"My name is Harvey Milk and I'm here to recruit you!", "You Gotta Give 'em Hope", AIDS, Anita Bryant, Democracy, Gay people in politics, GoodReads, Haleth son of Hama, Harvey Milk, Harvey Milk gives me hope, history, Homosexuality, Homosexuality as mental illness, Hope, Hope Speech, identification, LGBTQ Suicide Rate, Liberalism and Homosexuality, Literature, Milk, Politics, Public speech, Queer, Queer People in Politics, Queer Visibility, Queer Youth, Representation, Sean Penn, Sexual identity, Sexual politics, Sexual Rhetoric, Sexuality, Sir Ian McKellan Hope Speech, Speech, The Lord of the Rings, The Mayor of Castro Street, Trevor Project
The first “pride” parade I ever went to was begun when a woman stood on a table and said, “My name is Hannah and I’m here to recruit you!” The crowd cheered and I let out a deep approving bark like I usually do at such events. It was a fun way to start because we all knew exactly who she was quoting and that opening mattered because of the person who originally said those words.
If you had asked me ten years ago who Harvey Milk was I wouldn’t have been able to tell you. I might have been able to say that he was the main character in a movie that Sean Penn was starring in but other than that I couldn’t give you anything else. I was a young, closeted man who tried to avoid any kind of info or history of queer people while also trying to ignore the fact that I was sporadically looking up gay porn and occasionally crushing on Haleth from Lord of the Rings the Two Towers(I was fourteen when the movie came out and he was, to quote my little sister, “man-pretty.”). It was shortly after seeing Milk though that my knowledge of Harvey Milk changed and the start of my eventual coming out began to happen.
This is a lovely origin story, but to be fair and honest Harvey Milk did not become the figure that he has to me until only recently. In the last year I’ve graduated from college after digging into Queer Theory, and even after graduating and coming out I’m still digging into the fun territory that is sexuality and gender studies. Most of my reading tends to deal with queer men and sex that takes place between them, but in-between books about sex it’s important for me to read about the men and women who have helped queer people like me get the space and place that they enjoy today. That’s why when I saw The Mayor of Castro Street in a GoodReads list of Great LGBTQ Non-Fiction I decided to read about the man who had helped me get over my original homophobia.
I intend to write about The Mayor of Castro Street eventually, but honestly recent events have left me feeling depressed and beaten, and far more important, it’s left my hope a little damaged. For reasons that are Kafkaesque and absurd I cannot actually write about the details of the event in question, but I can at least write honestly that the events have left me worried about being honest publicly about my sexuality, or with trying to offer up public information about queer people and our history. The short version is, I feel like I’ve been pushed back into the closet by an idiot and several people who are too cowardly to stand up to said idiot. What’s worse is that people close to me, people who I have nothing but respect for, who have tried to fight have either been silenced or, even worse, had to apologize to the aforementioned idiot. I’ve had to watch my queer friends actually shed tears and tell me they feel like they’re being shamed and hidden away. And I’ve had to bury my anger and cautiously consider my actions for fear of personal and professional safety. And the worst part of the whole ordeal, is that I’ve lost a bit of hope that there’s anything I can actually do.
Once that hope is gone it’s not easily regained, and in fact I suspect it’s permanently gone.
Having recently written about Harvey Milk I looked back to his iconic “Hope Speech” and I decided to sit down and read it. I was already digging through Randy Shilt’s The Mayor of Castro Street, and in the back of the book there is a collection of Milk’s public speeches and so in a brief burst before work I read the speech. It began with those words that my friend Hannah had begun her own rally:
My name is Harvey Milk and I’m here to recruit you.
I’ve been saying this one for years. It’s a political joke. I can’t help it–I’ve got to tell it. I’ve never been able to talk to this many political people before, so if I tell you nothing else you may be able to go home laughing a bit.
Harvey goes on for a bit after this telling a few more jokes before going into a brief mention about the political direction of the country at the time, and while it may not at first seem terribly relevant, as is usually the case, Harvey’s point is to address an important issue:
So much for that. Why are we here? Why are gay people here? And what’s happening? What’s happening to me is the antithesis of what you read about in the papers and what you hear about on the radio. You hear about and read about this movement to the right. That we must band together and fight back this movement to the right. And I’m here to go ahead and say that what you hear and read is what they want you to think because it’s not happening. The major media in this country has talked about the movement to the right so the legislators think that there is indeed a movement to the right and that the Congress and the legislators and the city councils will start to move to the right the way the major media want them. So they keep on talking about this move to the right.
So let’s look at 1977 and see if there was indeed a move to the right. In 1977, gay people had their rights taken away from them in Miami. But you must remember that in the week before Miami and the week after that, the word homosexual or gay appeared in every single newspaper in this nation in articles both pro and con. In every radio station, in every TV station and every household. For the first time in the history of the world, everybody was talking about it, good or bad. Unless you have dialogue, unless you open the walls of dialogue, you can never reach to change people’s opinion. In those two weeks, more good and bad, but more about the word homosexual and gay was written than probably in the history of mankind. Once you have dialogue starting, you know you can break down prejudice. In 1977 we saw a dialogue start. In 1977, we saw a gay person elected in San Francisco. In 1977 we saw the state of Mississippi decriminalize marijuana. In 1977, we saw the convention of conventions in Houston. And I want to know where the movement to the right is happening.
