Editors' Note: Guest blogger Sharon Stapel is the Executive Director of the New York City Anti-Violence Project which serves NY's LGBTQ and HIV-affected communities.
"And the young gay people... The only thing they have to look forward to is hope. And you have to give them hope. Hope for a better world, hope for a better tomorrow, hope for a better place to come to if the pressures at home are too great. Hope that all will be all right." - Harvey Milk
One of the most basic hopes that an individual, and by extension a community, can have is freedom from violence. Without freedom from violence, one cannot live one's life to the fullest. Harvey Milk's political career was a heroic and persistent effort toward the fulfillment of these twin ideals. Milk, the movie, captured this struggle and the life of Harvey Milk with compassion and grace.
In Milk there is a harrowing scene in which Harvey Milk and his allies speak about the rampant and brutal attacks against the gay residents of the Castro - incidents which had become so commonplace and which were uniformly ignored by the police. With Milk's leadership, neighborhood residents organized to protect themselves.
In 1980, the New York City Anti-Violence Project (AVP) began as a grass roots response to anti-gay violence in Chelsea with a mission to address violence against the LGBT communities in NYC. Nearly three decades later, AVP continues to work to provide hope for a better world and a better tomorrow to the thousands of survivors of violence we serve by providing direct services to LGBT survivors of violence, advocating for LGBT supportive legislation, and taking to the streets in protest of anti-LGBT violence.
In the last thirty years we've learned that Harvey Milk's life, and his assassination, inspired countless activists in the continuing struggle for LGBT liberation in a world that still remains hostile to the lives of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender individuals and communities. The National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs' 2008 Hate Violence Report documented a 24% rise in LGBT hate violence across the country and recorded its third most lethal year since 1998.
We are more visible because of the work of people like Harvey Milk, but with increased visibility comes increased vulnerability to hate violence. It takes a powerful film like Milk to demonstrate that "gay rights" are not insular to one community, but are a part of a larger struggle for all human rights. A movie like that deserves an Oscar.
Harvey Milk was charismatic and outspoken, inspiring crowds of people to stand up for LGBT equality. He was at his most compelling when he represented the average person, whose hopes he brought with him as he rose in the political sphere. Queer people could finally point to one of our own and know that our hopes, our dreams - including our struggle to live without violence - were reflected in his own.
Milk had a knack of finding the common points where disparate communities could unite for a common purpose. He used this ability to compel people to move beyond their own agendas to lift one another up. Harvey Milk understood the importance of collaborative work, of pulling people together through building what others might call unlikely alliances, to further the civil rights and the health and safety of many.
His dedication spoke volumes to the current political climate stressing many voices, one message. This commitment to social justice continues in the work of the Anti-Violence Project and similar programs across the country.
Harvey Milk was a trailblazer. He opened up possibilities never before imagined by most. This, for me, is his enduring legacy to the LGBT communities - and to any oppressed community. By example, he demonstrated the power of visioning a different, more equal, life, of stepping out into public and demanding respect.
He literally changed how people envisioned themselves and what they felt they could demand for their own lives. He changed laws, created a broader set of options for queers experiencing violence, and offered a sense of unity in purpose. The film captured this purpose, this vision, with clarity and inspiration for not only the activists who worked alongside Harvey Milk but also for those who began their work long after he was assassinated - that, in fact, Harvey Milk did recruit thousands of people to stand up against the bigotry, violence and oppression of the LGBT communities. This film brings this message to a broad audience, inspiring a new generation to continue Harvey Milk's work.
One of the most disconcerting aspects of Milk's assassination was Dan White's trial and conviction, whose Twinkie defense while protested in the White Night riots and cited time and again by scholars as an example of justice gone awry. Even more troubling (and Milk would most likely consider infuriating) is that similar and at times even more ludicrous excuses are still offered and accepted as excuses for terrorizing LGTB communities.
The gay and transgender panic defense continues to be accepted as a reason for murdering gay and transgender people, Reverend Fred Phelps and his picketers continue to inflict pain and suffering on families at the funerals of their deceased LGBT relatives; the system, including the criminal legal system, regularly fails LGBT survivors of violence, and LGTBQ people continue to be denied full access to all the rights of citizenship. We must carry on Milk's legacy and fight for, advocate for and demand our freedom.
What this film makes clear is that the dream of Harvey Milk must be realized. The work must continue. Harvey Milk, the man, sparked dreams... Milk brings the man's ideals to a new generation. An Oscar, much like the election of Harvey Milk to public office, will be a sign for the next generation, that we have accomplished much.