“You can kill the messenger, but you can’t kill the message,” shouted Tom Ammiano at a November 28 rally to commemorate the 30th anniversary of Harvey Milk’s assassination. “Harvey Milk’s message was hope,” said nephew Stuart Milk, “and its expression was courage.” For thirty years, activists have marched each year to Harvey Milk’s camera store in the Castro – although it’s usually been a brief low-key affair, with a handful of people marching just two blocks. This year, over 500 people marched all the way from City Hall to 19th and Castro – with a stream of candles down Market Street as far as the eye can see. Harvey’s message of hope could not be more appropriate today – with the election of an African-American President, and a new movement to protest Proposition 8. And with the release of the Milk movie (which I saw at the Castro Theatre after the march), more will learn about the history – and what lessons apply today.
As the march turned onto Castro Street at 17th and Market, people emerged from the gay bars to cheer us on – as we passed the glaring lights of the Castro Theatre and the huge portrait of Sean Penn as Harvey Milk. A good friend of mine turned to me and said, “this is ironic – given that the Castro has not welcomed the most marginalized people in our community.” It’s true. The crowd on the sidewalk was overwhelmingly white, primarily male and I saw no transgenders. The old “gayborhood” has become so gentrified most queers can’t afford to live there – although it’s a spiritual home that we enjoy visiting.
Harvey Milk wasn’t accepted by the more “mainstream” gays in the early 1970’s – who had assimilated into the political establishment. The film Milk touches on this theme, when a young Harvey Milk pays a visit in 1973 to Advocate publisher David Goodstein – as he seeks an endorsement in his first run for public office. Gays weren’t supposed to gain political power by running themselves; the assumption was they had to support straight allies who would help them advance their cause. Milk had to run for office three times – before district elections finally gave him an opening to win.
Another revealing point in the movie highlights Harvey Milk’s argument with the “No on 6” campaign consultants – as they plotted against the Briggs Initiative in 1978 that would have banned gay teachers in California. Harvey complains that their campaign literature focused too much on abstract “civil rights” issues – with not a single gay person being featured for fear of “offending” middle-of-the-road voters. He dramatically throws the piece into the fireplace, and then takes it upon himself to campaign across the state – even debating State Senator John Briggs in conservative places like Orange County.
The recent passage of Proposition 8 calls into question whether the campaign bothered to learn how queers defeated Prop 6 thirty years earlier. A cautious, poll-driven campaign that kept gay couples out of the limelight de-sensitized the subject – allowing the other side to scare swing voters with emotional appeals about “the children.” In stark contrast to Harvey Milk sticking his neck out by campaigning across the state, SF Mayor Gavin Newsom was reduced to campaigning in “safe” areas – not willing to step out of his own comfort zone to engage the opposition.
In the past month, Prop 8’s aftermath has spawned a new wave of protest across the nation – reviving the movement that Harvey Milk nurtured in the 1970’s. In March, organizers are planning a walk from San Francisco to Sacramento to demand marriage equality – reminiscent of Cesar Chavez’s march to the State Capitol in the 1960’s for the rights of farmworkers. Now is the time to seize the moment to bring a lasting social change – an opportunity that may be fleeting if we don’t mobilize today.
Many friends have commented to me that Milk should have been released one month earlier. If so, perhaps California voters would have rejected Proposition 8. That may be the case, but the only thing we can now do is look ahead. And if the film can help awaken peoples’ consciousness now to create tangible results, it will be a victory.
EDITORS NOTE: In my references to Myrna Lim while covering the District 11 Supervisors race, I analogized her conservative political views to those held by former District 4 Supervisor Ed Jew when he was a candidate. This analogy in no way implied that Lim had engaged in any criminal acts.Filed under: Archive