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Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Momentum builds for Harvey Milk stamp

By Matthew S. Bajko -
Jim Leff’s painting of a Harvey Milk stamp. Photo: Courtesy Jim Leff
Jim Leff’s painting of a Harvey Milk stamp.
An advisory panel tasked with determining whom, or what, to commemorate with U.S. postage stamps is considering the late gay Supervisor Harvey Milk for such an honor, the Bay Area Reporter has learned.

This fall the Citizens’ Stamp Advisory Committee contacted Milk’s family to gather more information about the San Francisco politician, who in November 1977 became the first out person to be elected to public office in a major U.S. city. A year later disgruntled former Supervisor Dan White gunned him down in City Hall along with then-Mayor George Moscone.

The committee also notified the Harvey Milk National Stamp Campaign that it was looking at issuing a Milk stamp at some point.

"We received official communication from the postal commission that he is under consideration," said San Diego resident Nicole Murray-Ramirez, who chairs the national Milk stamp campaign. "It could be in 2013 or 2014."

Milk’s openly gay nephew, Stuart Milk, told the B.A.R. that his family has been asked by postal officials about upcoming significant milestones that the issuance of a Milk stamp could commemorate. November 8, 2012 would mark the 35th anniversary of Milk’s historic electoral win, while May 22, 2015 would coincide with Milk’s 85th birthday.

"I can tell you that the family has been told that stamps are issued around major milestones for an individual getting a stamp. The query that came in was records indicate he would be 82 [in 2011], which is not a milestone," said Stuart Milk in a recent interview. "I think, personally, without it being officially communicated to me, but we will see a stamp once a milestone is agreed upon."

Neither Jean Picker Firstenberg, who chairs the stamp advisory panel, nor vice chair Ira Michael Heyman, a former UC Berkeley chancellor who chairs the stamp panel’s subject subcommittee, responded to requests for comment this week.

U.S. Postal Service spokesman Roy Betts told the B.A.R. he was unfamiliar with whom the stamp panel has contacted regarding its deliberations for future stamp subjects. But he said if the Milk family and stamp campaign had heard from the panel, then that was a positive sign.

"If they have received notification from the Citizens’ Stamp Advisory Committee that the subject is under consideration, it is a positive step in the direction of the stamp being issued," said Betts.

Momentum for a Milk stamp has been building since the B.A.R. first reported in March 2009 that Ohio resident Daniel Drent had created a Facebook page in an effort to see one be issued in time for Milk’s 80th birthday this past May 22. As of this week, nearly 14,000 people had signed on to the online group, though the page appears to be dormant.

A Milk stamp idea has been kicking around since the late 1980s, when San Francisco artist Jim Leff, a gay man who knew Milk, painted a mock-up of what such a stamp could look like. In 2005 San Francisco’s 11-member Board of Supervisors unanimously passed a resolution calling on the U.S. postmaster general to issue one for the gay rights leader.

After the B.A.R. interviewed Leff and ran a photo of his Milk stamp in April 2009, the Imperial Court Council picked up the cause at the behest of Murray-Ramirez, who serves on his city’s Human Relations Commission and is on the board of the Harvey B. Milk Foundation. Known as Nicole the Great within the Imperial Court System, Murray-Ramirez is executive director and international spokesperson of the International Court Council.

The Milk foundation signed on as a supporter of the national stamp campaign, and Stuart Milk serves as an honorary chair. Other honorary chairs include former Milk confidante Cleve Jones; National Gay and Lesbian Task Force Executive Director Rea Carey; Los Angeles Gay and Lesbian Center CEO Lorri Jean; the Reverend Troy Perry, who started the Metropolitan Community Church; openly gay state Senator Mark Leno (D-San Francisco); openly gay state Assembly Speaker John A. Perez (D-Los Angeles); and Dustin Lance Black, who won an Oscar for his Milk biopic screenplay.

