Updated: Mar 30
This past week I revisited Gus van Sant’s 2008 film Milk, a film about the life and career of gay rights activist and politician Harvey Milk; I was struck by how timely – once again – the movie felt. Milk’s original release was at the Castro Theater in San Francisco, two weeks before Election Day. Proposition 8 – an odious, homophobic voter referendum to amend the California state constitution to declare that only marriage between a man and a woman was recognized as valid in the state – was on the ballot and a huge topic of controversy at the time. Milk felt like an urgent story, not just about the history of the gay rights movement, but as a reminder of where we as a society should not return to again. Seven years later, when gay marriage was effectively legalized in the United States via the Supreme Court’s ruling in Obergefell v. Hodges, (after being declared legal on the state level in a number of places), Milk began to seem almost quaint to me – a story about an unfortunate time period, a relic of a harmful culture from long ago. Now, given who is in charge of our country’s administration, the story has regained a sense of urgency.
The film opens with the real-life footage of Dianne Feinstein – then the President of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, now the Senior Senator from California – announcing to the press that Supervisor Harvey Milk and Mayor George Moscone had both been shot and killed by former Supervisor Dan White. The film then flashes back eight years, to Milk meeting his boyfriend, Scott Smith, for the first time in New York City on the eve of his 40th birthday, where he makes the decision to stop living inside the closet and actually live a life that he can be proud of.
When I watch this film, I am struck not only by the way the film’s flashback structure allows us to get viscerally involved in the act of Harvey’s recollection of events, but also by the layers of memory and nostalgia it elicits from me. In the current political climate this meta-remembrance resonates with me far more deeply than ever before. I grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area. In high school I used to wander down to the Castro neighborhood at the end of the day, and get a snack at Hot Cookie and people watch. I’ve wandered by the memorial plaque for Harvey Milk at the former site of his Castro Camera storefront hundreds of times. I’ve seen movies at the Castro Theater. I used to go bowling with friends at the alley next door to the Moscone Center. The story of Harvey Milk was taught to us in 4th grade as part of our unit on the history of California. The footage of Feinstein making the announcement of the deaths of Milk and Moscone is gut-wrenchingly familiar to me. This history is embedded in my heart. It’s in my bones.
When I was in 4th grade learning about Californian history and Harvey Milk’s role in it, my teacher was a young man, likely no older than 25 years old at the time. I’ll call him Mr. Barnes. He was a funny guy, able to keep us entertained during the driest of lessons. One day, fairly late in the school year, we were talking about the concept of culture in class. Being that we were in San Francisco, we began talking about the specifics of what is considered gay culture. At this time we were also being taught Sex Ed: egg, sperm, how the sperm gets deposited in the vagina, all the things that make 10-year-olds giggle awkwardly. One of my classmates, trying to figure out how to map gay culture and gay relationships upon the paradigm of sex we were being taught in biology class, expressed curiosity as to how sex works for homosexual men. Mr. Barnes answered my classmate’s question honestly, explaining that typically when gay men have intercourse, the penis goes into the anus. He didn’t elaborate beyond that, he used the correct anatomical terms for all body parts involved, and then the culture conversation continued on.
What followed can only be described as a shit-storm. Another of my classmates, apparently extremely uncomfortable by the topic of gay sex, (even within the context of school sexual education), went home and told their parents about the question and how Mr. Barnes had answered. The parents then called the principal. The principal panicked. A letter was sent home informing all of the families what had happened. Mr. Barnes was suspended. A town-hall meeting was organized for all of the parents from my class. My father attended the meeting, and was shocked by the level of vitriol being expressed by the other parents. The fairly innocuous answer Mr. Barnes had given in the classroom had been exaggerated wildly – parents were furious, convinced that what Mr. Barnes had done was extremely gratuitous, lascivious, and unacceptable. One parent declared that he might as well have shown us a gay pornography film for how inappropriate this was for a classroom full of 4th graders. They all called for Mr. Barnes’ head, and the school folded. Two weeks before the end of the school year, Mr. Barnes was fired.
You might be thinking that this story must have happened long ago in the 1970’s, the Harvey Milk era. You would be wrong. This happened in 1995.
