Like many ACLU members and activists no doubt, I’m very excited about the opening of Gus Van Sant’s new film Milk this week. It follows the final years in the life of a pioneer in the gay rights movement, Harvey Bernard Milk. When Harvey was elected to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors in 1977 (on his fourth try for public office no less), he became the first openly gay man elected to a major public office in America. Today, it’s hard to believe that such an important milestone for gay and lesbian people happened a mere three decades ago.
On the board, Harvey was a powerful and committed champion for social justice. He helped lead the charge in pushing passage of a citywide ordinance that protected people from losing their jobs because of their sexual orientation. Harvey recognized how important it was to create an environment where people could come out of the closet and begin to breakdown the stereotypes and fears that were a pervasive presence in our society at that time in America.
One of the most impressive victories Harvey was ever involved with came in 1978 against a statewide referendum known as the Briggs Initiative (so named for the state senator who sponsored it) or Proposition 6, which sought to mandate the firing of openly gay and lesbian teachers, as well as any public school employee who voiced support for the cause of equality for gay and lesbian people. Harvey challenged State Senator Briggs on the merits of this nakedly discriminatory effort in a series of debates (and in my humble opinion totally smoked him!). On election night, the referendum was defeated by more than a million votes! This was a landmark victory for the gay rights movement.In the context of the recent passage of Proposition 8 in California, this can seem like a bittersweet victory of yesterday.
An assassin’s bullet would take Harvey’s life (and that of San Francisco Mayor George Moscone) weeks after the defeat of the Briggs Initiative. This tragic event captured headlines around the country, but is not what I want to focus on today, for while Harvey’s life was ended far too soon, his inspiration and the path for equality he helped to forge have had a lasting impact. Rob Epstein, the director of the 1985 Academy Award-winning documentary, The Times of Harvey Milk wrote the other day:
In light of the passage of Proposition 8, Harvey’s message of thirty years ago remains as vital today as it was then. It is our responsibility to let our loved ones, co-workers, friends, and neighbors know who we are, so that those who vote in favor of discrimination have our names and faces in their minds eye when doing so.
As someone who was not even born until 1982, I have no direct experiences related to Harvey or what it was like to be gay or lesbian and pushing the movement for equality forward in the late 1970s. I first became aware of Harvey and his remarkable story when I was in college. Coming to terms with and embracing my own sexual orientation, Harvey quite simply made me feel proud in the history of those who came before me and made it just that much easier to come out without having to live in fear.
Make no mistake, while the passage of Proposition 8 is something that gay and lesbian people as well as all who care about civil rights from across the country should speak out against, we as a community have made remarkable progress and the tide of history is overwhelming on our side. Don’t despair. The struggle continues. As ACLU members and activists, I’m sure I don’t need to tell you to get off the sidelines and get involved.
It is that spirit of pride in our community and a connection to our history as LGBT citizens that I hope this new film will leave viewers with. All who value equality and justice and fight for it every day owe Harvey Milk a debt of thanks. Thanks Harvey for still being a source of inspiration to me and all who fight today.