New York and San Francisco there is still the statistic that LGBT people are ten times more likely to commit suicide or become homeless because of their sexuality whether by force or choice. No matter how much we are still included we are still a minority. With the Orlando tragedy, what made it more tragic was that not only was it against an LGBT community but also a Latin one (it was a Latin themed night) which is a demographic who struggle with their sexual identity more so than others so we have work to do around the world, including at home in the USA.
LSoD: Lastly, what is your favourite piece from the collection?
SM: I love it all! It is a superb collection but the pinnacle is the Pride Trucker Jacket. It has my uncles quote on the back, “Hope Will Never be Silent”, which is very emotional every time I read it.
If you are attending Pride in London tomorrow, the Levi’s float will be part of the famous parade from 1pm. Please check the official website for route details. It goes without saying, have a safe and happy Pride and make sure you check out the Levi’s collection here.