Vulnerability, Community, and Advancing the Legacy of Harvey Milk

May 22, is Harvey Milk Day!

Harvey Milk gained fame for becoming the first openly gay elected official in California, serving on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors before his assassination in 1978. His activism in San Francisco culminated in his defeat of the Briggs Initiative (California State Proposition 6), which would have banned anyone accused of “private or public homosexual activity” from teaching in public schools. After his murder, LGBTQ+ people worldwide honored Milk as a strong advocate for gay and lesbian rights.

Milk encouraged his gay friends and colleagues to come out when LGBTQ+ people were persecuted by individuals and by officials of the state. Courage and vulnerability were his keys to increased acceptance of the LGBTQ+ community.

As leaders in diversity, we encounter significant uncertainty and strive for the betterment of our organizations to deliver quality  LGBTQ+ services. Each day brings new challenges that test our stress and fortitude. New chances to improve our organizations and personal leadership through vulnerability.

Dr. Brené Brown defines vulnerability as uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure. It’s an area that can bring great amounts of shame and is a great disparity among LGBTQ+ populations, especially infused with burnout. Vulnerability is also the “birthplace for love, belonging, joy, courage, empathy and creativity” and Dr. Brown points out that we can’t ignore shame and vulnerability, but must build resilience with connections, engagement and bravery.

Create an Out List

The first step to doing this is to showcase your leaders. At UC Davis, we have an Out List where faculty, staff, students and alumni can post information about themselves and contact information. A list is the first step to increasing visibility in an organization through the stories and mentorship opportunities that come with networking leaders.

Provide Educational Opportunities

The Improving OUTcomes conference, blog, and resource lists are a hub to finding a vast number of articles, events and people that can educate both patients and professionals in areas of LGBTQ+ health, workforce development and leadership. Our blog discusses topics like gender pronouns, lesbian health and the purpose of gender inclusive bathrooms. For some, these might seem fundamental, and for others, this is a new language. And having these available for all makes it possible for us to learn and raise the standards of our communities.

Network Resources

It’s impossible for every health practitioner or organization to know every nuance of LGBTQ+ health. However, we can be both a resource and a reference by knowing how to disseminate resources to our audience and network with other experts.

Student and veteran populations move throughout the year, and while many cities and universities provide local resources, it’s important to link to other spaces that provide resources for when they travel away.

You can do this by knowing key hubs for connecting resources and keeping your websites updated with simple sitemaps that increase accessibility for online readers.

Engage Audiences

It’s not enough to build an online resource and expect people to utilize the page; you must actively understand and engage your audience. In Managing Public Relations, Drs. Jim Grunig and Todd Hunt examined the way we communicate, using one or two-way conversations that are either asymmetrical or symmetrical. We often talk about using two-way, symmetrical communications, unaware that we are not properly engaging our audiences. In fact, our method tends to be closer to propaganda since it lacks data-driven conversations that deliver mutual understanding and respect.

Dr. Brown points out that when we disengage, we are communicating betrayal and creating triggers for shame, fear, and feelings of abandonment. Audience engagement is not just social media or responding to questions, but also guiding people to the answers and resources they are searching for and connecting them to hubs of information that will fulfill their needs. We need to rehumanize our work by sharing resources that inspire people to access information.

Change Starts With Individuals

We honor leaders like Harvey Milk for their perseverance in the face of uncertainty and possible danger. While LGBTQ+ acceptance has come a long way since his death in 1978, we are far from the equity we desire. As we continue to increase capacity within our own institutions, we must remember our own humanity and vulnerability. And that can be stressful. This is why it is crucial to keep track of our emotions, watch out for burnout, and take care of ourselves and each other. This self-awareness is critical for our effectiveness as leaders.

Fearing assassination, Milk recorded a tape asking “for the movement to continue” in the event of his death. He recounted how he had been contacted by people all over the country who had told him he had given them hope. To be vulnerable, to engage with our networks, to dare greatly – this is what propels change that inspires future leaders and the betterment of our society.

175p Terry

Paul David Terry, MNA
Co-editor of the Improving OUTcomes website and blog

Shea Hazarian
Improving OUTcomes coordinator and co-editor of the Improving OUTcomes website and blog

Edward J. Callahan, PhD
Professor Emeritus of Family and Community Medicine
Chair, Vice Chancellor’s LGBTQ+ Advisory Council