I keep a regular set of movies in rotation during Pride Month. I list the 2008 film Milk will forever be a favorite. The critically acclaimed biopic chronicles the life of Harvey Milk, the first out elected official in California (and only the fifth in the US) and a trailblazer in the gay rights movement. The brilliant script and outstanding performances are ample reasons to love the film, but my connection to this uniquely San Francisco story goes much deeper., alongside some excellent picks from my colleagues, but
Harvey inspired LGBTQI people in San Francisco and elsewhere to fight for their rights, break down the closet door and show defiantly they would not be silenced, intimated or pushed into the corner. In a recording he made just before he was killed (something he long suspected would happen), Harvey said the movement he led was about giving people hope. Decades later those words gave me hope as gay people fought for marriage equality in the face of huge opposition. It was a battle we ultimately won, and an aspiration I was able to realize when I married my husband in the building where Harvey held office. In the face of attacks against transgender people, his lessons continue to resonate.
Events on and off screen
Played by Sean Penn, who won an Academy Award for the role, the onscreen Harvey narrates the defining moments in his life — moving from New York to San Francisco in 1972, the men he loved, the camera store he started in the city’s new gay neighborhood and his awakening as a civil rights leader and neighborhood advocate. We see him face homophobia (including death threats) and a gay establishment in the city that thought he was too radical for the movement. We also witness his mentoring youths thrown out of their homes for being gay, his election to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors in 1977 (after three unsuccessful runs for public office) and his assassination with Mayor George Moscone the next year by his former supervisor colleague Dan White. (Milk also was shot on location in San Francisco, which only adds to its realness.)
That could have been enough to easily fill two hours, but Milk is also a story of the threats to gay America in the 1970s and how Harvey used them to galvanize LGBTQI people to fight discrimination and harassment. Those threats could be police raiding a gay bar to beat up patrons, or Anita Bryant, the homophobic hurricane who swept across the country from Florida, leaving anti-gay laws in her path. The film doesn’t flinch at showing how menacing and abusive someone like Bryant was, even for those in the relative safety of San Francisco’s emerging gay neighborhood, the Castro.
But Harvey wouldn’t let his community hide. Instead, he taught us to battle with our wallets, at the ballot box and in the streets. And when we finally won a fight, like in November 1978 when California voters rejected Proposition 6, an odious ballot initiative to remove all gay or lesbian employees and their allies from public schools (just three weeks before Milk was assassinated), the film shows how sweet it was. That moment is one of the movie’s best — the fictionalized elation over a momentous real life event always makes me cry.
But my tears are complicated. Even today, it reminds me how just a week after the San Francisco premiere of Milk, another terrible anti-gay initiative sailed to victory. Soaking in the film’s post-release glow, I didn’t think it could happen. And I was crushed when it did.
A big step forward
Sponsored by Republican California State Senator John Briggs, the Briggs Initiative (Proposition 6 was its official name) proposed firing public school teachers, teacher’s aides, administrators or counselors if they engaged in “public homosexual activity” (sex). That was bad enough, but the initiative also targeted anyone who supported their gay colleagues. Schools had to dismiss anyone who engaged in “homosexual conduct,” which the initiative defined as “the advocating, soliciting, imposing, encouraging or promoting of private or public homosexual activity.” In short, it would have brought witch hunts to the classroom. Oh, and hiring out gay people would have been illegal, too.
As Milk shows, the Briggs Initiative came as LGBTQI people were suffering a string of electoral defeats. Starting in Miami in 1977, Bryant led campaigns in cities across the country to repeal local ordinances that protected them from discrimination in employment and housing. The Briggs Initiative was her next effort, and she became one of its public faces. Against such odds and expecting the worst — public opinion polls two months before the election predicted Prop 6 would win — Harvey told gay Californians during a 1978 speech at San Francisco’s Gay Freedom Day, “you must come out” and show family, friends and neighbors how it would devastate real people they already knew loved.
Come out they did, organizing rallies and educating voters. Harvey led the fight, debating Briggs across the state and acquiring critical allies, including labor unions, feminists, religious groups and other civil rights leaders. A diverse group of politicians, from President Jimmy Carter to former governor (and future president) Ronald Reagan, also opposed the measure, ultimately sending it to a decisive defeat (58.4% to 41.6%). California had bucked a national trend by stopping Bryant and Briggs, and it’s why Proposition 6’s loss is such a joyous turning point in both the film and the gay rights movement. Though it wasn’t shown in Milk, Seattle voters the same day rejected a repeal of the city’s gay rights ordinance, the first city in the country to do so. Hurricane Bryant lost its strength after that.
