Harvey Milk: Without Hope, Life is Not Worth Living

Harvey Milk: Without Hope, Life is Not Worth Living

The Life and times of Harvey Milk

In the 1970s, psychiatry and psychology still classified homosexuality as a mental illness. In recent history, in an otherwise entirely routine case, the Supreme Court refused in 1978 to overturn the prison sentence of a man convicted solely of having consensual sex with another man. And only one year before, the court had let stand the firing of an outstanding Tacoma, Washington, teacher who had made the mistake of telling the truth when his principal asked him whether he was a homosexual. No real national gay organization existed, and Vice-President Walter Mondale haughtily left a speech in 1977 after someone asked him when President Carter’s Administration would speak in favor of gay equality.

To be young and to realize that you were gay or lesbian in the 1970s was to anticipate that your entire adulthood would be shackled with constant fears of personal discovery, with your life marked as a long and isolated, elusively secretive journey, with dim career prospects, and with some of your closest personal relationships fearfully concealed behind darkened bar windows.

No single person could change all of that, and not all of the changes have been accomplished even today. But a few powerful figures gave gay and lesbian individuals the confidence they needed to stop lying, and none understood how his public role could affect private lives better than Harvey Milk. People told Harvey Milk that no openly gay man could win political office. Fortunately, he ignored their advice. And after Harvey Milk became the first openly gay man elected to any substantial political office in the history of the world, thousands of astounded people wrote to Milk thanking him for finally giving them a chance to emerge from the shadows of mankind and to join the human race.

There was a time when it was impossible for people, either straight or gay, even to imagine a person like Harvey Milk. After he defied San Francisco’s ruling class to become an elected member of its Board of Supervisors in 1977, people had to begin adjusting to the new reality that he embodied, that a gay person could live an honest life and succeed. That laborious adjustment continues to trudge on, although with each gay and lesbian character who emerges on television, with every well-known person who takes the brave step out of the shadows to openly declare his/her gay or lesbian identity, and with every presidential speech to a gay group, an eventual outcome favoring equality seems more and more possible.

Harvey Milk knew that a root cause of the gay predicament was invisibility. He suspected that emotional trauma was the worst enemy to gay and lesbian persons, and particularly for those who were in the closet, and who probably still constitute a majority of the gay world. That was what made the election of an openly gay person, not just a sympathetic straight ally, symbolically so crucial. “You gotta give them hope,” Milk always said.

Not everyone cheered, of course, and death threats multiplied. Milk often spoke of his inevitable assassination, even recording a will naming acceptable successors to his seat and containing the famous line: “If a bullet should enter my brain, let that bullet destroy every closet door.” Two bullets finally did enter his brain. On November 27th, 1978, in San Francisco’s City Hall, where Mayor George Moscone was also killed.

Fellow Supervisor Daniel White, a troubled anti-gay conservative, had left the board, and had become mentally deranged when Mayor Moscone denied his request to return. White admitted the murders within hours, and at trial a jury gave him just five years in prison with parole. Defense lawyers had barred anyone remotely pro-gay from the jury and had brought a psychologist to testify that “junk food” had exacerbated White’s pre-existing depression.

While he was alive, Harvey Milk’s words had been able to averted gay riots before. But after the trial verdict was announced, the city of San Francisco erupted, with tens of thousands of people taking to the streets and more than 160 persons ending up in the hospital. Harvey Milk’s killing has been said to have awakened as many gay people as his actual election to office had. His death inspired many associates who later envisioned one of the greatest works of American folk art, the AIDS quilt. But while his assassination offered Milk empathy from mainstream America, something that was then rare for openly gay men, it would have been thrilling to see how far he could have gone as a leader. He had sworn off going to gay bathhouses when he entered public life, and he may have eluded the virus that killed so many of his contemporaries. He might have been able to help guide gay America through the confused beginnings of the AIDS horror.

Instead, Harvey Milk remains a historic figure who is frozen in time, a symbol of what gays can accomplish, but also of the treacherous and mortal dangers that they face in trying to do so.

Harvey Milk: You’ve Got to Give Them Hope

Milk: A Biographical Motion Picture

The new biographical motion picture, Milk, is directed by Gus Van Sant, who also directed My Own Private Idaho (with Keanu Reeves and River Phoenix) and Good Will Hunting (the breakout movie for Matt Damon and Ben Affleck). Sean Penn stars as Harvey Milk, with James Franco playing his life partner, Scott Smith, and the Josh Brolin as Dan White, Milk’s eventual killer. The Oscar-winning filmmaker’s character study of the life of Harvey Milk, America’s first openly gay politician, is being described as big, brash, bold, and already looking like it will be a major contender in the motion picture awards season. If this first trailer is anything to go by, Gus Van Sant’s Milk is going to be a big movie that takes on big issues in contemporary American life.

Milk: You’ve Got to Give Them Hope

A Historic Documentary: The Times of Harvey Milk

TechnoratiTechnorati: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Please Share This:

Share

%d bloggers like this: