May 22, 1930– Harvey Milk, a middle-class Jewish guy from NYC, served in the US Navy during the Korean War and like so many other closeted gay people, he chose San Francisco in the 1970s as that place to open the door to his true self and be in the company of his tribe.
Listen up all you baby gays, there is a history lesson to be learned. Sit down and watch the remarkable Academy Award winning The Times Of Harvey Milk (1984), directed by Rob Epstein, narrated by Harvey Fierstein, with an original score by Mark Isham.
Also essential as a history lesson and an example of truly great filmmaking, you need to watch the powerful Oscar winning Milk (2008), directed by my good close personal friend, Portland’s own Gus Van Sant. Milk received eight Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture, winning two: Best Actor for Sean Penn and Best Original Screenplay for the delectable Dustin Lance Black. Milk conveys a strong moral principal in an extraordinarily potent and stylish way: “What matters is the fight, more than the outcome!” Black’s screenplay is very dense and well organized, following fastidious steps for bringing its message, at the same time respecting the historic chronology, always the perpetual dilemma of a biopic. With a stunning cast, including Josh Brolin, Emile Hirsh, Diego Luna and James Franco, the emotionally charged movie was the winner of The New York Film Critics Circle Best Picture Award for 2008. Van Sant has fashioned a film that is accessible to all, while approaching his subject with sharp focus and a singleness of purpose that is at once definitive and topical. A stunning achievement, Milk manages to make its point without ever being preachy or trite, while remaining as true to the facts as any film bio could ever hope to be, with a perfect cast and lovingly detailed direction.
Milk opens with vintage film clips of gay history that many young gays and especially straight people may be shocked to discover. Less than 40 years ago, gay men, lesbians and transgendered people were subjected to violence, harassment, physical abuse, arrest and humiliation by the very people who are supposed to offer protection for the citizens: the police and judicial authorities. Newsreel footage shows raids on gay bars that today seem bizarre and barbaric. Today’s young gays probably don’t realize that in the 1940s through 1970s, right here in the good old USA, homos were arrested for simply patronizing a gay bar. Those arrested had their names and employers published in the newspaper, leaving them jobless and unemployable, forever branded as a pervert.
Van Sant brings out Penn’s best performance ever with a warts-and-all portrait of a frail human with an idealistic bent and a politician’s savvy. Gay film fans can find a real sense of pride and purpose from seeing Milk, and straights can gain a better knowledge of just who gay people are, what they want, and why they still must fight for acceptance. Milk is a triumph and a must see film.
According to people who actually knew him, some of whom are friends of mine; Milk was no saint and not an easy man. He had a temper and a stubborn streak. But his sense of independence freed him from compromising party politics, allowing him to be controlled by his conscience rather than a debt owed to special interest groups. A true patriot, Milk had an absolute allegiance to The Declaration Of Independence and our Constitution. He brought a defiant defense of individual rights and individual participation in our political process. The gay political establishment in San Francisco pushed against Milk, the man and the idea. As an openly gay man, Milk knew that whoever holds the power, dictates the limits of our individuality.
“It takes no compromise to give people their rights…it takes no money to respect the individual. It takes no political deal to give people freedom. It takes no survey to remove repression.”
Milk was one of the true political pioneers of the 20th century. He was the first openly gay person to be elected to public office when he won his seat on the San Francisco Board Of Supervisors in 1978. Now, 36 years later, all 50 states have been served by an openly gay person elected official. My representative to the Oregon State House, Tina Kotek, lives in my neighborhood. Oregon is currently served by a popular openly bisexual Governor, Kate Brown, up for reelection and certain to win.
“Coming out is the most political thing you can do.”
Milk’s struggles and his successes show that there is really no such thing as a “Gay Agenda”, there is simply freedom for all Americans. His energy and his eloquent voice spoke for all minorities, all the voiceless citizens who are crushed in the American cultural conformity.
“All I ever seek is to open up a dialogue that involves all of us.”
People told Milk that no openly gay man could possibly win political office. Thankfully for all of us, Milk ignored them. He knew that emotional trauma of being in the closet was a gay person’s worst enemy, worse than the haters. That made the election of an openly gay person crucial, practically and symbolically.
“You gotta give them hope. Hope will never be silent.”
There was a time not all that long ago when it was impossible to imagine Harvey Milk. Most people, straight and gay, had to adjust to what he represented: a gay person could live their life with honesty and still succeed in this world. That revelation continues to this day as the rights of gay people move baby steps forward with Equality, and then a step backwards with Religious Freedom laws like the one passed in North Carolina and 20 other states. With every gay character on television and film, with each time POTUS mentions us, with full Marriage Equality in every state, with each politician of any party that embraces the rights of gays, and each state that adds Equal Protection laws, we find that unequivocal equality becomes unquestionable, and that is due in large part to Harvey Milk.
“If a bullet should enter my brain, let that bullet destroy every closet door.”
Tragically, an assassin’s bullet did silence Milk’s voice, but not his momentum. Milk would have celebrated his 86th birthday today.
I have a full sheet of USPS Harvey Milk stamps purchased on the first day that they were issued in April 2014. My talented husband framed them for me. I see Milk’s image every day. Calling slain civil rights hero Harvey Milk a “predator”, that charming Fundamentalist Christian organization, American Family Association (AFA), urged its members to refuse any mail postmarked with a Harvey Milk. They issued the following statement:
“Harvey Milk was a very disreputable man and used his charm and power to prey on young boys with emotional problems and drug addiction. He is the last person we should be featuring on a stamp.”
The fight is far from over. Today marks the seventh Harvey Milk Day, a legal holiday in California. How about a national holiday?