For this evening my plan is to watch a double feature of The Times of Harvey Milk, the 1984 film by Rob Epstein and Richard Schmiechen that won an Oscar as best feature-length documentary, and Milk, the 2008 film by Gus Van Sant that won two Oscars for Sean Penn's passionate and evocative performance as Milk and for Dustin Lance Black's screenplay. I am performing this little ritual for my own benefit, as a small gesture towards commemorating what Harvey Milk has meant to me. I fully intend on having a good cry tonight--probably several good cries. Along with popcorn.
Had he not been shot and killed at age 48, Harvey Milk, America's first openly gay elected official, would have turned 80 today. It's pure conjecture, of course, but I suspect that he would have eventually become mayor of San Francisco and perhaps even governor of California--and then (here no doubt I am fantasizing) the first openly gay President of the United States. I suspect, too, with perhaps more reason, that, given even just another twenty years, Milk would have done much in the ongoing struggle for the recognition of the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgendered Americans beyond its current tortoise progress under the governance of overly cautious liberals and batshit crazy conservatives.
I only vaguely remember hearing about Milk's assassination in 1978, while I was finishing up my master's thesis at Marshall University. I came to know about the Milk legacy mainly through the 1984 movie, which came out just a year after I had come out of the closet to my father and mother.
I was about thirty when I decided to be altogether balls-to-the-wall open about my homosexuality. Milk was forty when he made a similar decision. Milk came out a year after the Stonewall riots in Greenwich Village, a few years before the American Psychiatric Association removed homosexual orientation from its list of mental illnesses. When he came out, police were still raiding gay bars. When I came out, AIDS was spreading its deathly shadow over gay life. The police were still harassing the clientele at gay bars (I have stories, oh yes), though not on as frequent a schedule or as large a scale as was practiced back in the fifties and sixties.
(Let us remind ourselves, as an aside, that it was not until 2003--in a US Supreme Court case argued the day after my fiftieth birthday and decided three months later--that state "sodomy" laws criminalizing private nonprocreative sex acts, including consensual homosexual behavior, were declared unconstitutional--lest we forget, that's how recently my and others' "emancipation" was proclaimed--and, lest we forget, our liberation was the decision of a very conservative court under a famously batshit crazy conservative President. Still, it remains to be seen if and when same-sex lovers will be allowed to marry and know that their marriage is recognized in every state and if and when sexual orientation will not be an issue in determining the status and honor of women and men serving in the US military.)
In my life, I have received twenty or more death threats on my message machine over the issue of my sexuality; have had the college where I worked threatened with violence for keeping me in its employ; have had the traffic police repeatedly pull my (at-the-time) boyfriend over, call him "nigger" (he's Irish), and body search him for no reason at all; have been thrown face down to the ground and kicked by the police as they arrested me (on a "disorderly conduct" charge that I successfully defended myself against in court--largely thanks to a number of straight bystanders, most strangers to me, willing to testify that the police attack was entirely unprovoked); have been discontinued from employment at a university for simply fundraising (on my own time) for AIDS charities; and, as a student, before I was even "out," was asked to leave a Christian college when the founder's son decided it was time for us to start seeing other people.
In 1976, the year I left the previously mentioned Christian college, my mother worked alongside Anita Bryant on the anti-gay Save Our Children campaign in Dade County, Florida. During this time, my mother asked me whether I was a homosexual. Cravenly, I said no. She then said that, if she ever heard that I was homosexual, she would personally put a bullet through my brain. Needless to say, the remark postponed my coming out to her--by about seven years, at a time when she was not in possession of a firearm.
A couple of years later, Dan White, who possessed a firearm, shot and killed Harvey Milk in his office in San Francisco.
I am not a victim. I detest the rhetoric of victimization. But it irks me to hear people speak of a "homosexual agenda" or to speak of lesbians, gays, bisexuals, and transgendered people as some all-powerful politically-correct cadre that threatens America's children and its deeply held values. The truth is, as recent history continues to show us, the children in America who are most threatened are those who are or are perceived to be lesbian or gay--witness Matthew Shepard, Lawrence King, Constance McMillen, and (for the foreseeable future) the list goes on. And the only values threatened by recognizing everybody's rights and granting equal protections and access to privileges are those of ignorance, cowardice, hate, and fear.
Last summer, Harvey Milk's nephew accepted, on behalf of his slain uncle, the Presidential Medal of Freedom from Barack Obama, and I think things are slowly getting better. In October, a year after vetoing the bill, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger signed a bill into law declaring May 22 to be Harvey Milk Day, a state holiday--evidence of the clout not only of Milk's legacy but of frilly, superficial "gay" things like Academy Awards.
Attitudes about homosexuality are changing--as indeed they slowly have been for the past forty years. Before she died, even my mother came to repent of her words to me in '76 and accept my boyfriend at the time as another son to her (the Irish one who kept seeing blue lights in the rearview mirror), if never exactly comfortable with the idea of him as my bedfellow.
Anyway, to quote Harvey Milk and give him the last word, as he no doubt would have insisted:
I know that you cannot live on hope alone, but without it, life is not worth living. And You... And You... And You... Gotta give em hope.