By: The David
If he had lived, had he not been assassinated, he would be 78 years old. He would have become an elder statesman for the GLBT Community. He may have become a politician recognized on a State-wide basis in California, and possibly on a National basis. He had come to San Francisco in 1972, and by 1978 was the first openly gay City Supervisor. He had lost three elections before attaining this office, but when the seat finally became his, he began to move toward the recognition and betterment of the gay men and women who had come west and took up residence in the Castro section of his adopted city.
Even before his actual election he had beamed a light on the practice the police had of ignoring assaults on gay men, and under-investigating their murders. It became impossible to pull business licenses away from store-owners merely because they were gay. He insisted on the maintenance of dignity for all people. This was the age of Anita Bryant, the singing orange juice salesperson who had used her celebrity to rally the population of Dade County in Florida to vote down what amounted to very basic gay rights.
In California, shortly after the Florida defeat for the homosexual community, Milk rallied the populous to fight an initiative that would have resulted in a witch-hunt whose aim was to fire every homosexual teacher and anyone who sympathized with them. Some considered it a miracle, but Milk considered it the result of “coming out.” He preached that all gay people should come out to their families and friends, and as much as was possible, to their employers. His thinking was that if everyone realized that they knew someone who was gay, that the gay person was their family member or their friend… then how could they use their vote to approve what amounted to no more than a hateful persecution. He was proven to be correct when the proposition was soundly defeated.
His agenda was not particularly fearsome when viewed by most of the population, yet it was scary for those who had difficulty dealing with change or progress. On looking back, one is struck by the fact that those who stood strongly in the path of the progress Harvey Milk was attempting to foster, were the religious zealots and members of the political right who still seem to resent and viciously fight any progress made today by GLBT people.
In November of 1978, Milk became a martyr to the gay community when he was assassinated in his office by former Supervisor Dan White, who had also murdered the progressive Mayor of San Francisco, the honorable George Moscone. For these two murders, Dan White pleaded guilty to Voluntary Manslaughter, using the bizarre defense that he was not responsible for the murders since he had existed on a diet of junk-food by which he had polluted his body and mind. This defense became known as the “twinkie defense” and it proved to be as successful as it was laughable. White served 5 years before his parole. Two years after his release, he was dead by his own hand.
In 1982Harvey Milk was memorialized by Randy Shilts a local reporter in his book “The Mayor of Castro Street.” In 1985, a documentary was filmed and released to great acclaim. It was called “The Times of Harvey Milk,” and in 1994 and opera called “Milk” was performed for the first time.
His name has stayed alive, but he has, as have so many heroes, receded into the halls of mythdom. But now comes the resurrection.
Gus Van Sant has finally been able to make and see the release of a biography of Harvey Milk, his film called simply; “Milk.” Sean Penn channels the San Francisco Supervisor in a way that is almost eerie. He resembles him physically, and for those of us who remember Mr. Milk primarily from the news, or from the documentary mentioned above, Penn grabs onto and projects Milk’s vocal inflections and his gestures.
Harvey Milk lives!
The film hurts. At the films end, I found myself sitting with my husband and my friends, sobbing in the darkened auditorium. I don’t as a rule, cry at movies, and let me tell you, this was no simple tearing up. I felt a real grief. I’ve tried to examine why I reacted that way.
I think, in part, it was remembering the early days of the struggle, and in part the realization that we are still fighting similar battles against similar homophobic bigots. The defeat of measures in California, Florida, Arkansas and Arizona prove that. A Constitutional Amendment that prohibits marriage or any state that might be considered “like marriage.” has passed in Florida, and now, in Gainesville, FL there is a proposal being entertained to strip gay people of any domestic partnership rights. If this proposal is successful, the thought is that the same kind of proposal will spread to other cities and towns in the state. In many ways it is like we have just been treading water, and that so many of the gains we have made are beginning to be lost. In the entire country, the Gay and Lesbian population is equal and enjoys full rights in only two states, Massachusetts and Connecticut. New York is close to joining them. So yes, that does indicate some progress.
But yet the overview is dismal. How do we get GLBT people to reject the status quo and settle for nothing short of a full plate at the table? I know that many will say we have to move cautiously and slowly, that we have to be model Queers and not offend anyone. Then maybe, just maybe we’ll be allowed to move ahead in a limited way.
I believe that is wrong. I do believe that coming out is essential. I believe what Milk believed, when our families and friends realize that they are close to a gay person, then it is harder for them to vote down the rights of that person.
I believe it is important that the young people understand how much has been done in the attempt to secure their rights, and how far there is yet to go. Those who have been beaten or ridiculed on their way to or from school, or while in the school itself know only too well, but those who have escaped such treatment may not.
Will this film bring about a renewed awareness within our community? One can hope so. Harvey Milk was not only a hero for his time, he was a man, flaws and all, who became a hero for our time, and for all time as well.