"I'm here to recruit you", Allison Pill, Anne Kronenberg, Castro Street, Cleve Jones, Coming out, Dan White, Democracy, Elaine Noble, Emile Hirsch, Gay Men, Gays in Politics, Harvey Milk, Harvey Milk gives me hope, Heroes of the Homosexual community, history, Homosexuality, Homosexuality History, Hope, Individual Will, James Franco, Milk, Politics, Queer, Queer Theory, San Francsico, Scott Smith, Sean Penn, Sexual politics, Sexuality, sucice and queer youth, suicide, suicide and queer people, The Mayor of Castro Street: The Life and Times of Harvey Milk, When We Rise
Hope is hard to come by, especially in the queer community sometimes. I haven’t lost any friends to suicide, yet, and the necessary inclusion of that word is part of what keeps me going.
I realize it’s a ridiculous position to take, but part of what keeps me writing is the hope that some young queer kid will find my work, see my life, and be inspired enough to at least keep going and not kill themselves. At the very least I hope they think to themselves “I can write better than this asshole” and start writing essays and novels that will keep me in obscurity. I’m assuming a lot given the fact, as I’ve recognized before, I’m just some dude with a blog, but there is a conviction behind all of this that goes back to one scene in a film that, when I watched, absolutely broke me for reasons that have changed.
The film Milk came out in 2008, the same year I graduated High School, and I had entered into a period of personal darkness as I recovered from the experience. High School sucks for everybody, but something about the experience left me head-fucked for two years but that at least gave me time to read a lot of books, write a couple of books, and see some films which left their mark on my consciousness. I had seen commercials for the film Milk, and while I wasn’t homophobic at the time, I was still in that early phase when same-sex intimacy between men was something that left me queasy. In hindsight I realize it left me that way for an reasons that had yet to bubble up to the surface. The movie Milk was, as Allison Bechdel puts it so beautifully in her graphic novel Fun Home, a Siren calling me on to a new discovery. I checked out the film from Hastings (#RestinPeace) and watched it alone after my family had gone to bed.
The film was beautiful and opened my eyes to the struggles gay people suffered in the 1970s, but at one point I had to pause the film and cry. Harvey Milk is trying to stop a riot in Castro street when he receives a phone call from a young man in the Midwest:
Harvey Milk: [answering the phone] Scotty?
Paul: I’m sorry, sir. I read about you in the paper.
Harvey Milk: I’m sorry, I can’t talk right now.
Paul: Sir, I think I’m gonna kill myself.
Harvey Milk: No, you don’t want to do that. Where are you calling from?
Harvey Milk: You saw my picture in the paper in Minnesota? How did I look?
Paul: My folks are gonna take me to this place tomorrow. A hospital. To fix me.
Harvey Milk: There’s nothing wrong with you – listen to me: You just get on a bus, to the nearest big city, to Los Angeles or New York or San Francisco, it doesn’t matter, you just leave. You are not sick, and you are not wrong and God does not hate you. Just leave.
Paul: [crying] I can’t. I can’t walk sir.
The camera pans out and the viewer is able to see that Paul is in a wheelchair. I can’t describe the emotion this scene still manages to leave in me; the only word that feels accurate is destroyed. Paul was enough for my eighteen-year-old self to realize gay people weren’t monsters, they weren’t sick, they were just human beings. And in my young mind I crafted a fantasy where I could run and save Paul. I wanted to be the ally that would help people like Paul. It’s embarrassing this old hero fantasy, but I had it nonetheless. What I didn’t recognize at the time, was there was another part in me, that wanted to hug Paul and kiss him and hold him close not just because I wanted to keep him safe, but because I was actually attracted to him.
Paul jumpstarted whatever queer longings I had in my heart, it just took my head a while to catch up.
Since coming out I’ve watched Milk again and this time it left me far more impacted because I’ve come out as queer and I’ve watched the progress the queer community has gained and the struggles it continues to face. The atmosphere has sickened and recent events have reminded me, rather painfully, that my existence and the existence of many of my friends, is one that some people would prefer didn’t exist. In such moments, it’s easy to cry, and it’s easy to lose hope and consider crawling back into the closet. But in fact at such moments I find more inspiration in people like Harvey Milk who, even when they felt most terrified, continued to fight.
