Editors' Note: Michael Adams is the Executive Director of SAGE (Services & Advocacy for GLBT Elders), the oldest and largest organization in the country providing services and advocacy for LGBT seniors. Prior to joining SAGE, Michael was the Director of Education and Public Affairs for Lambda Legal.
With major Oscar wins, packed movie houses nationwide and a recent DVD release of the MILK, it's apparent that the extraordinary story of Harvey Milk's rise as an early gay icon -- and his tragic death -- has grabbed the attention of a country ready to be inspired by heroic leaders. Whether Milk's story is new to you or not, the power of his persona has been amply demonstrated. It's a persona, however, that is frozen in time. Because Harvey Milk was gunned down in the prime of his career as a gay rights leader, he will always be remembered as the youthful firebrand so vividly portrayed by Sean Penn. Sadly, an assassin's bullets robbed us of the chance to ever know Harvey Milk as an old man. Or did it?
In the three decades since Milk's tragic death, scores of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people of his generation have survived and thrived to join the ranks of this country's seniors. To do so, they've made it through the AIDS epidemic, and they've avoided becoming one of the scores of LGBT people who have lost their lives to anti-gay violence. They have weathered the day-to-day discrimination and prejudice whose virulence has receded somewhat in recent years but is still devastating to one's psyche and self-esteem. If Harvey Milk were one of the survivors if he were alive today at the ripe old age of 78 -- who would he be and what would his life be like?
Many clues to the answer can be found at SAGE (Services & Advocacy for GLBT Elders), which was founded the year of Harvey Milk's death to ensure that there would be a place of honor and respect for LGBT older people both within their own community and in society at large. Many of SAGE's older constituents have life stories reminiscent of Milk's in many respects. They were born during an era of intense anti-gay bigotry that more often than not drove them out of their families into a hostile world. Like Milk, many SAGE seniors moved far away from their hometowns to urban centers where they could find the possibility of a more accepting community or at least some limited protection from anonymity. Because of rampant homophobia in most of the professional world, they often ended up in service jobs or harnessed their creativity in the arts or, like Milk, scraped by as small businesspeople in gay ghettos. Many built lives with partners, but their relationships were ridiculed and shunned by society at large.
These are the realities that would have shaped Harvey Milk's life if he had lived and grown old. Most likely, he wouldn't have had kids. The current generation of LGBT seniors are four times less likely to have adult children than other seniors. With so little societal encouragement and so much opposition, he probably would have been single in his old age. Today's LGBT older people are twice as likely to be unpartnered. And there's a good chance he would have struggled financially in his later years. After all, the jobs reserved for gay people during Harvey Milk's time usually didn't come with pension plans.
So Harvey Milk probably would have had a tough go of it as he got older, as many of our lesser known but longer-living gay leaders tell me all the time. But in the face of all these challenges, would Harvey Milk have been defeated? I don't think so. In fact, the many LGBT people from Milk's generation who have survived and thrived are testament to the strength and resilience that has been as much a hallmark of the LGBT community as all the adversity. Just ask Jerry Hoose, who was one of the organizers or New York City's first Gay Pride Parade in 1971, faced near homelessness in his early 60's, and is now one of SAGE's leading volunteers. Or talk to Phyllis Lyon, who helped found the lesbian group Daughters of Bilitis in the 1950's and who in 2008 publicly married her life-long partner Del Martin in one of the most joyous - and visible - moments in gay San Francisco's history.
They will surely tell you they could not have imagined the progress we have seen in their lifetime, whether it is a film like Milk being nominated for an Oscar or the election of a President who said "straight and gay" during countless campaign speeches or the strides we are making in ensuring equal rights for LGBT individuals and families. Yes, the struggle continues, but the voices and experience of our LGBT elders reminds us of how far we've come and provides the hope that Harvey Milk knew was the key to winning equality for his community.
My advice to you? Drop by SAGE one day and talk to one of the pioneers who paved the way for today's LGBT community. Or take a look at the vibrant and compelling LGBT seniors whose faces graced a thousand New York City subway cars in a recent ad campaign that declared "There's no expiration date on a full and active life." Then, you can imagine Harvey Milk as a senior.