Byline: Bruce Mirken
"My name is Harvey Milk and I want to recruit you," he used to say, playing on the old canard that gays try to convert the young. "I want to recruit you for the fight to preserve your democracy."
Milk, who would have turned 70 on May 22, succeeded in ways he never imagined. In November 1977, Milk became the first openly gay person ever elected to San Francisco's Board of Supervisors. It was a time when an open gay in high public office seemed not just unlikely, but absurd.
And that, Milk knew, was why it mattered. "It's not about personal gain, not about ego, not about power," he said in his tape-recorded will. "It's about giving those young people out there in the Altoona, Pennsylvanias, hope. You gotta give them hope."
Milk was gunned down after less than a year in office by Dan White, a fellow supervisor who became unhinged. White also shot dead San Francisco's liberal mayor, George Moscone.
Milk became the modern gay-rights movement's first martyr. Like the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., he is invoked constantly by those who would like to claim his legacy. And, as with King, some important details get left out.
Milk knew the gay and lesbian civil-rights movement was just one part of a much larger struggle for human freedom. He asked for the closure of the local South African Consulate to build pressure for the end of apartheid. He urged San Francisco to give priority to neighborhoods and ordinary citizens over glitzy projects designed for tourists.
More than 20 years before globalization became a catch phrase, Milk told big business in his inaugural speech: "The cheapest place to manufacture a product may not be the cheapest at all if it results in throwing your customers out of work. There's no sense in making television sets in Japan if the customers in the United States haven't the money to buy them."
And decades before John McCain's insurgent candidacy captured the imagination of millions, Milk fought an entrenched political machine and won.
What would Harvey Milk think if he were alive today? He would probably be appalled at the continuing influence of money and entrenched power, both in his city and in Washington. I believe he would be delighted that South Africa is now a multiracial democracy. I know that he would be amazed and delighted that open gays and lesbians now serve in the U.S. Congress and hundreds of other elected offices.
I believe he would be encouraged that so many took to the streets in Seattle and Washington and forced the political system to address the impact of global institutions like the World Trade Organization and the International Monetary Fund on ordinary citizens.
And I know he would be thrilled that across the country, gay and lesbian high school students _ like that kid in Altoona, Pa., he talked about _ have stepped forward on their own to demand equality, forming campus clubs to work for an end to harassment and prejudice.
"You gotta give 'em hope," Milk said.
He succeeded beyond his wildest dreams.
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ABOUT THE WRITER
Bruce Mirken is a free-lance writer living in San Francisco. He can be reachedat pmproj(AT)progressive.org, or by writing to Progressive Media Project, 409 East Main St., Madison, Wis. 53703.
This article was prepared for The Progressive Media Project and is available to KRT subscribers. Knight Ridder/Tribune did not subsidize the writing of this column; the opinions are those of the writer and do not necessarily represent the views of Knight Ridder/Tribune or its editors.
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