Nancy Polikoff

MILK: A Sneak Peek and a Few Historical Reflections

Filed By Nancy Polikoff | November 24, 2008 12:00 PM | comments

Filed in: Gay Icons and History, Marriage Equality, The Movement
Tags: Anita Bryant, anti-gay, Harvey Milk, LGBT history, Milk movie

An anti-gay California ballot initiative. Gay folks marching in the streets. Is it 2008? No. It's 1978. And if you don't know that part of our history, you'll get a good feel for it in "MILK," the biopic that opens Wednesday. (I got to see it last week in a sneak preview).

I'm not a film critic, so I'll leave the review of it to others. I'll just say that Sean Penn is phenomenal as openly-gay San Francisco Supervisor Harvey Milk. Oh, and I found the movie a little long.

But the history....that I know something about. I remember it. So I'm thankful to the team that made this movie for bringing that history to those who will find it new. And for what it's worth, here's my take on the meaning of 1978.

In the first few years after Stonewall, gay rights looked like the newest movement for civil rights and liberation. Discrimination against women was toppling. Reproductive rights for women were enshrined in the Constitution. It seemed obvious to many of us that it was just a matter of time before the same forces of social and political change would broaden to include lesbians and gay men.

Sure, discrimination was the norm. But the times, they were a-changing. In custody cases involving lesbian mothers leaving heterosexual marriages, enlightened judges ruled that there needed to be proof that a parent's sexual orientation harmed a child before that factor could be used to determine custody. (In 1973, an appeals court in Colorado told a trial judge it was wrong to remove four children from the custody of her mother simply because she had undergone a sex-change operation and become a man; you wouldn't get that in a lot of states today!). Most judges were NOT enlightened, but they were bound to change or die out. The future was ours.

Then the backlash hit. Against feminism and against gay rights. We lost the ERA. Abortion rights were limited. And for our movement the backlash was personified by Anita Bryant, whose anti-gay crusade produced initiatives that repealed gay rights laws in Dade County, Florida, followed by St. Paul, Eugene, and Wichita.

Enter John Briggs, a California state senator who launched a ballot initiative to ban gay teachers, and any teacher saying anything good about gay people. The defeat of that initiative in 1978 was huge, as MILK shows (even Governor Ronald Reagan thought it went too far). Finally something to put the brakes on what looked like at one point like an unending series of defeats. Sadly, a virtually identical law did pass in Oklahoma, but it got little attention.

There may be a lesson from the overreaching of the Briggs Initiative. Remember when Arizona defeated the ban on same-sex marriage in 2006? What changed? Well that initiative would have taken rights away from unmarried couples, gay and straight. The one that passed this year affects gay people alone.

I've strayed now from the movie. So I'll end with just one more fact. Harvey Milk was the first openly gay elected official in a major US city. He was not the first openly gay elected official. That honor goes to Elaine Noble, elected in 1974 to the Massachusetts House of Representatives.


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Thanks for this great tribute to Harvey Milk, one of my biggest heroes. I'm so excited for this movie!

I can't wait to see the movie. Can't wait.

Actually, Elaine Noble was not the first gay elected offical in the US. That honor, according to the Alyson Almanac of 1994/95 p. 279, goes to Nancy Wechsler and Gerald DeGrieck who were elected to the Ann Arbor MI City Council in 1972, followed by Kathy Kozachenko in April, 1974 also to the Ann Arbor City Council. `

Then Elaine Noble to the Massachusetts
Legislature in 1974.

The late Allen Spears was elected to the Minnasota Legislature in 1972 and came out in 1974.

Harvey Milk then in 1977 became the first gay person elected to the council of a major city.