The gay rights campaigner on Levi’s, Pride, and visibility.
“If a bullet should ever enter my brain, may that bullet destroy every closet door.” Harvey Milk, the first openly gay politician to be elected in the US, once said. His assassination in the late 70s triggered a much needed conversation about gay rights in America, encouraging political and social reform in favour of the underrepresented LGBT+ community and helping to pave the way for many young gay men to acquire the acceptance they rightfully deserved.
Just four years after the assassination of Harvey Milk, San Fran founded brand Levi’s became the first corporate donor to help open the first AIDS clinic in the world. Since then, the brand has maintained its interest in supporting the LGBT+ community, today manifesting itself in the Pride Collection, a unique series of pieces released during Pride month, the proceeds of which are donated to the Harvey Milk Foundation, headed up by Milk’s nephew, Stuart Milk.
Focused on creating visibility for the gay community and providing education to young people with the aim to shift attitudes around homosexuality, the Harvey Milk Foundation is a non-profit organisation that continues to build on the foundation laid out by Harvey Milk himself.
Ahead of Pride celebrations ringing out around the world, we caught up with Stuart Milk and Levi’s Chief Merchandising Officer, Grant Barth, for a discussion on international equality, the evolution of Pride, and the Harvey Milk heritage.
Levi’s is a huge supporter of Pride, but there are quite a lot of other big companies that still aren’t doing anything for their LGBT+ community. Do you think that these companies have a social responsibility to support Pride?
Stuart: Well first of all, let me just point out that one of the really interesting histories of Levi’s is that they are an early corporate supporter of Pride. One of the great things on social media right now is that Levi’s posted a picture from 25 years ago of Levi’s marching the Pride parade. So you’re talking about someone who not just talks the talk but walks the walk, and I think that that is a great role model to have, and for the Harvey Milk legacy in particular, it’s important that we are partnered with an organisation and a company that has that type of history.
Levi’s also has a very big history of community engagement and involvement, so I would say yes, I think there is a social responsibility of corporations, not just for the LGBT community, but to the entire community that they operate in, and also where they sell their products. So even if they don’t have a facility or factory but they have consumers in a location, they should be supporting it. That is the difficult task sometimes for companies; how do we support a culture if the culture is not where we are in our home base? So San Francisco is a very unique place, and how many places around the world match San Francisco? So I think of the role model that Levis has set is a very high bar.
I think it’s important for companies to say, “Not only do we do things for social responsibility, but we also do it because it’s good for our bottom line.” Because, if you look at the messages whether it’s UKIP or the National Front, or people like Donald Trump, the message that they say is that we can’t spend our time on diversity and inclusion and be economically prosperous, and it’s the reverse that is true. It’s really only those that value diversity, have a diverse workforce, and don’t isolate out any of their potential customers or their potential target audiences. They are the ones who benefit economically as well, so that’s an important message, and one that companies sometimes do not like to put forward because they want to be seen as doing things for altruistic reasons, and I think today more than ever that it’s important that that message gets out there.
Do you think that if all of these companies actively pushed LGBT+ equality, there would be a greater opportunity to induce social change?
Stuart: Absolutely, you can just look at the difference, as an example, at Eastern Europe. So Budapest has pretty much no companies participating and have the oldest Pride of the former Soviet satellites, and Prague have the newest. I was at their first Pride which was 2010, and they had companies right off the bat. Their Pride is extremely successful, extremely well attended, and protesters are not even showing up. But in Budapest, the fact that there are no corporate supporters of Budapest Pride means that people do not relate. People don’t see the brands and the names and the companies that they either have products from or that they know people who work for, or that are in the stores that they shop in, and that makes a huge difference. My uncle would say that all the lies and myths about us get maintained unless there is visibility to break them down, and companies play a big role in doing that.
Grant, tell us a bit about the thought process behind this collection.
Grant: I think to build on what Stuart said, for us, first of all, being outwardly facing about our values and standing for inclusion and equality and LGBTQ rights and activism, came from a really pure place. It started from employees; it was very organic. It was literally over a discussion at lunchtime around a few T-shirts. We really wanted to create a give-back model where all of the revenues and the proceeds went to great causes. With everything we do, we really try to be a storyteller, so we do put a lot of heavy effort into storytelling, and we wanted to go deep into history, and we wanted to remind all generations of the journey that we’ve been in on, starting from Stonewall and then all of the events that were catalysts to change.
Some events were more positive than others, many times really heavy topics were brought up, you know, fighting stigma and our work being one of the first companies for AIDS advocacy, and being the first company that offered benefits to gay employees and their partners and family. So we wanted to remind people of our journey in history and at a time when we felt that some people just want to move on, but we felt it was good to just have a narrative, and that’s what we were really trying to record, and is at the core of the collection.
