Harvey Milk was shot and killed on November 27, 1978. Almost a decade later, on December 1, 1988 the first World AIDS Day was enacted. The first was a dramatic local tragedy around several local politicians and the second was a health awareness initiative designed to promote education around a growing worldwide pandemic.
Now, in retrospect, both symbolize something so much more. They represent the enormous loss of human life loss sacrifices in the war for equality. They each represent profound deaths which lit a community’s fire of outrage, visibility and call for justice, that ultimately produced a phoenix of equality to rise and take hold of a society — at an acceleration unseen by any other civil rights movement.
The city councilman of a single city became an icon, and as hundreds of thousands of gay men died, they were inadvertently outed, ripping them from families and acquaintances who were forced to re-examine their preconceived notions on what it meant to be gay.
I heard the news about Harvey Milk the Monday after Thanksgiving in 1978. I was a junior at UCLA returning from a long weekend at my parents. The tragedy of the story hit me but I was completely oblivious to the political back story behind it.
Before he died, I, as a closeted gay man, had never heard of Harvey Milk.
I was unaware of the segregated battle in San Francisco from an emerging gay community and a conservative anti-gay faction, represented by Dan White, the assassin. It was only after Harvey Milk was killed that I heard his timeless quote that would frame the directive to bring the LGBT movement its ultimate successes:
“Gay brothers and sisters, you must come out. Come out to your parents. I know that it is hard and will hurt them, but think about how they will hurt you in the voting booth! Come out to your relatives. Come out to your friends, if indeed they are your friends. Come out to your neighbors, to your fellow workers, to the people who work where you eat and shop. Come out only to the people you know, and who know you, not to anyone else. But once and for all, break down the myths. Destroy the lies and distortions. For your sake. For their sake.”
Over the next year after Harvey’s death, I started my own internal coming out process. As this political stranger left the planet, he loosened the lock on my own seal of denial within myself. I finally had to come out, to me.
Dustin Lance Black observed that “Harvey Milk was not myopic when it came to his equality. If he had been, he never would have been elected. Harvey was a pure populist. He worked hard for all people who have been made to feel “less than,” and all minorities whom the system wasn’t working for.” This truth sets up a strange paradox around his death. If Harvey had lived, and had become known as a populist politician, it is uncertain that he would have gotten the attention he did as our tragic fallen hero. He was like Marilyn Monroe, who if she had lived certainly would have aged into a solid serious “Lee Strasberg” actress, and likely diminishing a previous image of a potentially sex symbol icon. She died as a sexy image, and forever she will be one. Harvey Milk died as an LGBT pioneer and forever shall he be one.
Author Lincoln Mitchell observed several years ago, “While the forces of hate are still out there, and still winning some battles … because of the work of Harvey Milk and millions of other lesser known heroes, those same forces of hate will lose their war. Harvey Milk’s America will defeat Dan White’s America.” Our recent gains have indicated that Mitchell’s words are appearing to be true. Within each gain there seems to be either a key “coming out,” whether it is Ellen Degeneres in the television industry, Jason Collins and Michael Sams in sports or Tim Cook in high tech business or a sub-community, Harvey Milk’s inspiration seems to be evident in each one.
The LGBT grass roots movement knows this more than anyone. The Facebook and Twitter mega-page STOP-Homophobia.com cites him as a motivator behind their efforts, “Harvey taught us that hope will never be silent, and we all know that together out voices are louder.” Blogger Ken Jansen, and administrator for the mega-pages Equality Mantra and The Pink Panthers Movement agrees, “Harvey Milk stated that rights are won only by those who make their voices heard. To me, this is an activist’s mantra. It should be our first thought when we see injustice, hatred, intolerance. Nothing will change if we don’t raise our voices.”
If Harvey Milk’s mandate of coming out, broadcasted un-ignorably by his death, patterned our movement’s trajectory, then no other single factor could have made it more a reality that the horrific strickening of hundreds of thousands of gay men by AIDS. The publication SFGate observes, “When AIDS began devastating San Francisco’s gay community, it silenced what had been a giddy, almost boundless celebration of sexual freedom … the news that a strange disease was killing gay men threatened to erase gay political progress symbolized by the 1977 election of Harvey Milk.”
It did not erase that progress, however. It enhanced it. It magnified it for the reasons that Harvey Milk told us it would— it forced the process of coming out. PBS/KQED states in their report, “The tragic impact of AIDS had an unexpected positive impact … Even though AIDS and HIV encouraged a negative view of gay sex, the educational efforts to combat the disease, inadequate as they were, helped to demystify same-sex unions. As a result, public awareness of homosexuality is much greater now than it was before AIDS was first identified in 1981. One of the most dramatic consequences of AIDS is that a large number of men were catapulted out of the closet when their illness became obvious. Gay men “in the closet,” who were more likely to seek anonymous sexual contact, were at greater risk than those who were open about their sexual orientation. The tragic opening of many closet doors forced heterosexuals to become aware of homosexuality in a new way. The AIDS crisis mobilized the gay and lesbian community by concentrating its focus on a single threat, and by involving many people who had not been politically active before. Because of the general public’s indifference to this crisis, the greatest response came from the gay community itself. Community-based groups started support services such as ACT UP, Shanti, Project Open Hand and the Coming Home Hospice. AIDS, which had the potential to destroy the gay liberation movement, in fact brought the neighborhood closer than ever before. Another unexpected development was the new spirit of cooperation and solidarity between lesbians and gay men. AIDS also brought many new supporters to the gay cause: parents whose sons had died of the disease; heterosexuals in the medical profession; and people who were beginning to understand the problems and discrimination encountered by gay people.”
Cleve Jones helped integrate the outing due to AIDS, and the vision of Harvey Milk through the AIDS Memorial Quilt project.
When the very first World AIDS Day was celebrated in 1988, I was hardly aware of it. I was living in the world of AIDS on a daily basis. I had already buried five of my dearest friends, and I was highly active in AIDS care as well as the political activity around it. I saw countless families who were unaware that their children were gay mourn their loss, and express immediate unconditional acceptance of who their sons were. I was constantly regretful that my friends could not have seen how validated they would have been had they lived.
At the same time, I moved around in a Reagan-inspired heterosexual war. My family and work associates were completely oblivious to my activism, my mourning, my loss. I felt like a soldier in a war that only I could see while part of the world I lived in moved on in their day-to-day trivialities.
I was right, we had been at war. We had been fighting the war that earned us the right to dignity. As DADT fell, as DOMA fell as each gain for marriage equality is made, we come closer to accomplishment in winning that war.
Today, I am the very out, very vocal gay dad of two sons. My sons are being raised in a world where LGBT equality is a given. My sons hear about the incredible friends their dad had, and are inspired by the lives that ended too soon. My sons are touched by the principles of Harvey Milk by being given the freedom to be who they are so they will never have to “come out” about anything.
We are not done, however. LGBT people are demonized within religious strongholds around the world. Transgender people are under attack socially, legally and medically. We have limited employment and housing rights.
World AIDS Day, for me, is now a reminder of all the loving souls we have lost as the price for what we have gained. The assassination of Harvey Milk reminds me that there are those who would willingly shoot the concept of an LGBT safe America dead. The sacrifices in both cases must never be taken for granted.
We must insure that the spirit they inspired live on eternally. If we never forget, we will never go backward and there is too much paying forward yet to be done.
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