The closing lines of the film echoes just this very sentiment:
Harvey Milk: [Voice Over, Last lines] I ask this… If there should be an assassination, I would hope that five, ten, one hundred, a thousand would rise. I would like to see every gay lawyer, every gay architect come out – – If a bullet should enter my brain, let that bullet destroy every closet door… And that’s all. I ask for the movement to continue. Because it’s not about personal gain, not about ego, not about power… it’s about the “us’s” out there. Not only gays, but the Blacks, the Asians, the disabled, the seniors, the us’s. Without hope, the us’s give up – I know you cannot live on hope alone, but without it, life is not worth living. So you, and you, and you… You gotta give em’ hope… you gotta give em’ hope.
I recognize that my reader may be getting sick of my maudlin and wants me to get to the actual film, but please indulge me this moment of reflection because my queer sense of self has received a few beatings lately because of assholes and I want to just warm myself near the fire of these great queer icons that came before me. And, in fact, the reason Milk remains so powerful to me as a film is because of my sense of failure as a queer man lately.
The film Milk covers the later life of Harvey Milk the man who was one of the first openly gay politicians in the United States to win public office. He wasn’t in fact the first openly gay politician, Elaine Noble who was elected to the Masssechusettes State Legislature in 1974 was in fact the first, but Harvey has managed somehow over time to become a figurehead of queer politics I suspect largely because his time was so short, he was a charming and approachable man, and the fact that he was assassinated. Milk follows Harvey when he meets his lover Scott Smith in a subway station on his birthday, and after they’ve had sex Harvey reflect on his life and realizes he hasn’t done anything he’s proud of. Harvey and Scott move to San Francisco where they’re greeted with homophobia and Harvey decides to rally the neighborhood, which is mostly gay, and from this start Harvey realizes he has a gift for politics. The film then follows his many unsuccessful campaigns for the Board of Supervisors before his eventual victory, his push for legislation for homosexual rights, and then his eventual assassination by fellow board member Dan White.
There’s many things for lovers of cinema to appreciate about the movie Milk, whether it’s the historically accurate costumes, the lighting, the cinematography, or the amazing performances by people like Sean Penn (who won best actor for his portrayal) to Allison Pill playing Anne Kronenburg or Emile Hirsch playing Cleve Jones. As a film Milk succeeds as a biopic which, as a genre, is usually just Oscar fodder for actors looking to nail their first win. For my own part Milk as a film is more important for the way it helps foster new opportunities for queer roles in film.
When it was released Milk had every charge of a “We’re Here, We’re Queer, Get Use to it!” chant. It was released in 2008 when the united states had been through the Bush Administration which had tried to push a constitutional amendment for heterosexual marriage only and so the queer community at large was fighting the same old fights they had been up to that point, and it echoes in the film. In one scene Harvey discovers two men who’ve been the victim of queer bashing:
San Francisco Cop: [identifying a body] The fruit was walking home with his trick when they were jumped. Name’s Robert Hillsborough. Did you know him?
Harvey Milk: He used to come into my shop. Are there any witnesses?
San Francisco Cop: Just the trick. Jerry Taylor.
Harvey Milk: Jerry wasn’t a trick. They were lovers.
San Francisco Cop: Call it what you will. He’s our only witness and he says he can’t identify the attackers.
Harvey Milk: There’d be a dozen witnesses if they thought you boys had any real interest in protecting them.
It had been about ten years since Matthew Shepard’s murder at this point, and queer bashing was still an issue. Though to be fair it’s still a significant issue and part of the reason why I began this article with the word “yet.” The issue of police defending or protecting the queer community is a nuanced one and not one I’m ready to write about yet, but at the time the film was produced the community was struggling with the idea that nobody really seemed willing to step forward and offer up serious commitment of security. The film also addressed the issue of conservative pundits and commentators becoming cult of personalities by making anti-queer civic rights they’re defining political message. As such queer commentators and political rights organizations had to establish a new rhetoric:
Harvey Milk: If we had someone in the government who saw things the way we see them, the way the black community has black leaders who look out for their interests…
Scott Smith: You’re gonna run for Supervisor, is that the idea?
Harvey Milk: I could go right for mayor, but I think I should work my way up to it… You’ll be my campaign manager.
Scott Smith: Because I have so much experience in politics.
