by Troy Williams
(The following interview was presented at a live forum at the Salt Lake City Library on Nov. 21th and broadcast on KRCL’s RadioActive.)
Nov. 27th marked the 30th anniversary of the assassination of Harvey Milk. Elected to the board of Supervisors in 1977, Milk’s activism and universal vision of social justice ignited a movement and changed history.
This month, FOCUS Films releases the eagerly awaited feature Milk, starring Sean Penn and directed by Gus Van Sant. In the shadow of Proposition 8 and other anti-gay measures, I spoke with Milk screenwriter, Dustin Lance Black to ask, “What Would Harvey Do?”
TW: Welcome back to Salt Lake City.
DLB: Thank you. I love being here. This is where it’s all happening.
TW: The film couldn’t have come out at a better time.
DLB: Sort of, right? I never could have predicted this moment.
TW: A lot of people in our audience probably know Harvey Milk – but for those who don’t, talk about him. Why is he the worthy subject of a feature film?
DLB: Most people don’t know who Harvey Milk is. He’s one of the most significant people in the gay and lesbian movement. There’s no really popularized recorded history of the man. There are great recorded histories. One is a fabulous documentary from 1984, The Times of Harvey Milk, but it was made over 25 years ago. I think the fact that people don’t know about him is why it needed to be done. What people do know about him is that he was the first openly gay man elected to public office in this country. And in a very short time, eleven months in office, he was able to create and pass gay and lesbian legislation and protections that were unheard of. And most notably, he defeated Proposition 6 in California, at a time when anti-gay legislation was sweeping the country. Anita Bryant and her “Save the Children” campaign were defeating gay and lesbian rights initiatives and striking gay and lesbian protection laws across the country, very successfully. In a time that felt more homophobic than today, Harvey was able to win and defeat Anita Bryant and John Briggs in 1978. Proposition 6 would have removed all gay and lesbian teachers from public schools, and even those who supported them. That sounds radical, but such laws were passing quite easily across the country. And it was polling upwards of 80% for passage when he started fighting against it. It makes us ask a lot of questions about why he could win then, and why Proposition 8 was such a defeat for us a few weeks ago.
TW: What really inspired me about Harvey Milk is his broad, expansive vision of social justice. He fearlessly went into different communities to build alliances. Communities that you wouldn’t even think of as allies – ethnic communities yes, but also people with disabilities, labor unions, elderly people…
DLB: Religious communities.
DLB: Well, it was divisive. We can look back and be like, wow, how cool that he pushed this idea of coming out. That wasn’t the coolest idea in the 70’s. A lot of the gay leaders at the time were like — It’s not safe for a lot of people to do it and we’re probably going to piss a lot of people off. Harvey’s philosophy was like — no, if you come out, if you self-represent, they’ll know that they know one of you, and they’ll be at least twice as likely not to vote against you. The gay leaders at the time were like, no, we can’t do that! He started this coming out campaign in San Francisco, and it quickly spread to Los Angelos. He called for all gay people to come out. And not just to friends, but to come out to family members, pastors, bishops and your fellow workers — and to start that education. Now I can start to go off! Because this is exactly the lesson that was missed and the mistake that was repeated recently in California.
TW: Go there. Proposition 8. You live in California. As you were watching it all, you had to be thinking how Harvey might have organized.
DLB: Yeah, I worked closely with the people who were doing No on 8 campaigning. I didn’t agree with their philosophy. We fought. But I was still hopeful. I watched 20 plus million dollars being spent without a single gay person in a commercial, without the word gay or lesbian ever appearing in a single piece of literature or a yard sign. People didn’t know what was being argued about. All they heard was the other side. Their very clear message was “gay people are going to hunt down and destroy your children”. The same message that was being used in 1978. And gay people returned to the mistakes of 1977. In 76 and 77 when gay initiatives were coming up in Wichita, Eugene and Florida, gay leaders sent straight allies. Instead of self-representing they sent them to these states and they lost time and again. It was only with the idea of self-representation, education and outreach, that Harvey was finally successful and beat Anita Bryant in 1978.
TW: I really want to see the gay community jumping on board with labor unions and environmentalists and the feminist movement and linking arms together and standing strong. Because that is the message that I get from Harvey Milk.
DLB: That’s what he did. Harvey was not elected by gay people. He won office because he did outreach to the labor guys. He was famous for going on construction sites and saying, “hey I’m a fruit, I got a boyfriend at home. But you know what – I just looked you in the eye and said that, so you know I shoot straight. I’m never not going to support unions.” Harvey did outreach into the senior community. It would be nice to see gay and lesbian youth organizations volunteering at senior citizen homes today. That’s what Harvey did in San Francisco. Cleave Jones and I (Cleave is portrayed in the film by Emile Hirsch and was Harvey’s political protégé – and created the AIDS quilt) – we just released a statement on www.sevenweekstoequality.com and you can see what we are thinking on the next step for the movement. Harvey said in 1973, “it’s time for the gay community to stop masturbating and stop grabbing at crumbs. And to ask for what we really want and for what we really need.” It’s what every single civil rights movement has done in this country.