Michael Crawford

Knowing Our History

Filed By Michael Crawford | January 04, 2009 10:00 AM | comments

Filed in: Gay Icons and History, Politics
Tags: gay history, gay movement, gay youth, Harvey Milk, history of gay rights, Nancy Goldstein

An intense discussion is being played out over the film Milk and whether or not it offers a sanitized version of Harvey Milk's life and gay movement history.

In the Huffington Post Nancy Goldstein says:

Was Van Sant afraid that audiences wouldn't be sympathetic if 70s-era gay activists were people who suffered, swore, fought back, and fucked like they meant it? If the street kids actually looked like dirty, starving, broke-ass teen hustlers?

Gay history -- unedited -- is ugly, angry, and violent. It's police dragging us out of cellar bars and down to the station to gang fuck the femmes and face-rape the butches, queens, and trannies. It's military witch hunts; suicides and "experimental therapies," from lobotomies and electro-shock to Christian boot camps. It's Stonewall, where we showered raiding police with bottles, locked them in the bar, and set it afire. It's ACT UP and chaining ourselves to pharmaceutical companies' fences to protest AIDS drugs price gouging.

Of course, Milk offers a sanitized version of Harvey's life and that particular moment in gay movement history. It is a film produced and distributed by Hollywood that stars mainstream actors like Sean Penn, Diego Luna and James Franco. But, that doesn't make it any less an important film.

I say that not because the film is likely one of the first film's about a hero of the gay movement that straight people will see. Or, even that it is the first film about a gay movement hero that a lot of gay people will see.

The importance of Milk is that it will open the eyes of young people, both gay and straight, to a key figure in the movement for gay rights and ideally will whet their appetites to learn more.

Along with telling stories about how they walked 12 miles to get to the lone gay bar in the next town over across unpaved roads wearing homemade outfits cobbled together with pluck and a Bedazzler, older gays love to point fingers at young gays and accuse them of being ignorant of gay history and the gay movement. This may be true, but ignores the reality that the straight majority has colluded to render us and our history invisible. And, it ignores the fact that older gays have a responsibility to do more than pass judgment about what younger gays may or may not know.

We have a responsibility to share that knowledge and to create opportunities for gay and straight, young and old to learn about the history of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender and the straight allies who have stood with us in our fight for equal rights.


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A lot of us are ignorant of LGBT history. Americans, in general, are history stupid. With no shared history and passed down generational stories of our own, the job is even harder in a soundbite world.

Older people, gay or straight, often are concerned with how little the younger generation know about history, particularly about events which happened during the older persons lifetime. This is true regarding world and national affairs, so I am not surprised that it is true for our community.

Older people know the importance of such events. That younger people aren't aware of this history, and seemingly attach little importance to it can be disturbing to older people.

I agree with Micheal that the correct thing to do is to reach out and open the eyes of those who do not know.

Angela Brightfeather | January 4, 2009 10:13 PM

I agree withthe comments in general. Now lets take it another step if you will.

Suppose you were one of those people who were present for much of that history and you saw other people making a conscious effort to destroy that history, warp it, turn it inside out and take the good and heroic parts of that history and change it to such a degree as to claim it as their own? Thereby minimalizing any intgegrity and truth that might have taken place in the history, people or the events that formed the GLBT community.

It might make you a little mad I would think.

Well, that is exactly what the Gay community and groups like the Mattachine Society and others have done for years to the Transgender Community.

Only until recently have the young people who may not know all of the history of the GLBT movement, insisted on honesty and integrity. Only until recently have I seen the GLBT community pull together to make a new history together, borne out of the ashes of the ENDA and Prop 8 losses. We are better for it also.

It's time to start making new history instead of rewriting the old history.

Robert Ganshorn Robert Ganshorn | January 5, 2009 8:28 AM

Angela, we cannot know our future without appreciating our past. Still, history tends to have been written by whomever won an argument. Something tragic happened called HIV-AIDS which stole a generation of Gay Americans. We lost those who could have been mentors and storytellers around the campfires.

But the LGBT movement makes history every day just by existing. We are so far, so very far, ahead of the days of Stonewall. The total progress is astounding and I am grateful to still living pioneers like Dr. Frank Kaemeny.

Andrew Conte | January 5, 2009 8:07 AM

WOW. You were so in my head. Your first point about the sanitized version of "Milk" is very important. We need to know that there was a lot of bloodshed. But, we also need to know there is STILL a lot of bloodshed, in a different way. The bloodshed today is from kids coming out of the closet without any support once there. As a result, many of our children are being bullied, beaten and murdered.... I was 22 at the time of Stonewall and deeply closeted, as many were at the time. Today, I know my history very well and try to pass as much along as possible to the younger generation. African Americans learn history through their family. Jews learn their history through their family. Gays do not normally have gay parents, and thus do not learn their history. It is incumbent upon us elders to be the teachers. Thank you very much for a great article

I'm all for teaching the up-and-coming generations about our history. And I encourage accuracy and authenticity over the politically-correct re-write.

One major inaccuracy in Milk is that Milk was NOT the first openly gay person to be elected to major public office in the US.

As I have posted before, Allan H. Spear had already been re-elected to the Minnesota state legislature after coming out in office, and Elaine Noble had been newly elected to the Massachusetts legislature. (Details available under each name in Wikipedia.)

As long as the lie about Milk being first keeps getting repeated, I will continue to post this comment.

I thought that "Milk" was a fine piece of cinematic accomplishment albeit designed for heterosexual consumption. That is, if the unvarnished truth of Harvey's life were presented, it would never get a green light in the very skittish halls of Hollywood movie making!
Alas, there is hope as right under Hollywood's nose is a remarkable resource for gay history, The "One Institute" which is located on Adams Blvd. and run by USC. Hopefully the young film makers being cranked out by USC and UCLA will utilize this remarkable resource for accuracy and depth when researching future LGBT stories.

I'm still looking forward to seeing that movie!