Harvey Milk: Politics is theater. It doesn’t matter if you win. You make a statement. You say, ‘I’m here, pay attention to me.’
My readers who live in major, urban cities may roll their eyes at this or else yawn comfortably at this quote, but that’s largely because major cities have become fostering grounds for queer people. For those of us that live in rural areas, or else the periphery of such hubs the struggle just to express your very existence can be a trial. It’s not always an issue of violence being performed against you, but rather lone voices expressing dissent that queer people should even be recognized. It may not seem terribly dramatic to have displays or parades or books or movies shown in public taken down, but when it’s the closest thing a person has to validating that their existence is real, that their identity is real, such actions leave their mark.
When the world tells you that they’d be more comfortable if you didn’t exist it’s hard not to internalize that and be left feeling hopeless. Recent events that have to remain anonymous have proven that to me, and that’s why more and more lately I go back to Milk and the idea of hope.
In the film a noted anti-gay activist Anita Bryant scores a major victory for gay-opposition politics with a civil housing bill in Florida and Harvey makes a speech:
Harvey Milk: I am here tonight to say that we will no longer sit quietly in the closet. We must fight. And not only in the Castro, not only in San Francisco, but everywhere the Anitas go. Anita Bryant did not win tonight, Anita Bryant brought us together! She is going to create a national gay force! And the young people in Jackson Mississippi, in Minnesota, in the Richmond, in Woodmere New York, who are hearing her on television, hearing Anita Bryant telling them on television that they are sick, they are wrong, there is no place in this great country for them, no place in this world, they are looking to us for something tonight, and I say, we have got to give them hope!
Hope is hard to come by. That’s a platitude but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t hold any relevance. Looking over my life, and where the Queer community has come since Harvey does leave me with hope, but that doesn’t mean the challenges have stopped. Queer people are still a target, and we’re still being killed for just being who we are, and it fucking terrifies me. I don’t want to lose any friends, and I don’t lose any ground.
I’ve watched friends cry as they tell me it feels like they’re being pushed back into the closet, and I’ve watched my own sense of self being pushed back. It’s in these moments that hope breaks, or twists in the wind before it cracks. But at these moments I think of Harvey, and I think of Paul who eventually made it.
Harvey Milk: Not a good time, Don.
Paul: This is Paul. Don just gave me the phone.
Harvey Milk: Paul who?
Paul: You spoke to me on the phone, a year or so ago. I’m in a wheelchair. I’m from Minnesota.
Harvey Milk: I thought you were a goner Paul.
Paul: When I saw that you won the supervisor seat, I got a friend to put me on a bus to LA.
Harvey Milk: Who do you know in Los Angeles?
Paul: Nobody. I just didn’t want to die anymore. I met your friend Don down here. And I turned 18,
and I voted today against prop 6. I don’t think I’d be alive right now if it weren’t for you.
It’s tempting to say that this scene is sentimental, were it not for the fact this happens. Queer youth are the most likely people to commit suicide largely because they feel like they have no hope. They tend to be isolated or exiled from their families, and rather than have someone like Harvey who tells them that they are loved and that their existence is not something repulsive they often destroy themselves before they have a chance to realize they’re not alone.
It is ridiculous to think this, but I’m a ridiculous, emotional man anyway, so I might as well be honest with myself. I keep writing because I hope some young queer kid finds these words I’ve thrown out into the sea and realizes they’re not alone, and they’re not ugly, and they’re not sick. They’re exactly who they should be and want to be which is sexy as fucking fuck. The fight is ongoing and will leave many defeated but I would hope that they keep going.
Hope is hard to come by, and even more hard to hold onto, but that hope lingers on and keeps people alive.
If the reader is at all interested about the life of Harvey Milk I would recommend Cleve Jones’s memoir When We Rise, as well as the book The Mayor of Castro Street. I own the latter and have yet to read it largely because I keep checking books out from the library rather than read the books I own or buy online. Ah, but that is, after all, the age old struggle of the Bibliophile
I’ve included here a link to the “Hope Speech” by Harvey Milk. The first link is a version in which Sir Ian Mckellen performs Harvey’s words as only he can, which means this delivery is beautiful
I’ve also included a link to a video of Harvey delivering a similar speech himself. Mr. McKellen is beautiful in every sense of the word, but sometimes you need to hear the original voice.