What I’m Thankful For: Harvey Milk
This man was the queer movement's Barack Obama.
His watchword was “Come out, come out, wherever you are,” and he used tactics those who recently watched Barack Obama’s campaign would easily recognize: register voters, get out the vote, organize relentlessly, empower your volunteers and supporters, and spread a message of hope.
Update This quote is from a beautiful article by Christie Keith over on 365gay.com. I don't just recommend it, I consider it essential reading for any progressive. Please, head over and thank Christie for her wonderful literary gift to all of us in memory of Milk.
On Thanksgiving Day, 30 years ago, Harvey Milk was shot dead, assassinated.
In the 11 short months of Harvey Milk's time in office, he became a symbol for the nation of gay power, gay perseverance and of sheer communal determination to stand up and demand representation.
Listening to Diane Feinstein announce Milk's death, I began to get an idea of how far we've all come and yet how the issues are still in many ways the same.
We all know proposition 8, but a few decades ago there was another anti-gay proposition, called Proposition 6, also known as the Briggs Initiative:
California Proposition 6, more commonly known as The Briggs Initiative, was an initiative on the California State ballot in November of 1978. Sponsored by John Briggs, a conservative state legislator from Orange County, the failed initiative would have banned gays and lesbians, and possibly anyone who supported gay rights, from working in California's public schools.
One commonality between both initiatives is that in both campaigns anti-gay forces rallied around a cry of “Save Our Children”:
One of the most obvious similarities is the role that children have played in both campaigns as political symbols.
In 1978, supporters of Proposition 6 suggested that gay people might aim to “convert” and molest children. Recent advertisements for Proposition 8 have asserted that gay marriage will be taught in schools to young children.
“I’m all for tolerance, everyone’s for tolerance, but how do you explain to a kindergartener what a bisexual is?” said Sonja Eddings-Brown, a spokeswoman for Protect Marriage, the leading group behind Proposition 8.
Opponents of the ballot measure deny the school claim. But it isn’t accidental.
“Schools are still there as part of the story because whatever their politics, families are conservative when it comes to their kids,” said David L. Kirp, a professor of law and public policy at the University of California at Berkeley. “No family regards their kids as a social experiment.”
Both 30 years ago and today, talk of homosexuality in the classroom is still considered a “social experiment”.
We won the battle on prop 6, but why did we lose on prop 8? Of course, though very similar, these battles have unique traits. The battle on prop 6 took place after devastating losses for LGBT people like the repeal of the Miami-Dade pro-gay civil rights ordinance.
Miami-Dade was a wake up call to the then budding national gay rights movement. They discovered that for every victory won, a clear and real threat always emerges to try and take away that victory. That wake up call arguably can be credited for energizing gay activists in California to fight the Briggs Initiative.
The effects from the passage of Proposition 8 are very similar to the effects from the repeal of the Miami-Dade Civil Rights ordinance. Both defeats spurred a new period of sustained movement building in the LGBT community.
Hurting from recent losses, the gay and lesbian community got organized. A huge coalition of predominantly progressive grassroots activists, led by out gay San Francisco Supervisor Harvey Milk, teacher (later Supervisor of SF Board of Supervisors) Tom Ammiano, activist Hank Wilson, and many others, under the slogan “come out! come out! wherever you are!”, mobilized to defeat the Initiative. In what became the “No on 6” campaign, gay men and lesbians went door to door in their cities and towns across the state to talk about the harm the initiative would cause.
Gay men and lesbians came out to their families and their neighbors and their co-workers, spoke in their churches and community centers, sent letters to their local editors, and otherwise revealed to the general population that gay people really were “everywhere” and included people they already knew and cared about. For a time the ballot measure was ahead in public-opinion polls, with about 61% of voters supporting it while 31% opposed it – a week before the election. The movement against it succeeded little in shifting public opinion, even though major organizations and ecclesiastical groups opposed it.
Todd Beeton over at MyDD:
Today, all over the country, Join The Impact organized rallies to protest the passage of Proposition 8. We in California saw Prop 8 awaken a sleeping giant as thousands of people gathered, seemingly spontaneously, all over the state in the wake of the news that it had passed. It was an amazing sight but little did we know that that truly was just the beginning. A national people-powered marriage equality movement seems to have sprouted up virtually overnight.
