Every year around this time my thoughts turn to Harvey Milk and the Briggs Initiative. In those years many queer people only met in homes, in very discrete bars often on a dark alley, or in safe closed meetings. I remember that the queer AA meetings were the only place where you could meet where alcohol was not the lynch pin. Lipstick dykes met at dinner parties and plaid flannel dykes met at The Women’s Building; readers spent hours at Sisterhood Bookstore just to be near the tribe without caution. Holly Near sang our songs, Rita Mae Brown wrote our stories and there was the faintest whisper, out in the distance, that one day we could find one another without risk.
There was a frail suggestion that queer people might be seen as fully developed, multi-faceted people who were capable of caring for far more than just the gay agenda. The elections of Elaine Noble (1975) and Harvey Milk (1978) were beacons of light for those of us who wanted to live and work openly in the world. Now there were known homosexuals in state and city legislatures voting on budgets, education, housing ~ for all people in their districts.
Then along came John Briggs, a California State Senator, who got traction on the unsubstantiated idea that queers teaching kids would make children queer. It was a shocking time, suggesting that teachers would be outed, not just from their jobs but to their families, to their landlords, to their churches. Frankly, I don’t think anyone believed him, per se, but it was a blatant attempt to tell queers to get back in the closet, that society will not tolerate integration. Of course, activists know that the opposite actually happens when confronted with such a proposal and so the 1978 Pro6 6, calling for the firing of teachers who were believed to be homosexual, actually threw us out of our privacy and into meeting halls.
You would be wrong to think that Prop 6 had anything to do with Harvey Milk directly, except by default, as he was the crowned BMOC homosexual in CA as he was a public figure and a politician. You would have been more apt to find him working with labor unions, with senior citizens, with community organizers, planning street fairs or in his camera shop ~ home to everything from the DOB to local teamsters. He was not a beloved figure by the gay inc. of his day; then call “The Machine.” He was an everyman; loving neighbors, kids, the circus, public transportation and changing society to be open to all diversities. Let there be no mistake, he was the Mayor of Castro, not the mayor of queerville. Ascension to prominence as a queer was not his mission and not achieved in his life time; that path was too narrow for Harvey. His vision was freedom for everyone not the construction of a queer ghetto.
I have The Times of Harvey Milk on my TIVO, my ipad & my iphone. I am not a fan because he was gay. I am not a fan because he was assassinated and declared a martyr for LGBT. I am a fan because he was the epitome of the most dangerous activist on earth; he wanted everyone to have freedom and liberty, a fine job with a fair wage, and a safe place to call home. His world would have been my idea of community where all its inhabitants could be who they are with no fear of reprisal.
When I am fortunate to be asked to speak about Equality, I often leave a little homework. I tell people to watch The Times of Harvey Milk and then to watch the movie, Milk; asking what is the difference between the two portrayals of Harvey Milk. For me it is in the difference that you really meet him, see him, get an idea of who he was. He was my Mayor; your Mayor; a Mayor for men, for women, for kids, for Italians, for Teamsters, for Catholics, for seniors and more. His neighborhood would have been a place where we would all be saying, Howdy Neighbor. Happy Birthday, Mr. Mayor. You are so very missed.