Sunday, October 26, 2014

Telling Harvey Milk's Story

"I know that you cannot live on hope alone, but without it, life is not worth living. And you ... and you ... and you ... gotta give 'em hope."

Harvey Milk

Harvey Milk was a social pioneer.

In these days of general acceptance of same–sex marriage, it is probably difficult for some people to imagine a time when homosexuals not only did not enjoy the same rights and privileges as heterosexual citizens, but most also felt they could not be open about themselves with their families and friends — and, with no legal rights to speak of, there was no reason for them to tell their employers the truth, either.

That is why the title of an Oscar–winning documentary on Milk mentioned his times, not his life. A documentary examining a public life that is lived separately from a person's private life can afford the luxury of focusing on that person's life achievements as well as the times in which he/she lived. When one is a pioneer, the times are much more important — because he/she changed them or was changed by them, more likely the former.

Milk became the first openly gay supervisor in San Francisco. Folks who knew him early in his life probably would have been surprised by how he turned out. He was not a gay activist as a young man, nor was he interested in politics. He grew up in New York, served in the Navy and opened a camera store in San Francisco.

So his political identity was not separate from his personal identity. He was perceived as a gay politician, and he was referred to in the media as the "first openly gay supervisor." But he soon made it clear he was motivated to be an advocate for all his constituents, not just his gay ones.

One of the interesting observations in the movie described Milk's first campaign — and, I suspect, his later ones were much the same — as a microcosm of the city's population, with gays working next to straights, men working with women, young working with old, all with a common purpose and, I suspect, a common expectation.

His metamorphosis into a social activist can be seen in "The Times of Harvey Milk," which premiered 30 years ago today — nearly six years after Milk's death. It was directed by Rob Epstein and narrated by Harvey Fierstein.

Anyone under 40 would have no memory of Milk — but that is precisely the demographic group that really needs to see this documentary. Most of those people have grown up believing in equal treatment for all, which is good, but they need to understand that America has not always lived up to its creed. An historical context is necessary in any kind of empowerment movement — racial, religious, sexual — so the mistakes of the past will not be repeated in the future.

That same group has grown up or is growing up with a mental image of San Francisco as bursting at the seams with gay residents. Its gay population may always have been a little larger than the gay population in most American cities, but in the early 1970s, gays merely represented a fraction of the city's population. That demographic group was definitely growing, but it was simply one more group in the San Francisco melting pot. Milk's election was historic, and it forever changed the perception of San Francisco in the nation at large.

I think Milk was successful — and seemed to have outgrown "the movement" in the months before his death — because his emphasis was on people — of all kinds. Gay, straight, male, female, black, white, young, old. Perhaps he got into politics because of his sexual orientation. But, after his election as city supervisor, and maybe even before, he realized that his constituency extended beyond the homosexual community and that, if one group is denied something that is permitted to others, truly equal treatment does not exist, and everyone is demeaned.

I'm inclined to think Milk's transformation happened before he was elected — when he earned the honorary title "Mayor of Castro Street." On Election Night 1977, when Milk won in his fourth try, he was asked if he would be a supervisor for all the people. "I have to be," he replied. "The problems that affect this city affect all of us."

A year later, it was the sad duty of Dianne Feinstein, then the president of San Francisco's Board of Supervisors, to announce the killings of Milk and San Francisco Mayor George Moscone in November 1978. If you're planning to watch this documentary and you don't know what happened to Milk, you'll see footage of Feinstein making the announcement during the opening credits.

So I guess I'm not letting the cat out of the bag by telling you that. The rest of the movie, after all, is built upon the presumption that the audience knows what happened.

I felt that two of the most powerful parts of the movie were news footage — of the mournful but peaceful candlelight vigil that filled San Francisco's streets the night of the murders and the angry mob that filled those streets several months later when former Supervisor Dan White was convicted not of premeditated murder but of voluntary manslaughter, thanks in large part to what became known as the "Twinkie defense."

The former did the city proud; the latter did not. In the movie, it was alleged that, if Moscone had been the only victim, White would have been sent to prison for life. "But he killed a gay," one person said in the movie, "and so they let him off easy."

I understand the raw emotions that surrounded these events, and that allegation may very well reflect the majority opinion in San Francisco at that time, but I thought the makers of the movie did no one a favor by giving voice to unsupported slander of the jury.

"The Times of Harvey Milk" received an Oscar for Best Documentary.