San Francisco Supervisor Harvey Milk, left, and Mayor George Moscone in 1977. (Associated Press)
San Francisco Supervisor Harvey Milk, left, and Mayor George Moscone. (Associated Press)

In a powerful 1978 speech celebrating the defeat of California’s Proposition 6, banning gays from teaching in the public schools, Harvey Milk, the openly gay member of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, urged other gay men and lesbians to come out. It would be an extension of a vast campaign to humanize the gay community.

So far, a lot of people joined us and rejected Proposition 6 and now we owe them something. We owe them to continue the education campaign that took place. We must destroy the myths, once and for all, shatter them. We must continue to speak out. And, most importantly, most importantly, every gay person must come out. As difficult as it is, you must tell your immediate family. You must tell your relatives. You must tell your friends, if indeed they are your friends. You must tell your neighbors. You must tell the people you work with. You must tell the people in the stores you shop in. Once they realize that we are indeed their children, that we are indeed everywhere, every myth, every lie, every innuendo will be destroyed once and for all.

Nearly 35 years later, we are seeing the incredible impact of those words.

Will Portman came out to his family two years ago. That his father is Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio), a powerful establishment Republican who has anti-gay votes and rhetoric in his past, makes what Will did all the more brave. But Will’s action and his father’s reaction — coming out in favor of same-sex marriage — is one of two examples of the power of coming out in the last few days.

Today, The Post-ABC News poll reports that support for marriage equality is at 58 percent. That’s an all-time high. Republicans remain firmly against it (59 percent) and Republicans older than 65 really are against it (68 percent). But 52 percent of the GOP age 18 to 45 support same-sex marriage.

“Public attitudes toward gay marriage are a mirror image of what they were a decade ago,” writes Jon Cohen, director of polling at Capital Insight, the independent polling group of Washington Post Media, “in 2003, 37 percent favored gay nuptials, and 55 percent opposed them.” Also, “Fully 62 percent of Americans now say being gay is just the way some people are, not something people choose to be,” Cohen points out.

These are remarkable statistics because gay people like Will Portman had the courage to be honest with themselves and their families. This turnaround is also due to straight people being moved to acceptance by relatives, friends, neighbors and anyone else capable of opening their eyes to the fight for equality by gays. As Milk so poignantly said, “Once they realize that we are indeed their children, that we are indeed everywhere, every myth, every lie, every innuendo will be destroyed once and for all.”

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Jonathan Capehart is a member of the Post editorial board and writes about politics and social issues for the PostPartisan blog.