It was an extremely moving event because it was clear that I was witnessing nothing less than the birth of our generation's civil rights movement. Sign after sign said it all: “gay rights are civil rights.” As a Californian too, it was fascinating to see so many people in Illinois rise up against what my fellow citizens did on November 4th. Someone was even holding a No on Prop 8 sign re-jiggered to read “Vote No On Pro-H8.” There was a distinct “We are all Californians now” vibe to the whole thing but I think also that this national movement might not have sprung up if it had been any other state. People think of California not only as a bastion of liberalism but also as a bellwether for the rest of the country. They see gay marriage go down in California, for many, it is a sign that it could mean the end of gay marriage everywhere else, before it's even begun.
In past recent election cycles we've seen a slew of marriage amendments passed. What made California stand out from all the other anti-equal marriage amendments was that anti-gay forces succeeded in passing the proposition in a state that at that time allowed same-sex marriage. Like Miami-Dade, we watched as our historic and landmark victories were taken away from us.
Elected officials have a very important place in this ongoing fight for marriage equality (Did you hear that, ahem, Democratic party?). Harvey Milk and the gay movement of the 1970s did amazing work organizing against Prop 6, however a critical reason prop 6 failed in California was the principles stand taken by then California Governor Ronald Reagan:
The anti-Briggs forces badly needed to win a prominent conservative supporter to their side and, against all odds, hoped it would be Reagan. They felt that the witch-hunting aspects of the initiative would offend his respect for legal institutions, and they were aware that he and his wife, Nancy, had long associated with gays in their years in Hollywood— but they worried that it would be a difficult political position for a conservative leader hoping to run for president to take.
Reagan met with initiative opponents, studied their material and, ultimately, at the risk of offending his anti-gay supporters in the coming presidential election, wrote in his newspaper column: “I don't approve of teaching a so-called gay life style in our schools, but there is already adequate legal machinery to deal with such problems if and when they arise.”
His opposition turned public opinion around, and the measure lost with 42% of the vote.
It can be difficult to imagine Reagan at any point in his political career helping the LGBT community, but he did help us on prop 6, even if he abandoned us for the rest of his career.
The point isn't to argue about Reagan's legacy, but rather to issue a clarion call to political leaders to COME OUT for marriage equality. Yes, you Obama. Yes, you Biden. Yes, You Hillary.
Come out because you've stood by long enough as state after state enshrined bigotry into their constitutions.
Come out because it's time the Democratic Party remembered voices like Johnson and Kennedy, who both committed political capital on issues of equality.
Come out because if you do, the polls will change, progress will be made.
You cannot wait until marriage equality is politically convenient for you to support.
Lastly, Come out now because our nation needs leaders to diffuse the frustration. Tensions are rising and both sides are entrenched. Both sides claim the same allies, as saw in the Prop 8 battles where both pro and anti gay forces used Barack Obama in their ads. We've gone down that dark path before when members of our community have been discriminated against and even killed, as our fellow citizens stood by. When politicians and civic institutions fail to take the lead and support justice, frustration on all sides spill out:
The White Night Riots were a series of violent events stemming from the sentencing of Dan White, which was deemed lenient by many, for the assassinations of San Francisco Mayor George Moscone and Harvey Milk, an openly gay San Francisco supervisor. White, a former policeman, firefighter and himself a former San Francisco City Supervisor, was found guilty of manslaughter rather than murder, a ruling that was seen as controversial to many in San Francisco's gay community.
The protest began on May 21, 1979, as a peaceful march from the Castro District to City Hall. As soon as the sentence was announced, word ran through the gay community and groups of people began walking to the Civic Center where City Hall is located, and by approximately 8:00 PM a sizable crowd had formed…
The second stage of the violence was a police riot hours later in the gay Castro neighborhood. After order was restored at City Hall a number of SFPD cars with dozens of officers headed into the Castro District. Police marched into a bar called the Elephant Walk, smashing fixtures and attacking patrons.
The New York Times ended their article focusing on a lack of contemporary leadership in the mold of Harvey Milk:
Perhaps the biggest difference today is the lack of charismatic front men like Mr. Milk, who was assassinated by a fellow supervisor, Dan White, shortly after the defeat of Proposition 6. Mr. Milk, one of the country’s first openly gay elected officials, became the face of the anti-Proposition 6 campaign by challenging its major sponsor, a Republican state senator from Southern California, to a series of debates.
Such figures are harder to find in this generation of gay leaders, said Scott Schmidt, who is 33, gay, opposed to Proposition 8 — and a Republican.
“There are no Harvey Milks,” he said, “in this campaign.”
I don't think Harvey would agree. We have all become Harvey Milks, as is witnessed by the flurry of organizing around the country in the past 3 weeks.
We are all Harveys now. His spirit, his determination and his organizing both inspires us and is embodied by all of us today. Thank God we've rediscovered the Harveys in all of us.