Within the United States this isn’t a question at all. The country knows that the Republican party is in power, however at the rate their going that’s almost certain to change come 2018. Then again Democrats never have been very good at winning and holding something so I probably shouldn’t speculate about future demographics. This passage at first doesn’t have much to do with “hope” and the importance of queer people to have hope for the future. In fact at first it seems to suggest nothing except that it would be a great time for queer people. It would appear as such, but in fact this recognition that republicans are not the ones in power reveals a real problem. Queer people were not enjoying a time of provenance despite the Democratic party’s majority, and that was largely because Democrats at the time were not very good friends to the queer community.
It’s easy to forget if you do nothing but listen to pundits from the left, but Queer Identity Politics and being a Democrat were not always simpatico. In fact despite the fact that homosexuality had been removed from the DSM as a mental illness, many democrats still saw queer people as a threat to political capital rather than a bonus. Being tolerant or even supportive of homosexuals could be a political death sentence (unless you were Bernie Sanders), and so as queer people in the 1970s were beginning to assume more and more of a cultural identity they were looking to some kind of leadership. The problem was, all of the leaders were straight.
Now my reader may protest immediately that there shouldn’t have been a problem with that, but Harvey checks that in his speech.
I know we are pressed for time so I’m going to cover just one more little point. That is to understand why it is important that gay people run for office and that gay people get elected. I know there are many people in this room who are running for central committee who are gay. I encourage you. There’s a major reason why. If my non-gay friends and supporters in this room understand it, they’ll probably understand why I’ve run so often before I finally made it. Y’see right now, there’s a controversy going on in this convention about the gay governor. Is he speaking out enough? Is he strong enough for gay rights? And there is controversy and for us to say it is not would be foolish. Some people are satisfied and some people are not.
You see there is a major difference–and it remains a vital difference–between a friend and a gay person, a friend in office and a gay person in office. Gay people have been slandered nationwide. We’ve been tarred and we’ve been brushed with the picture of pornography. In Dade County, we were accused of child molestation. It’s not enough anymore just to have friends represent us. No matter how good that friend may be.
It feels painfully obvious to me as I type this out, yet still the problem persists, which is that people need to be represented by people who are like them. It’s important for representatives to be the people they’re representing.
It’s the benefit of living in a democracy where, for the most part, society is run by this principle, but even within the United States there is still an issue with the political dynamic and people not electing representatives who actually represent them. Rather than getting into the Kafkaesque minutia of gerrymandering I would rather my reader recognize that in the United States there is still a discrepancy in terms of how populations are represented politically and this in turn has led to a system where people feel that politics is a waste of time and effort. What good is it to worry about who’s running for Railroad Management Secretary or Vice Board Direcor when I can’t find any info about who these people are? Why I should vote in the general election when the electoral college overpowers my vote every time.
This cynicism is unfortunately easily founded, and much like Gorilla glue it’s damn near impossible to unstick it once it’s been established.
But it’s for this very reason that that cynicism must be challenged. The only way change comes about is by giving a shit about the process. This was a lesson that queer people began to recognize more and more as the decade went on, and that initiative only strengthened during the 80s as the AIDS crisis demanded political and personal action. I won’t suggest that Harvey Milk had a large hand in that, but the man has endured as one of the earliest openly homosexual politicians. The fact that a gay person could be elected to public office was grounds enough to demand a turn at the microphone, if for no other reason to prove that they could. It should be noted though other reasons compelled Harvey’s hand.
He addresses the smear against queer people that has, revoltingly, lingered to this day:
Like every other group, we must be judged by our leaders and by those who are themselves gay, those who are visible. For invisible, we remain in limbo–a myth, a person with no parents, no brothers, no sisters, no friends who are straight, no important positions in employment. A tenth of the nation supposedly composed of stereotypes and would-be seducers of children–and no offense meant to the stereotypes. But today, the black community is not judged by its friends, but by its black legislators and leaders. And we must give people the chance to judge us by our leaders and legislators. A gay person in office can set a tone, con command respect not only from the larger community, but from the young people in our own community who need both examples and hope.
And thus I return to the recent events that I can’t talk about and that reality is what most disturbs me. I never hide from my reader. I offer up my honest ambitions, thoughts, feelings, and reflections about works of literature while always speaking honestly about my own life. It’s my way of making amends for making my reader sit through the long boring analysis.
And I can’t write about it. I can’t give details. I can’t name names. I can’t say anything. And the fact of the matter is it’s because one person was offended by the existence of queer people, by the idea that queer people should be visible and their lives should be celebrated and studied, and now my hope is left battered.
