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Socialism Today 128 - May 2009

Still an inspiration

The Times of Harvey Milk

Black Sand Pictures (1984)

Directed by Rob Epstein and Richard Schmeichen

DVD distributed by Drakes Avenue Pictures

Reviewed by Greg Randall

HARVEY MILK, the first openly gay elected official in US politics, was brought to wide attention this year by the biopic Milk starring Sean Penn. This attention includes the belated DVD release of The Times of Harvey Milk, a 1984 documentary. Like the biopic it won an Oscar, in this case for best documentary.

Among gay activists, Milk is a well-known figure. It is undoubtedly good that he is becoming known to many others, and that the release of the film has highlighted the struggle of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered people for equality, which continues today.

Harvey Milk was a relative newcomer to San Francisco in the 1970s, having previously been a stock analyst on Wall Street. He had become radicalised through participation in protests against the Vietnam war and involvement in the counter culture of the late sixties. On arrival in San Francisco he opened a camera shop in the Castro, an area popular with gay men, and became a community activist, for example as an organiser of the Gay Freedom Day march. After three failed attempts, he was elected to the city Board of Supervisors (city council) in 1977, riding on a coalition of ethnic minority, gay and union activists. The local Teamsters union supported him after he successfully took their campaign to boycott Coors beer, brewed by a strike-busting firm, into gay bars. Milk himself stated that he stood for the union’s rank-and-file members.

In political style Milk was a radical populist, seen as one of the faces of a new San Francisco which, in the 1970s, was a magnet for gay men and lesbians moving to live in a more tolerant environment. His campaigns included both activism against developers and for clean streets, introducing a city ordinance against dog fouling. As an openly gay man his gay rights campaigns attracted the most attention. This included introducing anti-discrimination laws and leading the victorious campaign to defeat the reactionary Proposition Six, a California-wide referendum proposal which would have sacked gay teachers.

Because of this, Harvey Milk received death threats. After only eleven months in office he was assassinated by Dan White, a fellow member of the Board of Supervisors. White, a conservative Catholic, had been the only member of the board to vote against Milk’s anti-discrimination law and called for the Gay Freedom Day march to be closed down. Shortly before shooting Milk he resigned from his position, only to seek reinstatement after a meeting with his political supporters, among them the police union and property developers. On learning that he would not be reinstated he shot first the liberal Democrat mayor of San Francisco, George Moscone, then Harvey Milk.

White was convicted of voluntary manslaughter rather than murder by an all-white jury from which gay men and lesbians had been specifically excluded. The anger in the gay community at the biased ‘justice system’ led to the ‘White Night Riot’, when a demonstration outside San Francisco City Hall was attacked by police leading to a dozen police cars being torched. (Not mentioned in the documentary, the police then raided gay bars, beating up the gay men inside.)

The documentary tells this story through archive footage and interviews with Milk’s friends and political allies. Milk comes across as a skilled activist and pavement politician, clearly able to inspire significant movements. The hard fight against Proposition Six, which was by no means assured of victory, was mostly at the level of canvassing and leafleting on streets, in shopping centres, and at factory gates. This contrasted with other contemporary campaigns to stop anti-gay ballot initiatives elsewhere in the US which were based on media coverage and did not succeed.

Clearly, Milk was on the radical side of US politics. His work was inspiring, the account of his assassination is moving, and few will not be angered by the justice system’s bias in its treatment of Dan White, who served only five years in prison, being released in 1984 (he killed himself the following year). One person interviewed in the street, a young black man, asks how White would have been treated if he was black or gay or had his victim been straight.

Despite this, I wanted to know more of Milk’s politics. This may well be outside the self-imposed remit of the documentary, perhaps even unknowable, but I did wonder whether, had he continued in politics, Milk would have moved to the right or lost touch with his base of support. He was, after all, part of the Democratic Party, although not the official Democratic candidate. Milk was skilled in operating in city hall as well as at campaigning. Would he have become part of the machine had he lived on? US politics is constructed by the capitalists to produce politicians who will do their bidding.

The documentary closes with Harvey Milk speaking about the hope that having a gay man in an elected position inspires, encouraging gay men and lesbians to come out and to fight for their rights. This depends on the individual. A campaigning and radical politician may inspire others, but just having a gay man in office does nothing except, perhaps, show that some gay men are adept at climbing the greasy pole. Was anyone inspired by Peter Mandelson’s election as MP for Hartlepool, or Alan Duncan getting on the Tory front bench? Individuals are not enough. What is required to change society is a mass movement.

To Harvey Milk’s credit, he saw himself as representing a movement for gay rights. Yet the lack of a mass movement has restricted gay rights in the US until the limited progress in the last five years. The big cities may have more confident LGBT communities, but in much of America coming out can put a gay man or lesbian at risk of being fired or physical violence, even being lynched. Although California passed a gay marriage law last year, this was struck off the statute book by ballot measure Proposition Eight at the end of the year. Fourteen US states still have anti-sodomy laws, although the status of most of these is uncertain following a 2003 Supreme Court ruling. Only 20 states have anti-discrimination laws.

Given its focus on one individual, the wider social and political context is missing from The Times of Harvey Milk, which I feel is disappointing. Then president, Jimmy Carter, has two short walk-on parts in the documentary, once when unsuccessfully trying to avoid being photographed with Milk, and once voicing opposition to Proposition Six – but only after being told by the governor of California, Jerry Brown, that to do so would be "perfectly safe".

The late seventies were a time of rising Christian fundamentalism in the US, with the religious right starting to organise and the Republican Party moving sharply to the right by, among other things, adopting homophobic positions. The election of Ronald Reagan in 1980 ushered in a period of conservative politics lasting until the present day. It remains to be seen whether the economic crisis and the election of Barack Obama will end this.

Milk’s own radicalisation was at a time of rising discontent in American society, spurred on by the movements for civil rights and against the Vietnam war. Without such movements, individuals do not get thrown up and systems and prejudices do not get challenged. The 1969 Stonewall riots in New York gave birth to the gay rights movement. Gay rights, let alone gay liberation, were not arrived at by either 1984 or 2009.

Further movements are needed to achieve liberation. This requires breaking the domination of politics by big business and its parties. Community activism will play a part in this process, but it is only when the US working class, including working class LGBT people, finds its political voice and flexes its muscles that the system can be broken.


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