Thursday, May 21, 2009

Make Harvey Milk Day real

Today, May 22, 2009, Harvey Milk would have been 79. Just last November 27, 2008, we marked the 30th anniversary of the murders of Harvey Milk and George Moscone in San Francisco's City Hall. Harvey was only 48 when he was assassinated.

Though he didn't live to see much real effect of the gay revolution which he had no small part in fomenting, energizing, directing, I am sure that if he were still alive, he would be thrilled to see the massive demonstrations across the country protesting the passage of Proposition 8 here in California. And he wouldn’t have settled in some comfortable role as a respected elder in the gay community. He’d still be organizing, raising hell, tempering passions, and crafting solutions in a skillful, resolute way to take on the religious faction that opposes the rights of gay, lesbian, bi-sexual and transgender people to our full participation in the political process and civic life.

Though I met Harvey face to face many times, I don't know if I registered in his world. And that doesn't really matter much anyway. I liked him, and supported him in every election though I didn't get as deeply involved in politics then as I did after his assassination. But in the early 70's I wasn't totally out. This middle class kid was not entirely comfortable in the Castro, but I knew that it was as close to gay heaven as I would ever get and I was having a great time far from Connecticut and the Jesuits.

Harvey's desk in the camera shop was in such perpetual disarray that you might have wondered how he could track his customers' film, but he never lost any of mine. After we did business, I was always invited to sit on the famous red couch (it was a little more beat up than the one in the movie) and stay for as long as I wanted.

I felt welcomed and, when I spoke, listened to, but most times I sat and listened while Harvey spoke. And he talked a lot. In the course of an hour, as customers, political friends, kids from the street, other Castro merchants came and went, he might talk about the flood of gay kids looking for work, experimenting sexually, VD, pumping up rents, leaving litter (and doggie poop!), the unwelcoming attitudes of the old-line merchants. I remember one long conversation about the buffed guys who cruised half-naked on the corner of 18th and Castro in front of the old Hibernia Bank, which was known as "Hibernia Beach." They scared some of the Irish widows who still lived in the neighborhood. This was not a theoretical conversation Harvey had it with several representatives of these soft-spoken, and really pissed off, women. He was a master, listening carefully and answering every question honestly, but he didn't give an inch. I remember that the women left with some understanding of their new gay neighbors though not completely mollified.

He could laugh at any topic or take it with complete, serious concern depending on his audience. I had a sense that he was probing for the deeply felt needs of the neighbors who ultimately became his constituents. It was clear that he had thought long and hard about the issues, and he always linked your concern to the general good.

And no matter how far ranging his conversations, he never lost sight of his primary focus: that gay men and women were entitled to equal rights without having to masquerade or make deals that would push us back in the closet. Though there are many talented gay men and women who have followed him in San Francisco politics, I don’t think it was martyrdom that set the bar so high. He was a born politician and became a true master in a very short time.

On the marquee of the Castro Theater where the movie Milk opened last year, there was the image of a political button: "Never Blend In." I don't remember if I ever heard Harvey say those exact words, but I know that he embodied the openness about your gay lives that they express. It was the one of the reasons why during his lifetime some gay men didn't much like him: they truly believed that "blending in" was the only strategy that would allow them to lead the kind of lives they wanted for themselves. [For a very thorough treatment of "blending in" and how it affects our lives and rights as gay men, lesbians, bi and transgender men and women, I recommend, Covering: The Hidden Assault on Our Civil Rights by Kenji Yoshino]

OK? Never Blend In! Don't go back in the closet! Just Do It!

And hey Arnold! Sign the legislation that would make May 22 “Harvey Milk Day.” As I wrote to you today when I signed the petition to make you act—don’t coddle to the narrow-minded citizens of your base. After your defeat at the polls two days ago, you could learn a lot from Harvey Milk. Think “pooper scooper.”

Join me and make you voice heard. Tell the Gov to honor Harvey on his birthday!

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