Already gaining Oscar buzz is Sean Penn’s portrayal of Harvey Milk in Gus Van Sant’s new movie “Milk.” It is the story of Harvey Milk, one of the first openly gay Americans to be elected to major political office — a San Francisco Supervisor. It is an inspiring and heroic film.
Milk was assassinated in 1978, just before his 50th birthday, along with San Francisco Mayor George Moscone. Both were murdered by fellow Supervisor Dan White, a family-values Catholic conservative. “Milk” is a powerful reminder that America’s promise of equality is not without peril.
In addition, this new film assumes greater importance as it injects events from 30 years ago into today’s political discourse with deadly fervor and social immediacy. Some are even saying that if “Milk” had been released a month earlier, just prior to the November 4th election, it may have turned the tide against Prop 8, the California Constitutional amendment which took away the right of same-sex couples to marry.
To put this in perspective, no one today under the age of 30 was alive in 1978, the year Milk was murdered. People who are now 60, were then only 30 years old.
In those years, led by self-righteous folksy singer Anita Bryant out of Florida, voters in several states and cities were overturning anti-discrimination measures aimed at protecting the rights of gay men and lesbians. With their usual blend of religion, money, and appeal to the fears of voters over a “homosexual agenda,” conservatives were on a roll. But then, in a giant step beyond just repealing anti-discrimination measures, Oklahoma and Arkansas banned gays and lesbians from teaching in public schools. Emboldened by these successes, religious and social conservatives targeted California as ground zero in their discriminatory onslaught. They thought that if they could win a substantial victory here, they could gut the gay community, stop the march towards equality in its tracks and the whole country would be saved the scourge of homosexuality.
Heeding this call to battle, was opportunistic Orange County legislator John Briggs. In 1976, Briggs was elected a State Senator from Fullerton. He lost no time crafting and promoting the infamous Proposition 6, which was finally labeled the Briggs Initiative. (A quick check of his official archival website shows no mention of this initiative, only that as a legislator he concentrated on insurance reform, a wider application of the death penalty, and regulations concerning contractors.)
Prop 6 went further than even the teaching bans in Oklahoma and Arkansas. Brigg’s initiative went hog-wild and would have banned gays and lesbians, and possibly anyone who supported gay rights, from working in California’s public schools. Gay men and lesbians couldn’t be teachers, administrators, bus drivers, cafeteria workers, or even janitors. And, if anyone, within any of the California school districts, spoke up or acted on behalf of equal treatment and rights for gay men and lesbians, they could also be fired.
When Prop 6 qualified for the ballot in 1978, it was leading by huge percentages according to pre-election polls. Milk, in San Francisco, staged a political coup by getting Briggs to agree to a one-on-one debate. After getting drubbed in a San Francisco town hall meeting, Briggs agreed to another town hall in more friendly Orange County. While Milk didn’t win any points at that particular event, the California electorate began learning how far-reaching and unfair Prop 6 was. Politicians from across the political spectrum began to call for it’s defeat. Van Sant’s film shows President Jimmy Carter urging a no vote and, of course, the then Governor, Jerry Brown, also called for its defeat.
But, surprisingly, it was former Governor Ronald Reagan, looking to run for President in 1980, who drove the most important nails into Prop 6’s coffin. It was announced that Reagan opposed Prop 6. According to Reagan’s biographer Lou Cannon, “The timing (of Reagan’s announcement) was significant because he was then preparing to run for president, a race in which he would need the support of conservatives and moderates very uncomfortable with homosexual teachers…(he) was well aware that there were those who wanted him to duck the issue…(but nevertheless)… (he) chose to state his convictions.”
Reagan’s opposition was on record and was reprinted in the San Francisco Chronicle of September 24, 1978, about two weeks before the election. This was followed a week before the election by Reagan’s November 1 editorial which stated, in part, “Whatever else it is, homosexuality is not a contagious disease like the measles. Prevailing scientific opinion is that an individual’s sexuality is determined at a very early age and that a child’s teachers do not really influence this.”
Frighteningly, supporters of Prop 6 said that gay male teachers would be free to come to school and teach dressed in women’s clothes. But even that vivid scare tactic didn’t work. Prop 6 lost by over a million votes. Even Orange County voted against it.
In 1978, California’s now Senior Senator Diane Feinstein was, along with Milk and White, a San Francisco Supervisor. In fact, she was the spokesperson who announced to the entire world from the steps of the San Francisco City Hall that both Milk and Moscone had been shot by White. Interestingly, in 2008, she was the lone major political figure used by the No on 8 campaign to encourage Californians to vote no. However, there was no message to vote No on 8 from either Governor Arnold Schwarzennegger or Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama, both of whom opposed the passage of Prop 8. I am sure many have asked, “Why not?” Unfortunately, in the closing days of the campaign, the promoters of Prop 8 used statements from both Obama and his running mate Joseph Biden declaring that marriage was only between a man and a woman to help gain passage.
Final nails in the coffin of equality.
“Milk” shows the deterioration of Supervisor Dan White’s mental condition. He was not able to compete with the talented Milk, who even was being touted as a possible mayoral candidate. The defeat of Prop 6 forced White’s final descent into overwhelming failure and depression. He got a gun, snuck his way into San Francisco City Hall, walked into the office of Mayor Moscone, and shot him point blank. He then walked calmly down the hall into Milk’s office and gunned him down as well.
The march towards full civil rights for gay men and lesbians did not end last month with the passage of Prop 8. Next Spring, the California Supreme Court will hear three lawsuits challenging legalities of Prop 8, so there is hope that the Court may overturn Prop 8. Meanwhile, civil rights activists – gay and straight – are working to keep Prop 8 on center stage as grassroots; street corner demonstrations against Prop 8 continue. Editorials in favor of repeal of Prop 8 and articles denouncing the tactics of Prop 8 supporters, such as the Mormon Church, fill the print and broadcast media.
For gay men and lesbians, there’s no turning back. As Harvey Milk said, “This is our lives you’re talking about.”
In 1978, a popular saying was, “We’re here, we’re queer, get used to it!” Now, it’s been updated, “We’re here, we’re queer, and we’re getting married!”