Harvey Milk is the subject of a new movie out this holiday season. It is a "must see" for everyone interested in grassroots community organizing or those who want to learn how to work for equal rights.
Milk was the first openly gay man elected to public office on the Board of Supervisors in San Francisco in 1977. Milk said:
"...you've got to keep electing gay people...to know there is better hope for tomorrow. Not only for gays, but for blacks, Asians, the disabled, our senior citizens and us. Without hope, we give up. I know you cannot live on hope alone, but without it life is not worth living. You and you and you have got to see that the promise does not fade." [Emphasis added]
He was assassinated by a fellow Supervisor along with the Mayor of San Francisco in 1978. He only served a little over a year; nonetheless, Harvey Milk left a legacy. He greatly influenced lesbian and gay and political views; and was also a supporter of human rights for all disenfranchised people.
The movie does a great job at showing how a few people can start a giant movement. There are lessons we in the disability rights movement can glean from his story and activism.
Milk urged gays and lesbians to come out. That was a brave thing to do in the 70s when no anti-hate laws existed and gay bashing was a red-neck sport. He believed that if gays came out, then people would understand that we all have the same wants and needs.
Coming out means more than having people see your disability. It means becoming more visible; speaking up and speaking out. Show yourselves to be part of the disability community and that you want what we all are entitled to.
If you find yourself unable to get into an inaccessible building... climb on your metaphorical soap box and let people know, "This building is inaccessible!" Make the phone call, write the letter.
Enlist your family into the fight for equal rights. Ask your neighbors to join you. Join or form an organization dedicated to fighting back.
It's Never to Late To Start
Harvey didn't really develop his activism until he was in his 40s. Before that he wandered from job to job and hid his sexual orientation. It was only after he moved to San Francisco and met others who shared his closeted existence that he began to put the pieces together and understand that the personal is political.
Before winning his seat on the board of supervisors, he lost two elections. Losing is difficult. But it should not make us callous, or defeated. It's a learning experience. Circumstances change, people's ideas change, and our skills change with each experience.
Failure is maligned far too often. When we take risks it is inevitable that we will sometimes fail. But with that risk taking, comes knowledge, new skills and expertise.
If people listened to the nay-sayers, we'd be traveling by horse and buggy, women would not vote, you would have never learned to read, and we wouldn't be on the verge of inaugurating our first Black President.
One by One
Harvey Milk started by talking to people who came into his camera shop, one by one. Then he started passing out flyers outside the shop. People he talked to brought other people to the shop to talk to him... and so it started.
Dustin Lance Black who wrote the screenplay for Milk said, "When you find a people who are voting against you, it might be because they don't know you yet -- or they don't know they know you. That is the message of Harvey Milk."
It is good advice the disability community needs to heed. Go see this great little movie.
This video shows the candlelight vigil in the Castro District of San Francisco the evening Harvey Milk was murdered. He taped the message prior to his death.
This is the trailer for the movie "Milk"
Siskel and Ebert review A documentary about Harvey Milk