MILK and Recruiting for Rights

MILK and Recruiting for Rights

by Eleanor J. Bader

We asked leading thinkers to describe New Revolutions We Need for a feminist and progressive future. Here’s one response.

During the last half century, Americans have seen numerous small-but-potent revolutions on home soil. Government sanctioned segregation has ended; Barack Obama is president; abortion is legal; and gay and lesbian lawmakers serve at the local, state and federal levels.

Of course, there’s also been backlash — lots of it — as people with heads full of hate bring violence to the streets and prejudice to the ballot box. Abortion access has become so restrictive in some states that it’s virtually unavailable and there are signs of racism and homophobia everywhere.

Nonetheless, political change is evident.

Gus Van Sant’s excellent biopic, MILK, captures revolution in San Francisco and brings a host of intriguing ideas about social change to the fore. Along the way, he zooms in on an unlikely hero, a once-closeted Wall Street financial analyst named Harvey Milk.

On the eve of his 40th birthday, Milk makes a sobering admission to a man he’d met just hours earlier: “Forty years old and I haven’t done a thing I can be proud of.”

Although feminism is never credited, Milk seems taken with the idea of personal transformation and moves himself and his boyfriend to the Bay area. The personal becomes political as Milk leaves the closet and opens a camera shop in San Francisco’s then-developing gay neighborhood, the Castro. Almost overnight the store becomes a hangout-slash-haven for gay white men, and later, a staging ground for activism.

When local Teamster leaders approach Milk about supporting a fledgling boycott of anti-union Coors beer, Milk uses his growing political clout to get the product out of bars. In gratitude, the Teamsters begin hiring queer truck drivers, a tangible success that earned Milk widespread respect.

Milk had tasted power — and he loved it. He also saw that his charming, if in-your-face, demeanor got attention. But how best to use it?

After a police raid on a Castro-area bar sent 14 people to hospitals or jails, residents were fed up with police harassment and ready to take action to stop it. “If someone in government saw things the way we see them” violations of civil rights would be impossible, Milk tells the men in his store. Wheels turn and within days, Milk launches his 1973 bid for City Supervisor. His platform supported gun control and expanded funding for schools, libraries and senior centers. He lost but ran again in 1975. Although he once again failed, he envisioned gay unity and became fixated on image. He cut his ponytail, put on a suit, and began to look like the respectable candidates he otherwise deplored.

The next year he ran for California State Assembly against machine Democrat Art Agnos. While contemptuous of Agnos’ centrism, he took his opponent’s advice: “In this town you need to give them a reason for optimism or you’re cooked.” From then on, Milk never failed to offer hope to potential constituents. Still, he lost.

Then, in 1977, against a backdrop of Christian fundamentalist Anita Bryant’s effort to overturn a Dade County, Florida gay rights ordinance, Milk kicked-off his final campaign for City Supervisor. Thanks to redistricting, Milk won handily, becoming, in 1978, the first openly gay man elected to public office in a major U.S. city.

Watching MILK one can’t help but feel the charge of this ascension. At the same time, the heterogeneity of Milk’s campaign staff is overwhelming. Did his victory owe nothing to feminists, unions, people of color and straight progressives? The film never tells us.

Indeed, the film doesn’t linger on Milk’s triumph and instead introduces Dan White, a rightwing ex-cop who’d also won a Supervisor’s seat. Perhaps naively, Milk seeks common ground with White and despite White’s overt heterosexism, attempts to win him over. “I think Dan White may be one of us,” Milk tells his staff. “I can see it in his eyes, the fear and pressure.”

Armchair psychology aside, White and Milk go to the mat over Proposition 6, California Assemblyman John Briggs’ attempt to enshrine homophobia into California law. Milk’s fight is the stuff of political legend: combat that merged street theater, on-the-ground activism and biting public barbs in defense of life, liberty and happiness.

While Milk’s efforts helped defeat Briggs’ initiative in California, other locales reneged on earlier commitments to gay equality. After a stinging loss in Wichita, it is thrilling to see footage of protesters shouting: “Civil rights or civil war. Gay rights now.”

Yes, it was a powerful moment — but escalated tension between White and Milk led White to rebuke his nemesis for imagined torment: in his mind Milk had humiliated and demeaned him. Later, when White resigns from his Supervisor’s post, he looks like a defeated warrior, a man undone by social shifts.

Things don’t end here, however, and after a closed-door meeting with the City’s uniformed police officers, White abruptly retracts his resignation. In a stunning show of arrogance, Milk berates Mayor George Moscone for considering the request. When Mayor Moscone likens him to Boss Tweed and Mayor Daley, Milk snickers: “A homosexual with power. I like that.”

In the end, Moscone tells White that his resignation is final. Days later, in November 1978, both Milk and Moscone were murdered, victims of Supervisor-turned-assassin Dan White.

Van Sant and screenwriter Dustin Lance Black have given audiences a provocative film that forces us to question the nature of leadership and power. Despite being a latecomer to activism, Milk reveled in stardom and his obsessive drive propelled him into the limelight. Yet, for all that, his personal relationships suffered and he neglected those closest to him to win a seat at the proverbial table. What’s more, as he gained prominence, he became autocratic. Perhaps this is inevitable, but I’d like to think that people can hold onto their values regardless of where they’re stationed, that power can only corrupt if we let it.

Milk, in office for less than a year, didn’t have the opportunity to test this thesis. In his finest moments he stood up to the powerful and posed a dynamic challenge to the status quo, reminding his supporters that “it’s not about power, ego or personal gain. It’s about the us — out there, the Blacks, the gays, the disabled, the seniors.”

While this might sound disingenuous coming from a politician, it’s a laudable sentiment — with present-day implications — for a community organizer-turned statesman. Clearly, la lucha continua, the struggle continues.

See MILK trailers here or here.

Eleanor J. Bader is a teacher, freelance writer and activist from Brooklyn, NY. She is the co-author of Targets of Hatred: Anti-Abortion Terrorism (Macmillan 2001).