When I look back on this incident, I remember how confused and saddened I was by the way it was handled. Don’t we live in San Francisco? Aren’t gay and lesbian people a huge part of what makes San Francisco’s culture the way it is? Everyone knows that, so what was the problem? My teacher was fired, not for honestly answering a student’s question, but because the answer had to do with homosexuality. It was a scathing indictment of the supposed liberal values of my San Francisco Bay Area private elementary school. 22 years later, I think of this as the moment when I stopped feeling so confident that the city in which I lived – the most famously gay-friendly city in the world – was actually a truly progressive place.
While re-watching Milk this past week I couldn’t stop thinking about what happened to Mr. Barnes. Milk and Smith moved from New York to San Francisco, hoping to live in a place where their relationship would be more accepted. They end up in the Eureka Valley, in the Castro neighborhood, a place slowly being taken over by gay and lesbian people, but historically home to a large community of Irish Catholic families. Milk and Smith are dismayed, when they quickly realize that the local police were more willing to arrest and brutalize the gay population, as opposed to protecting them from hate crimes. This realization – that San Francisco was not as progressive as it was known to be – is what formed the genesis of Harvey Milk’s political career.
Milk’s intention, as an activist and a politician, was to be a representative for the interests of the sizable and growing gay population in San Francisco. By running for the Board of Supervisors, debating his opponents, and giving speeches to his potential heterosexual constituents, he brings issues of gay rights to the forefront of San Franciscans’ minds. He normalizes conversations about the gay community in the public eye, which eventually helped to decrease their perception in the city as other, and humanize them for those who did not understand them and thus feared them.
Milk’s political strategy makes me remember the nonchalance with which Mr. Barnes answered my classmate’s question. What a bold act of courage that was, to answer in a way that put the idea of gay sex within the overall framework of the human sexual education curriculum we were being taught. It was an answer that sought to normalize the idea of gay relationships – asking us, as 10-year-olds, to not think of gay people as other.
Similarly, later in the film, after Milk is finally elected to public office after three previously unsuccessful campaigns, he introduces legislation to enact a citywide gay rights ordinance, as well as spearheads an effort to defeat Proposition 6. Sponsored by State Senator John Briggs, Prop 6 is an effort to ban gays, lesbians, and anyone who supported them from working in California’s public school system. Prop 6 is also a part of a larger nationwide conservative movement that began with a campaign by Anita Bryant (the brand ambassador for the Florida Citrus Commission) to repeal a gay rights ordinance in Dade County, Florida. Milk realizes that the best way to make sure Californians as a whole vote against Prop 6 would be to help them understand how many gay people they actually know. By forcing heterosexual Californians to realize that gay people were their friends, neighbors, and family members, it allowed them to respect their humanity and not see them as bogeymen out to molest young children. Milk instructs his inner circle of assistants, aides, and activists, to come out to their families if they haven’t already – to lead by example and spread the word for others to do the same. Prop 6 was eventually defeated – one of the first significant gay rights victories in California.
In February of 2004, nine years after my elementary school fired Mr. Barnes for answering a student’s question, Mayor Gavin Newsom legalized gay marriage in the city of San Francisco. It was another watershed moment in gay rights history. Back then I was taking time off from the second semester of my freshman year in college to seek treatment for major depressive disorder. I spent most of my days back home by myself, lonely and frightened about my future. When I couldn’t bear to be in my dad’s house any longer I would get in my car and drive around aimlessly. I remember driving through downtown San Francisco on the first day gays and lesbians were allowed to obtain marriage licenses, seeing the line of couples, thousands long, snaking around and around the block leading to City Hall. People were so happy. There were balloons and signs and music everywhere, journalists and photographers swarming the area to document the moment. It was one of the most pure expressions of love and joy I have ever witnessed in my life, and the sight of all of those people, finally being allowed to marry their partners, lifted my dark spirits. Over the next month I went out of my way to drive by City Hall as frequently as possible to see the celebrations.
Four weeks and 4,000 gay marriage licenses later, the California Supreme Court shut Mayor Newsom down, declaring that what he had done was illegal. In August of that same year, all of the licenses that were issued during that time period were voided. Four years later, in 2008, just as Barack Obama was elected the 44th President of the United States, Proposition 8 passed in California, banning gay marriage.
