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