In 2009, California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger officially designated May 22 as Harvey Milk Day––even though the year before he vetoed the measure. What changed? “Milk has become much more of a symbol of the gay community,” explained Schwarzenegger’s spokesperson Aaron McLear, citing the award-winning film Milk and President Obama’s posthumous Presidential Medal of Freedom as reasons for Schwarzenegger’s change of heart.
Today Gus Van Sant’s powerful portrait of the slain gay San Francisco leader still resonates as a profile in courage and a blueprint for social change. Sean Penn––who won an Academy Award for his performance––brilliantly embodies the passion, humor, and humanity of Harvey Milk. In our unsettled political times, the role of citizen-fueled resistance movements is greater than ever. In honor of this gay rights hero––and as part of Focus Features’ 15th anniversary celebration––we look at six powerful lessons modern-day activists can take away from Milk.