It would be one thing if this was just an isolated incident but I know for a fact it is not. I’ve observed in the last years that even when queer people manage to secure some kind of political victory the backlash is still violent and heart breaking. The population of transgender and queer youth still face the issue of potential homelessness just because of who they are. Queer people still have to worry about being out and open for fear of persecution either in the form of verbal or outright physical abuse. Don’t get me wrong, society has progressed, but only so far.
At this point though I anticipate my reader’s reaction. Life isn’t so bad for queer people. They can marry, and own property, and even adopt children and start families. They need to get over this victim complex they have and get used to the fact that you can’t always have everything your way. Some people aren’t comfortable with their children being exposed to queer people, and queer people should respect that desire to protect their children.
The problem with this argument is that it’s false. Yes there has some social progress and homosexuality is no longer observed as a criminal offense and psychological disorder, but anyone who argues that the queer population lives without problems is fooling themselves. It’s only been 19 years since Matthew Shepard was killed in Wisconsin. Suicide is still the second leading cause of death for people between the ages of 10 and 24 and this number is 4 times greater for LGB youth. The reason the T is absent at the end of this statement is because the numbers for Trans people committing or considering suicide tends to be higher with at least 40% of the population saying that they have attempted suicide.
These numbers are a sign of something that I’ve recognized more and more lately, which is that people don’t have any hope. It’s easy to let go and feel isolated, and to feel like no matter what you do there will not be people who are willing to stand up and fight.
It’s not on a soap box in San Francisco, and it’s not in the board room of my local city hall, but this site is at best part of where I stand and let my voice be heard.
I’m queer, and while I don’t have much hope for my own situation, I know that hope persists. I know this because Harvey said as such:
The first gay people we elect must be strong. They must not be content to sit in the back of the bus. They must not be content to accept pablum. They must be above wheeling and dealing. They must be–for the good of all of us–independent, unbought. The anger and the frustrations that some of us feel is because we are misunderstood, and friends can’t feel the anger and frustration. They can sense it in us, but they can’t feel it. Because a friend has never gone through what is known as coming out. I will never forget what it was like coming out and having nobody to look up toward. I remember the lack of hope–and our friends can’t fulfill it.
I can’t forget the looks on faces of people who’ve lost hope. Be they gay, be they seniors, be they blacks looking for an almost-impossilbe job, be they Latins trying to explain their problems and aspirations in a tongue that’s foreign to them. I personally will never forget that people are more important than buildings. I use the word “I” because I’m proud. I stand here tonight in front of my gay sisters, brothers and friends because I’m proud of you. I think it’s time that we have many legislators who are gay and proud of that fact and do not have to remain in the closet. I think that a gay person, up-front, will not walk away from a responsibility and be afraid of being tossed out of office. After Dade County, I walked among the angry and the frustrated night after night and I looked at their faces. And in San Francisco, three days before Gay Pride Day, a person was killed just because he was gay. And that night, I walked among the sad and the frustrated at City Hall in San Francisco and later that night as they lit candles on Castro Street and stood in silence, reaching out for some symbolic thing that would give them hope. These were strong people, whose faces I knew from the shop, the streets, meetings and people who I never saw before but I knew. They were strong, but even they needed hope.
So if there is a message I have to give, it is that I’ve found one overriding thing about my personal election, it’s the fact that if a gay person can be elected, it’s a green light. And you and you and you, you have to give people hope. Thank you very much.
When I go to work I wear a small button on my lanyard. It’s a purple and blue rainbow that ends with the words “We are Everywhere.” It was a gift to me by a co-worker who’s also bisexual who was also disgusted by the events which have recently taken place. It’s a nice addition to my rainbow colored bow-ties, and it also keeps my hope alive.
It’s absolutely ridiculous to assume a political position behind a dime-sized button that nobody ever notices or asks about, but that’s not really the point. In the face of absolute bigotry and hatred I had people above me who represented me because they were strong people. Some of them were friends, and some of them were queer like me.
Thirty-nine years after Harvey Milk delivered his speech about Hope, and the relevance of his words are still resonating.
All quotes from The Hope Speech were taken from an online website which the reader can read by following the link below. They can also find the speech in the back of Randy Shilt’s The Mayor of Castro Street: The Life and Times of Harvey Milk.
Sir Ian McKellan reciting the Hope Speech…nuff said.
I’ve provided a link to the Trevor Project where the reader can observe the statitics for suicide rates in the LGBTQ community as well as resources about how to prevent such actions. There are people fighting to make sure Queer people aren’t forgotten and aren’t marginalized. There is, as Aragorn so beautifully put to Halath son of Hama, Hope.
I’ll also provide a link to the Trevor Projects homo website if the reader would be interested in contributing to their work either financially or as a volunteer:
I feel it’s important that, should anyone stumble across this essay by accident they should see at least one amazing moment of beautiful queerness, and so, here’s the spectacular Kate McKinnon (who’s quickly becoming one of my all time queer icons and personal heroes) playing a lesbian woman who stumbles upon the island of Themiskyra and gets to actually make out with feminist icon Diana Prince, a.k.a. Wonder Woman.
Please enjoy this moment of Queerness with a capital Q.