|by Bill Sievert|
|Populist Harvey Milk wasn't always a hero to the gay establishment
Not everyone in San Francisco's gay community thought of Harvey Milk as a hero during his successful campaign for city supervisor in 1977. The brash, outspoken candidate was criticized as too liberal by then publisher of The Advocate David Goodstein and as too anti-establishment by his principal challenger Rick Stokes, also openly gay. As Stokes told me during an interview at the time, "I distrust Harvey's judgment. Harvey gets too emotional, shoots from the hip, is not too cool."
Personally, I found Harvey to be plenty "cool." And as a news editor for The Advocate (at a desk I shared with Randy Shilts), I was delighted to be assigned to the campaign trail, which gave me an opportunity to interview Milk (as well as Stokes) for national publication. My boss was hoping that I would do a hatchet job on Harvey, but that wasn't going to happen. I was all about "fair and balanced" long before Fox Noise made the term a laughingstock.
Still, very few of San Francisco's political bigwigs gave Harvey much of a chance of being elected. He had lost a prior bid to become a supervisor as well as a campaign for the state Assembly. And his opponent, a lawyer who argued that "it helps to be an attorney if you're going to pass laws," was favored by numerous gay business leaders and by Mayor George Moscone (who would die with Milk in disgruntled Supervisor Dan White's ambush at City Hall the next year).
However, for the first time in 1977 supervisors were to be elected by district rather than citywide, and Harvey had developed a loyal following as a community organizer in his Castro neighborhood. Many residents, straight and gay alike, appreciated his leadership in opening free child care centers, his support of organized labor's boycott of Coors beer, and his sponsorship of street artists, festivals and beautification projects. He laughingly referred to himself as "The Mayor of Castro Street," a title that caught on and is now the name of a soon-to-open big-budget Hollywood movie about his life, with Sean Penn in the title role. (The film is based on my old office-mate Shilts' biographical book of the same title.)
Harvey ran his grassroots, populist campaign from the cluttered camera shop he operated with his partner Scott Smith on Castro Street. John and I were living atop Castro hill, and almost any time we passed by the storefront's plate glass window we could spot Harvey simultaneously chatting with customers about shutter speeds and hosting some kind of political or community gathering. There were so many sofas and chairs in the shop (including a well-worn barber chair) that there was scant space for photographic supplies or equipment.
More than a businessman, Harvey was an incessant networker. He believed strongly that gay men and lesbians should run for public office themselves rather than supporting gay-friendly heterosexual politicians. Yet, by personally involving himself in issues of importance to working mothers, labor unions and ethnic minorities, he was able to stretch his gay-ghetto base into a winning coalition. Among his most notable achievements was his development of the first political alliance between the gay and Chinese-American communities.
Harvey became a hero not only to the burgeoning queer population, for whom he led efforts to legally protect gay teachers in the wake of Anita Bryant's wrath, but also to a much broader constituency. During my interview with him he repeatedly stressed the common concerns of the people of San Francisco. "Besides neighborhood issues," he told me, "the big issue is economics particularly housing and jobs. Housing is too scarce and expensive, and there are too few jobsparticularly blue collar jobs."
The economy, jobs and housing. Those core campaign issues in Harvey Milk's historically important election 31 years ago are once again at the forefront of voters' concerns, this time during a national election of historic urgency. And once again a man with a distinguished background as a community organizer, someone who believes that all citizens deserve equal respect and protection under the law, is on the verge of achieving a unique place in history. The year 1977 was a thrilling time for political change. So is 2008.
Through three presidential elections, this column has had a tradition of recapping the platforms of the two major political parties on issues pertaining to GLBT rights. Though we all know that platforms are rarely recollected after an election, they do provide insight into a party's prevailing attitude towards a subject. In the case of the Democrats, you can learn more specifics by reading the GLBT pages on Barack Obama's website. The Republicans offer no GLBT pages. (Also noteworthy this year, Democratic presidential nominee Obama, vice presidential nominee Joe Biden and Sen. Ted Kennedy all referenced gay rights in their convention speeches.)
GOP platform: "Esprit and cohesion are necessary for military effectiveness and success on the battlefield. To protect our servicemen and women and ensure that America's Armed Forces remain the best in the world, we affirm the timelessness of those values, the benefits of traditional military culture, and the incompatibility of homosexuality with military service."
Democratic platform: "More than 10,000 service men and women have been discharged on the basis of sexual orientation since the 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell' policy was implemented, at a cost of over $360 million. Many of those forced out had special skills in high demand, such as translators, engineers and pilots. At a time when the military is having a tough time recruiting and retaining troops, it is wrong to deny our country the service of brave, qualified people.
We support the repeal of 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell' and the implementation of policies to allow qualified men and women to serve openly regardless of sexual orientation."
Marriage, families and civil unions:
GOP platform: "Because our children's future is best preserved within the traditional understanding of marriage, we call for a constitutional amendment that fully protects marriage as a union of a man and a woman, so that judges cannot make other arrangements equivalent to it. In the absence of a national amendment, we support the right of the people of the various states to affirm traditional marriage through state initiatives. Republicans recognize the importance of having in the home a father and a mother who are married. The two-parent family still provides the best environment of stability, discipline, responsibility, and character....
"Republicans have been at the forefront of protecting traditional marriage laws, both in the states and in Congress. A Republican Congress enacted the Defense of Marriage Act, affirming the right of states not to recognize same-sex 'marriages' licensed in other states. Unbelievably, the Democratic Party has now pledged to repeal the Defense of Marriage Act, which would subject every state to the redefinition of marriage by a judge without ever allowing the people to vote on the matter. We also urge Congress to use its Article III, Section 2 power to prevent activist federal judges from imposing upon the rest of the nation the judicial activism in Massachusetts and California. We also encourage states to review their marriage and divorce laws in order to strengthen marriage. As the family is our basic unit of society, we oppose initiatives to erode parental rights."
Democratic platform: "Those who came before us did not strike a blow against injustice only so that we would allow injustice to fester in our time. That means removing the barriers of prejudice and misunderstanding that still exist in America. We support the full inclusion of all families in the life of our nation, and support equal responsibility, benefits, and protections.
We will enact a comprehensive bipartisan employment non-discrimination act. We oppose the Defense of Marriage Act and all attempts to use this issue to divide us.
"We believe in the essential American ideal that we are not constrained by the circumstances of birth but can make of our lives what we will....We have more work to do. Democrats will fight to end discrimination based on race, sex, ethnicity, national origin, language, religion, sexual orientation, gender identity, age and disability in every corner of our country, because that's the America we believe in."
Bill Sievert can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
LETTERS From CAMP Rehoboth, Vol. 18, No. 14 October 10, 2008