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Since 2008, May 22 has been known in California as Harvey Milk Day, a chance for public schools to observe and discuss the LGBT civil rights movement and the slain gay leader, one of the first openly lesbian or gay politicians elected to public office.
But this year will be a little different. On May 22, the United States Postal Service will start to circulate a postage stamp featuring Milk, with an expected 30 million first-class stamps being printed showing the murdered San Francisco supervisor’s smiling likeness under a rainbow strip.
The stamp’s official launch is expected to be feted by President Barack Obama that day at the White House, more than seven years after a letter-writing campaign began to lobby the USPS’s Citizens’ Stamp Advisory Committee.
USPS spokesman Mark Saunders said White House stamp launches are a rare honor. More typically, a stamp launch occurs in a location or setting relevant to the person honored; because the White House wanted to participate, there will also be a second unveiling for the general public at San Francisco City Hall on May 28, he said. Several Milk relatives as well as prominent LGBT leaders are expected to attend.
“Growing up as a kid, we always had the presidents on stamps, sports heroes on stamps,’’ said Nicole Murray-Ramirez, a San Diego activist and retired drag performer who led the campaign for the stamp. “Our community has our civil rights icons too.”
Milk was shot to death in his office at San Francisco City Hall in 1978 by fellow supervisor Dan White, who also murdered the mayor, George Moscone. In 2008 actor Sean Penn won an Oscar for portraying him, and last year a street was named for him in San Diego — the first in the nation.
Gay people such as Cole Porter and Tennessee Williams have appeared on U.S.stamps, but none specifically for LGBT activism. The Milk stamp has been available for pre-order on the USPS website since late April, but the USPS doesn’t release sales figures at this stage, Saunders said.
Conservative groups are upset by the Milk postal honor. Save California, a group that has battled same-sex marriage and other gay-friendly policies since the 1990s, is protesting the stamp with a press release headlined “Postage stamp awarded to sexual anarchist and predator of teens.” The group, which did not return calls or emails for comment, called it a “shameful stamp” and that is emblematic of an “unnatural, unhealthy, tyrannical homosexual-bisexual-transsexual agenda.”
The criticism doesn’t faze Murray-Ramirez, who activated a network of drag performers known as the International Court System to push for the Milk stamp.
“I knew taking this on and getting this going that some people would let it be known how upset they are that this stamp is being issued,’’ he said. “That’s why it’s very symbolic."
Next up, Murray-Ramirez said, are letter-writing campaigns to honor other lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender heroes such as 1963 March on Washington organizer Bayard Rustin, tennis great Billie Jean King and activist Frank Kameny.
Murray-Ramirez, who helped organize the successful campaign to name a Navy ship for labor leader Cesar Chavez, said he’s also pushing for a ship honoring Milk, a Navy veteran.
Stamps have stirred controversy before, such as in the 1960s when the USPS issued its first Christmas stamp depicting Mary and the baby Jesus, according to Ken Martin, executive director of the American Philatelist Society. Some objected to Mother Teresa’s stamp turn because she wasn’t a U.S. citizen, Malcolm X because he was associated with violent protests and Walt Disney because his selection was seen as promoting a private business.
The only time Congress intervened to scotch a stamp, Martin said, was when the USPS was about to memorialize the 50th anniversary of the end of World War II with an image of a nuclear bomb’s mushroom cloud.
“Today we’re even more polarized, so I think lots of people have things in their past that are going to be controversial,” Martin said. “Some people think that’s great. It gives more attention to stamp collecting at a time when younger people are losing interest. I don’t think it’s necessarily bad when there’s a controversy.”
Among those excited are Paul Hennefeld, 81, and his husband, Blair O’Dell, 69, of Montclair, New Jersey. Hennefeld self-published the first and only known book on gays on stamps in 1981, a prehistoric time for gay causes. He was forced, then, to stretch a bit, including Greek gods like Achilles and Zeus and many public figures whose same-sex interests remain unconfirmed.
“We never would have imagined this,” said O’Dell, who spoke on behalf of Hennefeld because the elder man is in poor health. “It really is quite stunning.”