It was around this time when I began to realize that gay rights – just like any civil rights movement – comes in fits and starts. Two steps forward, one step back. Milk and Smith ran away to a city where they felt they would be accepted for who they were, and instead, they see police violence towards the gay population. Milk becomes the first openly gay politician to be elected to public office in California (and the third openly gay politician to be elected in the United States), and months later is gunned down by Dan White, a homophobic colleague whose lawyers claimed spuriously that his diet of junk food caused a chemical imbalance that made him commit double homicide. Mr. Barnes tries to get us not to think of gay sex as weird, and promptly gets fired. Gavin Newsom legalizes gay marriage in California, and four years later California conservatives push for anti-gay legislation and succeed. President Obama repeals Don’t Ask Don’t Tell in 2011. Obergefell v. Hodges legalizes gay marriage in 2015. One year later, Mike Pence, Governor of Indiana who has gone on record saying that he wants to roll back protections for LGBT citizens, and who believes in conversion therapy, becomes the Vice President.
While we’re at it: Barack Obama was the first African American man elected to the office of the President of the United States of America. Eight years later, Americans responded by electing a failed real estate mogul, a shamelessly racist demagogue with no political experience who openly questioned Obama’s citizenship, as the next President.
Two steps forward. One step back.
One of the most remarkable moments in Milk, involves a young man living in Minnesota who calls Harvey Milk in despair after seeing him on the news speaking out against Anita Bryant and John Briggs. The young man tells Milk that he is going to kill himself. His parents are going to send him to conversion therapy and he sees no way out. Milk begs the young man to escape, get on a bus, come to San Francisco, and go to any major big city away from his parents. But he can’t escape. He’s in a wheelchair. He hangs up the phone and Milk is devastated. Later, when Prop 6 is defeated and the San Francisco gay rights ordinance is about to pass, the young man calls him again. He did escape. He made it to Los Angeles. He’s living openly and he thinks he is going to be okay. I look at this scene and I wonder about all of the young gay people who grew up in Mike Pence’s Indiana who were also contemplating suicide. I think about what the future holds for us in a country where Mike Pence could likely become the President of the United States.
Hollywood films about gay characters have an unfortunate and notorious reputation – they almost always feature a tragic death, either by disease or by violence, as a major plot point. The most successful gay movies in the past 20 years all hold to this pattern: Philadelphia, Boys Don’t Cry, Brokeback Mountain, A Single Man, Dallas Buyers Club. At first glance, Milk is easy to categorize as another gay martyr film – though based on a true story, it is yet another mainstream media depiction of a gay character who has to die for the story to resonate.
But I would strongly argue that Milk, like the story of Harvey Milk himself, is not just a story about a martyr for a cause. It is a story about what it takes to be an effective activist. When Anita Bryant’s anti-gay rights campaign in Dade County succeeded, the Castro exploded with angry and fearful citizens. Riots are suddenly a risk, and the local police are more than ready to begin arresting people. Milk instructs his protégé Cleve Jones, to turn the community’s anger into a protest, and to march them all down to City Hall, where Milk would speak to them as a city Supervisor and let them know that they were being heard, and that Milk would be their voice.
As Cleve leads thousands of people down Market Street improvising chants along the way, I was reminded of the unorganized protests that occurred at airports across the country when Donald Trump issued his Muslim travel ban. How those completely spontaneous demonstrations conveyed loudly the strong disapproval of the American people against Trump’s cruel, unnecessary, and poorly thought out policies. How an immediate call to action helped support the ACLU’s lawsuit against the Executive Order and struck it down. I wonder how many times in the next four to eight years we will have to do this. I wonder if the next time it happens we will be marching for the LGBT community again.
Milk, in depicting the life of one remarkable man, becomes a story that shows the multiple arenas in which activism can occur. Harvey Milk ran for political office to make his community’s platform heard, but he also encouraged his followers to live openly as homosexuals, to be brave and proud, rather than afraid for their lives, because simply by existing in the world they would change the hearts and minds of those around them. To lean on a cliché, Milk is a symbol of how ordinary people can achieve extraordinary things. Memory and nostalgia – through Milk’s flashbacks, through America’s painful civil rights history and the cultural moment we are living through right now where we are at risk of repeating many of our most shameful moments – intertwine heavily within this story as well as adjacent to it. When I watch the story of Harvey Milk now, thinking about Gavin Newsom and Barack Obama and my 4th grade teacher Mr. Barnes, I realize that the most important lesson we can all take from this film now is the idea that just by showing up and being who we are, and being unafraid to do so, we display an act of resistance against those who wish to oppress us. And from a place of resistance, it is possible to achieve transcendence.
Reeya is a food & beverage cost accountant in the hospitality industry with a film degree from Vassar College that she does not use. She can usually be seen playing the bass guitar at various Beacon Music Factory shows, or drinking IPA's at Dogwood in Beacon, NY.