By Scott King
The Mattachine Society plotted. The Stonewall rioters ignited. Harvey Milk, the first openly gay man to hold public office in the United States, did his best to make sure that that fire stayed lit. In a functioning, well-ventilated fireplace.
With the daring of a revolutionary and the acumen of a seasoned bureaucrat, Harvey Milk organized the defeat of the at-the-time on a roll Anita Bryant and her Briggs Initiative in California.
Bryant was then considered a national treasure and an international star who was on a mission to make sure that “the homosexuals” were shamed out of existence, or at least out of public life. Her “save the children” histrionics make Donald Trump’s 2016 talking points seem subtle by comparison, even considering the 40 years of fear-mongering politics between them.
But these colors don’t run, gurl. Harvey Milk stood up with a fearlessness rivaled only by his predecessors in the civil rights movement and the women’s liberation movement in the decades prior. As can be glimpsed briefly in the Gus Van Sant film bearing his name, Milk went to parts of California that are still today conservative, if more polite and bougie in contemporary times. In1978, conservative California was the wild wild west.
Milk entered into the (barely) metaphorical lion’s den of Governor Reagan era Orange County, knowing that getting into these markets would allow people to hear his message: young, frightened queer people and young on the fence moderates and would be leftist activists.
These formats would also provide the opportunity for people to scream at him. They called him f—-t. Sissy. Pervert. Queer. As we all know, these terms of disenfranchisement were hurled at LGBT people, and perceived LGBT people, as commonly as “lib’ral” is slung at anyone with a funny haircut in 2018.
But Milk didn’t flinch. Instead, he smirked. Not with cockiness, but with an understanding. He was a bodhisattva of seeing through the swirling chaos of combat into the end zone of victory.
As a result of Harvey Milk’s vision and organizational efforts, the Briggs Initiative failed. Queer politics moved forward enough that there was an organizational infrastructure solidly in place when the AIDS crisis hit a few years later.
Visionaries like Martin Luther King dreamed in poetry. Harvey Milk walked on concrete paved with prose.
It’s the same concrete that still lies outside that famous camera shop on Castro Street in San Francisco. It’s that same substantive fortitude that laid the foundation for Colorado to elect the nation’s first openly LGBT governor. On the anniversary of the defeat of the Briggs Initiative, no less.
It’s the same concrete on which I kiss a handsome man goodnight after a successful date, without fear of losing my job or my well-being. It’s the same concrete on which we March to Piedmont Park every October for Pride.
At the time of this writing, we have a man attempting to ascend the governorship of Georgia who vows to sign legislation that would guarantee private businesses the right to discriminate against LGBT patrons. Private businesses that are open to the public – restaurants, bakeries, hotels, gas stations and hardware stores – would be able to refuse service based solely on the perceived or acknowledge sexual orientation or gender identity of a customer.
While this foreboding bit of news pisses me the f off, it does not scare me. Why not? Because I know that the queens of Atlanta, greater Georgia, and beyond will not stand for this. No, they will not. They will sit for it. We will stage sit-ins and love-ins and kiss-ins and justbegayandchill-ins. The path of righteousness and activism was paved for us by our forebearers in the Civil Rights, women’s Liberation and LGBT Civil Rights Movements. We will honor their legacy by acting up and sitting down.
Harvey Milk will be watching over us as we do this. He will have a smile on his lips and a twinkle in his eye.
Let’s make him proud.