Harvey Milk knew a political opportunist when he saw one. In part, it was because it takes one to know one, and Milk had a broad streak of opportunism in his makeup. Harvey, however, was a man on a mission to elevate the status of gay people everywhere in society and seized opportunities to advance his cause. Opposite him was state Sen. John Briggs, a man whose opportunism was devoted to elevating himself and his political career. Milk and Briggs were engaged in a running debate over Proposition 6 on the November 1978 general election ballot.
Briggs had created Proposition 6 to raise his political profile in the state of California and create a groundswell of support that might carry him into the governor's mansion in Sacramento. The initiative was inspired by Anita Bryant's successful campaign in Florida against Miami-Dade's gay rights ordinance. Briggs had cynically picked up on Bryant's “save the children” motto and drafted Proposition 6 to empower public school boards to fire gay teachers—or any teachers (gay or not) who supported gay rights.
The Milk vs. Briggs rolling debate jumped from venue to venue, often before audiences predisposed to cheer Briggs and jeer at the queer from San Francisco. Nevertheless, Milk fearlessly answered Briggs point by point and took the battle to the enemy. When the ballots were counted on November 7, Proposition 6 had been defeated by a margin exceeding a million votes.
Twenty days later, San Francisco County Supervisor Harvey Milk was dead, murdered in a killing spree by former supervisor Dan White, an anti-gay politician who took his vengeance against both Milk and San Francisco Mayor George Moscone. White later killed himself, aimless and depressed at failing to put his life back together after serving an absurdly short five-year prison sentence for the double murder (he was actually convicted of manslaughter instead of murder). White died knowing he had elevated his nemesis Harvey Milk to iconic martyr status, which probably gnawed constantly at his vitals during the seven years he survived his victim.
Harvey would undoubtedly have preferred a longer life than the fifty years he was given, but he had been fatalistic about the likely price he would pay for his open political activism. Milk tape-recorded a manifesto to be played in the event of his murder, so he was as prepared as one can be for the eventuality that overtook him on November 27, 1978. “Play that tape of Briggs and I over and over again so people can know what an evil man he is. So people know what our Hitler is like. So people know that where the ideas of hate come from. So they know what the future will bring if they're not careful.” While “our Hitler” has all but vanished from the pages of California history, his quest for political power aborted by the No on 6 coalition, the most visible leader of that coalition is at least as famous today as he was twenty years ago.
On Wednesday, August 12, President Barack Obama will formally award Harvey Milk the Presidential Medal of Freedom. It's an apt choice, although I know it's also a relatively easy sop for the president to toss to those of us who are not content with his administration's extremely slow and casual approach to “Don't ask, don't tell” (which should have been suspended by executive order immediately upon his taking office) and his Justice Department's willingness to defend the discriminatory Defense of Marriage Act. The recognition of Harvey Milk is a good thing, Mr. President, but it would be even better if you acted more vigorously in support of the human rights for which he gave his life. Much better.
Meanwhile, here in California, we may be able to parlay Milk's presidential honor into more support for SB 572, a legislative measure to establish Harvey Milk Day. A similar measure passed the legislature in 2008 and was vetoed by the governor. SB 572 would put the issue on his desk again. (Here's your big chance to get something right for a change, Arnold!) Harvey Milk Day would be a day of commemoration under the provisions of the legislation and not a state holiday, so it's financial impact on California would be minimal. The state's right-wingers and gay-bashers are more concerned, however, about the social impact of Harvey Milk Day. Treat gay people as human beings with equal human rights! Good Lord, no! They are desperate to—are you ready?—save our children. Yes, it's the same old song. Here's a paragraph that SaveCalifornia.com is urging people to include in letters demanding the defeat or veto of SB 572:
INDOCTRINATES CHILDREN AS YOUNG AS 5 YEARS OLD: Harvey Milk Day would promote the “lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender” agenda of Harvey Milk to up to six million children in public schools, including kindergarteners. These kids aren’t old enough to be taught about sex, but now they’ll be taught about same-sex “marriages,” cross-dressing and same-sex desires? This is highly inappropriate.I do believe that cross-dressing often occurs spontaneously among kindergarten-age children, but is this one of the things mandated by SB 572? Let's look at the actual language of the bill. Here is the entire text of the measure as it relates to activities on Harvey Milk Day:
On Harvey Milk Day, exercises remembering the life of Harvey Milk, recognizing his accomplishments, and familiarizing pupils with the contributions he made to this state.Pretty explicit, isn't it? Once again, the graphic content is in the warped mind of the gay-bashing beholders, whose Freudian fascination with the details of gay sex is epitomized by their constant whining about not wanting the supposed gay rights agenda “jammed down our throats.”
These people need help.
Perhaps someone could remind them about that amusing statement (whose source I am at a loss to track down) that “Gay people are completely different from straight people—except for what they do in bed.”
One of my friends is a high school teacher who sees Harvey Milk Day as a perfect opportunity to discourage gay-bashing and bullying of all kinds, as well as the use of “that's so gay” as a casual expression of disapprobation. In language earthier than any he would use on campus, he says, “The uptight anti-gay right is ridiculously paranoid about this. They refuse to understand what it's about. We're not teaching our students about fucking assholes. We're teaching them not to be fucking assholes!”