And how do you think that is expressed in the collection?
Grant: Somewhere on the product we actually have a timeline. So that was kind of our timeline where we highlighted the story that we’re telling. So, that will always be a part of the collection. It might be on the inside of a jacket or somewhere else on the product, it may not be always on the back of a T-shirt, but that’s always our kind of anchor point. We actually worked with the original starters of the AIDS quilt, and spoke with them. We were actually one of the companies who put forward quilt squares for the original quilt before it went to Washington, so there’s a lot of really deep, rich history that our design team had to go from.
Obviously this collection is launching alongside Pride. How do you think Pride has evolved over the years?
Stuart: So Pride looks very different depending on where you are. I just came back from Italy, and even though Italy is part of the European Union, and most people see it as an advanced Western country, because of some of the institutions that Italy surrounds there are no real rights advances, there is still no hate protection for the LGBT community, so I think that there is an element of Pride that we need to remember our history.
History doesn’t have to be hitting people over the head, but I’m not opposed to the fact that you’ve got big companies joining in on the bandwagon, I think that’s good. But I also think that it’s important that we teach history because we can go backwards, and we’ve got bullies in playgrounds and we’ve got bullies who have got microphones like in the White House – and you can print that! So it’s important that we teach people that yes, we’ve been called names before and we’ve not been included, but we risk going back unless we remember where we came from. Whether it’s in the news or it’s India who re-criminalised their LGBT community two years ago… and that’s a sixth of the world’s population who have gone backwards.
Speaking about Pride in the UK, some consider it to be more of a celebration rather than a march these days, but there are still signs of inequality in the UK. One of the things that stands out to me is how the UK has been trying to fight PrEP. Do you think that the LBGT community should be using Pride to speak up about those issues that are still apparent rather than using it as a celebration?
Stuart: Yeah, the educational component of Pride is paramount. Let me back track and say that the most important piece of Pride – whether it’s a celebration or a march – is that there will be some people who attend that Pride and for the first time in their life feel included, and that’s the most important piece, more important than anything else that we do. My first Pride, even though I hadn’t come out before it, it was the first time that I was in daylight and I saw people who I only saw in the bars, and I was like, “Oh my God, they have grey hair, I never imagined that they would have grey hair!” But you feel this tremendous sense of liberation and freedom and inclusion, and that piece doesn’t matter whether it’s a march or a celebration, and it doesn’t matter whether its Manchester, Liverpool or Shrewsbury. It’s all over the UK and they’re all different too.
You’re going to see young people who have been impacted including young people who might have had a lot of struggles personally. We still have – including in the UK and the US – LGBT youth who are four or five times more likely to be homeless, who are four times more likely to have suicidal ideations, so this is a very important component of Pride. The piece on working on important issues, like how do we not simply treat people who have HIV, but how to we stop? One of the things that is most discouraging to me is when I have a young person come up to me that met me two years ago, and say, “By the way, I seroconverted and I’m now on HIV medication.” I lost so many friends when I was in college during the early treatment of HIV, but that’s not the answer. The answer is preventing the transmission.
This is a battle that we still have worldwide even though we have PrEP in the US, we still have people who don’t realise the importance of preventing. So I think that there is always going to be an educational component, but I really think that if you look deep down the most important meaning of Pride is the impact that we have on the people who are attending for the first time in life. Silence equals death. That inability to remain silent is very important, and so early AIDS messages, early HIV and AIDS communities are rising up to fight the silence. That’s what people wanted, for us to be silent and go away, and it’s still important that – whether it is LGBT rights or immigrant rights, or whether it’s people with HIV – we can’t remain silent.
On a more positive note, what do you think the most amazing thing about Pride is?
Grant: I think it does empower the individual, it’s very personal. Every year you can’t compare it to the year prior. Everything changes so much, this could be a stronger voice for the trans community or whatever it is in today’s society. Everybody has an opinion. But what we’re feeling is that it does have to come down to a really deep personal reason or connection for being there. Either it is to celebrate or it’s to make a stand, or to make a protest against something, but everybody has to come with a very personal opinion.
Stuart: I go back, I agree with what Grant says and I would again restate that the unique element of the LGBT community is that we are one of the few minority communities who can put on a mask and hide who we are, and the visibility is the biggest piece. My uncle took those bullets, he gave his life because he wanted us to be visible, his main call was for us to come out, and that’s still our greatest risk. I’ve seen schools that have had amazing LGBT leaders, and the whole dynamic of the school changes, but then they graduate, and a new group comes in, and unless there’s someone willing to take that mantle then a whole school system can go back.
You can think of that in terms of a community or even a country. We can all go back and so that visibility piece is so critically important. So for me it’s the element of visibility that Pride offers. There will be people who will say, “Well wouldn’t it be great one day not to have a Pride March.” But for our particular community, that is not going to happen, because we’re always going to have the struggle of individuals having kitchen table conversations with their parents. How do we support them? How do we give them role models?
Germany recently legalised same sex marriage but I was actually quite overwhelmed when I saw the amount of countries that still don’t offer same-sex marriage, what is your opinion on that and what do you think needs to change in order for those countries to make that change?
Stuart: Well, it was young people who demanded marriage equality. So my friend, the Mayor of San Francisco at the time in 2004, Gavin Newsom, called me up and said, “Stuart, come down to city hall, I hear you’re in town, I’m going to start marrying people.” I said, “You don’t have the legal right to do it.” And he said, “Well, I’m going to do it anyway!” I asked him why because we didn’t have federal protection from employment and housing discrimination, we still had not accomplished basic rights. And Gavin said something really important to me, he said, “It goes with your uncle’s visibility message.” Marriage equality is visibility.
We have a wonderful German MP on the board of the Harvey Milk Foundation who was a big mover in the marriage equality debate. But there is a difference between a civil ceremony and a celebration. There is a tremendous visibility. I think you’re going to see more and more countries adding marriage equality. Italy has civil unions, but it’s not the same as marriage equality and they’re now asking for marriage equality. Germany was fine with civil unions for a long time because that was ahead of the curb, but I do think that marriage equality is one of the things that ‘usualises’ us even more.
So, yes, it is frustrating that there are only a couple of dozen countries but, you know, it’s still pretty big. When I was your age, marriage equality wasn’t even something we thought about, we just wanted to be able to live our lives in peace. I actually believe that my first – we would call each other lovers then, that was the name that we used – but we couldn’t even imagine marriage. This was a game changer, and it was young people who really demanded that, so if you look at countries – Spain, and then Portugal that follows very closely behind Spain – you have a church whose Cardinal fought a President of a country on marriage equality in Argentina, who did battle with her, and who is now a Pope… and who lost by a large margin. Argentina was one of the first countries to have marriage quality in South America, and it has been a huge success in many facets. So, I think that marriage equality is a game changer.
When you were working towards this collection, in the back of your mind, were you thinking about the global scale of what you wanted to achieve?
Grant: So my role oversees everything across the globe, and I have employees in every country in all of our markets, so we do seek out what is happening in those markets. Japan and Tokyo are really good examples. I’ve lived there, and even though there are gay men and women everywhere, no one talks about it at all. The out gay community is really quite small, so for the Japan team to take up the opportunity to really go out and meet face to face in cafes, bars, and places where young people were was really important. And I think that’s all they really did, they just went out with a narrative, gave some T-shirts away, and just sat down and talked to people. I think that’s what I’m really trying to instil, that this is an opportunity for everyone to get out and be their own internal activists.
Have you seen the Japan episode of Gaycation with Ellen Page – have you ever seen the show? There’s one part where a man invites his mum to his house and he comes out to his mum on camera. It was amazing, a really strong episode.
Grant: Did it have a good outcome?
She walked out and was really dismissive at first, but over the course of 10 minutes, she was ok.
Stuart: As Grant is saying, with the Asian culture, it’s kind of rude to even ask someone if they’re married. So talking about sexual orientation… it is a big barrier. There’s an openly gay mayor out in Tokyo, we did an event with him, but he doesn’t talk about it. I mean, he was asked, and he said, “Yes I am and we’re not going to talk about it.” What Grant was saying I think was that it’s very important for people to understand is that it doesn’t have to be a cinema event, it doesn’t have to be a huge campaign, it can just be giving out T-shirts and having a conversation and seeing where that society stand, and how we can move inclusion forward.
Tell me a little bit about the work that the Harvey Milk Foundation is doing at the minute.
Stuart: In the US we focus on Harvey Milk’s legacy, and so we’ve got streets… it’s so interesting, in just the past year, the main street in Salt Lake City, Utah, including the one that runs in front of the administration of the Mormon church, is now Harvey Milk Boulevard. Last year Levi’s joined us for the US navy ship Harvey Milk naming ceremony. So we have, for the first time ever, a navy ship that 2000 men and women will serve on, that is named after Harvey. It will be going to 37 ports where it’s still illegal or socially unacceptable to be LGBT, and this is from where Harvey was forced to resign – from the navy – because he was found out to be gay. We didn’t release that until after the naming ceremony. The navy secretary actually wanted me to petition to have his dishonourable discharge made honourable before the event, and I said, “No, the reality is that he was forced to resign because of who he is, and now the navy is celebrating him, and I think that’s more important.”
