Gay rights groups in N.Y. suburbs honor slain activist Milk
NEW YORK - When Harvey Milk attended high school in suburban Long Island in the 1940s, and later taught math and history and coached basketball there, he kept his sexuality a well-guarded secret.
"Like most men of his generation," biographer Randy Shilts wrote in "The Mayor of Castro Street," "Milk assiduously stuck to the double life he had carefully followed since his high school days."
More than half a century later, the Long Island Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgender Services Network will honor the slain gay-rights activist posthumously to draw attention to gays and lesbians with small-town roots. Milk's nephew, Stuart Milk, will accept the award for his uncle today.
"Things have changed dramatically since the late 1940s when Harvey Milk graduated from high school," said David Kilmnick, founder of the network of three organizations. "But there's a lot more to be done."
Milk, the focus of renewed attention this year when the biographical film "Milk" won two Oscars, became one of the country's first openly gay elected officials when he was elected to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors in 1977.
In November 1978, Milk and San Francisco Mayor George Moscone were fatally shot by Dan White, a disgruntled former city supervisor. Milk was 48.
Since the days when Milk was growing up in the shadow of New York City, there's no question that life for gay men and women on Long Island, home to more than 2.8 million people, has improved in many ways.
Many gays and lesbians say they feel comfortable enough to live openly. Still, they add, not everyone welcomes that openness.
During his senior year at Bay Shore High School, which counts Milk among its alumni, Erik Normandin came out.
"Everyone was pretty much OK with it," the 18-year-old recalled, except his former girlfriend's family. "They told me it was disgusting," said Normandin, who graduated in 2008.
Since then, Normandin has had no qualms about holding another guy's hand at the mall or on the street, but the manager of a restaurant that markets itself as a family establishment once asked him to stop or leave, and a customer complained. "I'm very surprised how many people on Long Island are accepting of it," Normandin said. "I thought they'd have more resistance."
Normandin didn't rule out settling in Long Island after college but he was unsure whether his career goal of working in stage lighting and design will take him elsewhere.
One of the goals of Kilmnick's organization is to get Normandin and other suburban and rural gays and lesbians to live openly gay lives and create friendlier environments in their hometowns, rather than flock to gay meccas like New York, San Francisco, and Atlanta.