In addition to reaching out to LGBT people across the country, the Milk stamp campaign has enlisted bipartisan support from elected leaders throughout the U.S. Both openly gay Democratic New York state Senator Tom Duane and Republican San Diego County District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis, an out lesbian, have sent in letters backing a Milk stamp.

In her letter to the stamp advisory committee, dated June 18, 2010, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) called Milk "a San Francisco hero" who continues to inspire people the world over. She urged the panel to make Milk the first person to be recognized for their work on LGBT rights with a stamp.

"The United States Postal Service has yet to honor an LGBT American hero with a stamp, commemorating the life and efforts of Harvey Milk would be a testament to Harvey’s courage and a symbol of pride to anyone who has ever felt discrimination or cared about those who have," wrote Pelosi.

New Jersey’s two Democratic U.S. senators, Robert Menendez and Frank Lautenberg, both wrote letters in support of a Milk stamp. Other elected leaders who have sent in letters include Congressman Bob Filner (D-San Diego), outgoing Colorado state Representative Joel Judd (D-Denver), and Republican San Diego Mayor Jerry Sanders, who has a lesbian daughter.

Lautenberg, in his letter dated November 19, 2010, wrote that, "Mr. Milk’s courageous devotion to LGBT civil rights will serve as a proud reminder of the dedication to justice and equality that has come to define our nation. Harvey Milk left an indelible impression upon history, one that is certainly deserving of consideration for a commemorative stamp."

In his letter urging the creation of a Milk stamp, dated August 10, 2010, Phoenix Mayor Phil Gordon, a Democrat, noted that California already has honored Milk with an unofficial state holiday every May 22, which was his birthday, and that President Barack Obama in 2009 posthumously awarded Milk a Presidential Medal of Freedom.

"Harvey Milk is revered nationally and globally as a pioneer of the LGBT civil rights movement for his exceptional leadership and dedication to equal rights," wrote Gordon, who urged the stamp panel to "soon" issue a Milk stamp.

It is unclear exactly how many letters the stamp advisory committee has received in support of a Milk stamp. The postal service’s Betts said he didn’t know.

Nor did Murray-Ramirez, who said the national campaign group is continuing to urge people to write in letters of support.

"The feedback we have gotten is they are very impressed so many handwritten letters have been sent," he said. "The last couple of years or more there has been a constant flow of letters from all over the United States."

This week, Tuesday, December 28, the postal service announced the commemorative stamps that have been approved for release in 2011. Among the list are ones honoring former California governor and President Ronald Reagan; famed author Mark Twain; the 150th anniversary of the Civil War; the 50th anniversary of America’s first manned spaceflight; and the 100th anniversary of the Indianapolis 500-mile auto race.

As for the 2012 selections, Betts said he would not know what the advisory panel has decided until next August.

"Usually, that is when our stamp services department starts to share the info with me," he said. "The Citizens’ Stamp Advisory Committee will receive tens of thousands of suggestions for stamp subjects. They narrow that down to 20 to 25 subjects annually and recommend those subjects to the postmaster general, who makes the final decision."

Of the 12 stamp selection criteria listed on the stamp advisory panel’s website, two would appear to directly apply to a Milk stamp. One states that events of historical significance shall be considered for commemoration "only on anniversaries in multiples of 50 years."

The other specifies that only people with "widespread national appeal and significance" will be considered. Those fitting this description would be people "who have overcome great challenges or active discrimination to enter a field or accomplish an aim and thus created opportunities thereafter for others similarly situated."

Supporters of various stamps can wait a decade or longer before their selection is approved, said Betts, such as backers of a stamp honoring Motown star Marvin Gaye, who died in 1984.

"They’ve been waiting well over a decade. There are other subjects that people have been waiting quite a number of years for," he said.

For more info on how to send the stamp panel a letter urging it to commemorate Milk, and to see copies of letters already sent in by various politicians and local groups, visit


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