A smaller step back
Only four years old in 1978, I don’t remember anything about the Briggs fight. I was incredibly touched, though, when I found a “No on 6” pamphlet at my parents’ house a few years ago. Knowing they voted against it and had saved the pamphlet for decades filled me with pride for their wisdom and acceptance.
But another ballot battle 30 years later I remember all too well: Proposition 8, which added an amendment to the state constitution recognizing “only marriage between a man and a woman.” Marriage equality had existed in the state following a California Supreme Court ruling in May 2008, but in June, Prop 8 qualified for the November ballot. The fight for equality and against discrimination had returned.
The following months saw strong parallels to the Briggs Initiative. With similar calls to “protect children,” Prop 8 came after 24 states had amended their constitutions to ban marriage equality and President George W. Bush had called for a federal amendment. Here again, the odds of defeating it weren’t great, but I (rather naively) thought California would do the right thing again. Most polls showed a slight majority in opposition to the measure (though a few suggested the opposite) and California’s largest newspapers editorialized against it.
When I crunched data from phone canvassing while volunteering for the No on 8 campaign, I started to feel cautiously optimistic. Seeing Milk a few days before the vote, which I partially watched for a hopeful boost, put me in an even more optimistic mood. If they could do it, I thought, so could I.
But the passion was strong on both sides. Prop 8 was well-funded and attracted powerful supporters including John McCain, Mitt Romney and the Roman Catholic church. Living in the liberal San Francisco Bay Area, which was always guaranteed to vote no, I didn’t see its fear-mongering but effective TV commercials. Hollywood celebrities, Silicon Valley execs, unions and other religious and civil rights groups were opposed and outraised the amendment’s supporters. Democratic (and some Republican) politicians also urged a no vote, but many, including Barack Obama and Joe Biden, walked a fine line, opposing the measure without endorsing same-sex marriage. In an outrageous mailing I recall receiving at home, Prop 8 supporters even used Obama’s stance as a reason to vote yes. It said something like, “If Obama doesn’t support gay marriage, then neither should you!”
On Election Day, California bent to the national wave and passed Prop 8 by four points. It passed even in Los Angeles County, which, as Milk made a point of showing, had rejected Prop 6. Coupled with Obama’s victory over McCain it made for a bittersweet night — it felt as if the United States had taken a big step forward, while California had taken an even larger one back.
For a while I was angry that people I didn’t even know decided that I was not worthy of the legal rights and protections of marriage, simply because I wanted to marry a man. I attended a few anti-Prop 8 rallies, and Harvey’s lessons from Prop 6 guided me and the marriage equality movement in the aftermath. Come out wherever you are, show that LGBTQ people are everywhere, build alliances, support other marginalized groups and organize for a better tomorrow.
Giving them hope
In February 2009, Milk would go on to win a bookcase of awards, including two Oscars (one for Penn and the other for Dustin Lance Black’s original screenplay). Happily, Proposition 8 did not fare as well. In 2013, marriage equality resumed in the Golden State following the US Supreme Court decision, Hollingsworth vs. Perry. Public opinion had largely turned by that point, especially as people began to be even more aware that gay people are neighbors, families and friends. We just wanted equal protection under the law, which doesn’t affect anyone else or their marriages at all.
My husband and I were married the next year, under the dome of San Francisco’s. Besides being a beautiful place to tie the knot, I felt proud to do it in the place where Harvey Milk first walked up the grand staircase and took his seat in the ornate supervisor’s chamber. San Francisco and the legacy Harvey left behind gave me the freedom to be who I am, to find love and a community of friends. I wouldn’t have been married anywhere else.
Propositions 6 and 8 may be in the dustbin of history, but the fights are far from over. As a raft of states attempt to outdo each other with hateful laws that target transgender people — from Florida outlawing transgender athletes from playing on public school sports teams to Tennessee’s “bathroom bills” — the lessons of the real life Harvey Milk and his big-screen counterpart are just as important — and continue to inspire me.
As Harvey said, “You gotta give them hope.”
For a deeper look at Harvey’s life, the events depicted in the film and the making of the film itself, start by reading The Mayor of Castro Street: The Life and Times of Harvey Milk by Randy Shilts and When We Rise by Cleve Jones. A human rights activist and a friend and associate of Harvey, Jones also founded The NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Quilt. In Milk he was portrayed by Emile Hirsch.