Sunday, January 18, 2009

Harvey Milk, Prop8, and us

We went to see the film MILK last night.  As has been noted by many others, how we wish this film had been released last summer, or the fall before the election.  Even so it gives us important lessons and ruminations about Milk the man, our community, and our ongoing struggle.

The GLBT community has a memory problem;  how many GLBT outside of those of us in California knew who Harvey Milk was, before this film?  Every civil rights struggle has a leader who is remembered:  Susan B Anthony and the women's suffrage movement;  Caesar Chavez and the migrant farmworkers;  and of course the great Dr King and the epic struggle for black equality.    Yet we have forgotten Harvey Milk, the first openly gay man elected to major public office in the US.  And, as they say, those who forget history are destined to repeat it.

In 1978, the Briggs Initiative (proposition 6) was all too familiar:  an unholy alliance of out-of-state interests (Anita Bryant), Christian conservatives, and opposition to gay rights.  The Briggs Initiative would have banned gay teachers and those who spoke to support them from teaching in California's public schools.  This Draconian measure was leading in the polls, horrifying though it was.

The liberal establishment, though opposed to Briggs, wanted to play a safe campaign based on "privacy" and "equality,"  with no actual gay people.  (Sound familiar?)  Harvey Milk saw this as a disaster, and insisted that the gay folks be front and center and OUT in the campaign.  Against the odds, the Briggs Initiative went down, as described in the film.  Oh, if only it had released sooner!  The parallels are so striking.

But thirty years later, all those lessons were forgotten with Proposition 8.  The establishment "No on 8" campaign played it safe;  "tolerance" and "equality" but no actual gay people.  And we lost, despite our initial lead.  

We all know that the campaign made bad decisions, stupid in hindsight.  But we have to also acknowledge OUR role in this.  WE failed too.  We fell into the comfortable zone where we simply wrote the checks and let others do the work.  I know my wife and I did not walk our neighborhood, despite knowing that many people were friendly.  But there were some "Yes on 8" stickers.  Middle class lesbians who "pass," we were afraid that we, our kids, or our house would become targets of hate.

There was no Harvey Milk exhorting us, insisting that we had to fling open the door, that we had to demand our rights and not let others do the work for us, that it would be so much harder for them to vote against us if they knew just one of us.  We have no Harvey Milk.  No leader has stepped forward to fill his shoes in the last thirty years, and as a result, the movement is sporadic, divided.

So we must each BE Harvey Milk ourselves, and consciously think,  "what would Harvey do?"  to keep our momentum in the post-Prop8 world.  All of us own this responsibility.  If we don't do it for ourselves, each GLBT person, we can't expect our straight friends and allies to join us.  We must participate in the marches and the elections and the outreach and the grassroots.  It's what he would have insisted we do.  

"My name is Harvey Milk, and I'm here to recruit you!"

Cross posted at DailyKos and at TPMcafe


JCF said...

Outstanding entry, IT.

Anonymous said...

Thanks, JCF. At least one person read it!

have you seen Milk yet? It was phenomenal. Of course, I grew up in the Bay Area and was 16 when it all happened...I remember it vividly. The actual news footage they used, I remembered too. And I remembered the voices of the local reporters.... I sobbed.


JCF said...

I'll see it week-after-next in Lansing . . . IF it hasn't left already! :-0

IT, go here, and scroll down to 575 Castro St. (a short film, debuting at Sundance). It's very simple, but I think you'll like it.

Wormwood's Doxy said...

Dear Friend and I saw it before Christmas. It was stunning...

So, IT---when are you going to "come out" in the blogosphere? ;-)

All kidding aside, I do think Harvey Milk was right. It is knowing gay and lesbian people that makes people change their minds. Not all at once, of course---but people often change when their families and friends and coworkers come out. It's hard to continue to hold your prejudices when "they" turn out to be people you love.


Anonymous said...

I remember (news accounts of) the shooting and subsequent events reasonably well, though at the time I didn't know anything about Milk other than "first out gay man elected to office". I remember reading about the Briggs initiative as well.

I am feeling old. I remember MLK,Jr.'s assassination.


IT said...

I'm old too, nancyp . But I grew up there and it had many more compnents in my memory. Oh my. I remember so much....I sobbed through so much of the film.

Doxy, I have thought about my anonymity. But I think that my outspoken-ness would affect my professional life, and not well. Not my own position (I'm tenured, at a friendly place so relatively secure, although I still depend on anonymous peer review for publications and grants) but for my students and my role in their education.

I'm not closeted professionally, I'm out, and sufficently outspoken. But I just don't think my political beliefs, or astringent commentary here, have a place there.

Here's one. I'm on the thesis committee of a PhD student who is a very devout Mormon. I don't think it appropriate that anyone would have any concern about my objectivity in examining his dissertation based on my political views (and I assure you, it doesn't play a role; he's a good kid and doing a very good degree). Any questions I raise with this student need to be only about the science and intelletual contact and sheltered from the outside issues.

Others may disagree. We all ahve to figure where our balance is bewteen prudent self-censorship and truth to ourselves. I prefer to draw a very bright line between my professional life, which is apolitical, and a gay citizen. I really do use "IT" as a boundary between the two and "IT" doesn't enter the classroom. (I can't say that the "Professor" doesn't enter the blog, however!)

Wormwood's Doxy said...

I hope you realize I was being slightly tongue-in-cheek. After all, my identity is no big secret around the intertubes, but I still post under a pseud...mostly because it's fun, but partly because "Doxy" is the best me. Honest and passionate and not afraid to say what she thinks.

I suspect, however, that she's having an effect on me IRL. This week, I rushed in where angels fear to tread in a local controversy. I poked a hornet's nest by doing so, and I still have some work to do to respond to the comments I've gotten.

But I said what I needed to say and I'm not sorry that I did it. I'm sure you speak up when you need to--just be aware that, one day, "IT" may cause you to speak out before you've really thought about it. ;-)