So we do this work domestically, we’ve got Harvey Milk days in California, but most of our work is global, and it’s global because we believe that none of us are free when people are not free everywhere. Even though we could have full rights in a country, or we could have full rights in a society, but when other people are suffering, or when other people are denied their rights, then we are all vulnerable. So we don’t actually do anything to help anyone, we go to help ourselves, and that’s our important message. So, most of the work that the Milk Foundation does is global. I just spoke at a dozen Italian schools run by the Catholic church, and that is one of the other elements of what we do. We believe that the change is going to happen from young people and that education plays a major role in that.
How did you find getting access to those schools?
Stuart:We’ve been working in Italy for about eight years now, and eight years ago the Chamber of Deputies which is their lower house, like your House of Commons, invited me to come and get an award, but they had never met an LGBT activist. So President Fini at the time, the President of the Chamber of Deputies, had this big ceremony, and of course we brought in the Italian activists. So we actually started that dialogue.
There is a door that opens – I’ve learnt this from the work that we’ve done with the Kennedy family – from being a family member of someone like Harvey. So even though Harvey was a gay activist and he was an openly gay elective official, the fact that he has been memorialised with the highest medal you can get in the US – the Medal of Freedom – and he’s in the hall of fame, and he’s got state recognition in California, that opens doors, and we can use that to gain access. So whether it’s Vietnam or Peru… I mean I’ve gotten the opportunity to speak in public schools all around the world, and at universities, and we also have built a reputation. We don’t do naming and shaming, we believe that sometimes you can attract more bees with honey than with vinegar, and so we’ve found a way that is not confrontational, that allows connections to be made, and so luckily when we do get a school that says, “We have a hesitation,” we usually can give them tonnes of references of schools, including those run by churches that are not supportive even today of LGBT rights, but that will say, “We may not believe in everything that Stuart is going to say, but there is nothing that he’s going to say that is going to challenge the basic elements of your faith.”
What is the response like from the kids that you speak to in those schools?
Stuart: The younger they are the better the response is, and that’s almost universal. The older they are, some of the messages that they have heard that are still out there, seem to penetrate. There have been incredible examples in Manchester, I went there in February, I went to a predominantly Muslim school, and they have a couple of schools that are segregated by sex which I didn’t know existed in public schools in the UK! After I spoke a young woman started crying. We always come in with a local partner in addition to LGBT History Month, it was The Proud Trust which does work in schools. I went over to her and she said, “Now all my friends know. I don’t have a family.” I said, “You don’t have a family?” And she said, “Well they are my family but they’re not going to relate to me because they don’t believe in who I am.” She took off her shirt and she had the Levi’s T-shirt on with the timeline, and she said, “This is what’s giving me the strength.” It was just this amazing moment. We hooked her up with a councillor from The Proud Trust, but the more amazing thing was that she had two girlfriends – again who wore headscarves – who came over to her and said, “We know about it and we love you.” They surrounded her and they held her, so this is the power of these types of collaborative.
To me, speaking to the young people is the most important thing that we can do. Another story from Manchester was leaving there to find a Facebook message from a 23-year-old teacher that said, “I’m going to come out to my class and to my headmaster.” I think people hearing the history and the struggle, and the importance of the visibility gives them that power. I remember this teacher so well because of how the kids loved him, and his fear was that the kids wouldn’t love him anymore if they knew he was gay. So talking to young people is critically important. I think the power that this collaboration showed me was the fact that all these young people came wearing their attire. Think about how powerful that is, because that was never one of the expected outcomes that we had of the Pride collection.
Obviously Harvey Milk put a huge mark on the LGBT+ community, but what is the mark that you want to leave behind?
Stuart: It’s not really personal to me. I just want people to know that they can be as courageous and as brave as my uncle by simply being visible in their own lives. They don’t have to be elected to public office, they don’t have to take bullets, they don’t have to march in a Pride parade in third world countries. If they simply change the hearts and minds of the people around them or support people who are different, they are going to be as heroic in my mind as my uncle. Hopefully the legacy of the Harvey Milk Foundation is that we empower everyday heroes, and I really do believe that it is those kitchen table conversations, or people in a board room who hear a xenophobic or a sexist joke and say, “You know that you’re impacting me because there is a correlation between homophobia and sexism and xenophobia.” Those are the heroes that we hope to nourish, that we hope to feel through the work of the foundation
Grant: What I’ve learnt is the history of our legacy. It’s 150 years old and it’s still relevant today. But I think it is giving that confidence to youth for me. There are still employees that ask, “How can I be myself but still rise in my career and do things and make change happen?” Be true to yourself, be outspoken, do good things, but always think about leaving a legacy behind and be someone that people can look up to. Hopefully that message continues to live on.