Milk was never popular among the wealthier and more established sectors of the gay community; he believed in a populist brand of politics that wasn't afraid to take the fight to the streets — and beyond San Francisco. A central theme of the film is the fight against Proposition 6, a 1978 measure by conservative state Sen. John Briggs that would have barred homosexuals from teaching the public schools.
Milk, defying the mainstream political strategists, insisted on debating Briggs in some of the most right-wing parts of the state. He refused to downplay the gay-rights issues. And when Prop. 6 went down, it was the end of that particular homophobic crusade.
Milk was always an outsider, and he ran for office as a foe of the Democratic Party machine. "His campaign for state Assembly was all about Harvey vs. the machine," former Sup. Harry Britt told us. "His main supporter was [Sup.] Quentin Kopp. He didn't run as the liberal in the race; he ran against the machine." And for much of the next 20 years, progressives in San Francisco found themselves fighting what became the Brown-Burton machine, controlled by Willie Brown and John Burton.
It's too bad the movie wasn't released early enough to have had an impact on Prop. 8, the anti same-sex marriage measure that just passed in California. Some critics of the No on 8 campaign say the message was far too soft, and that a little Harvey-Milk-style campaigning might have helped.
But for us, one of the most striking things about the movie is the fact that Milk and his lover, Scott Smith, were able to leave New York with very little money, arrive in San Francisco, rent an apartment on their unemployment checks, and open a camera store. That wouldn't be possible today; the Harvey Milks of 2008 can't live in the Castro — and many can't live anywhere in San Francisco. The city is too expensive.
In fact, for all the victories Milk won, for all the successes of the movement he helped to build, much of his agenda is still unfulfilled, even in his hometown.
The first time Harvey Milk gives a public speech in the film, he's standing on a soapbox ... literally. He brings out a box with "soap" written on the side; a funny gag, but a serious and telling moment for him and San Francisco.
The issues that Milk spoke so passionately about in that speech included police reform, ending the war on drugs, protecting tenants and controlling rents, and improving parks and protecting people's rights to use them liberally — all issues with as much resonance today as they had back then.
The movie leaves us with a painful question. For all the celebration of Milk's legacy by San Franciscans of various political stripes, why have we made so little progress on some of his signature issues? We celebrate the martyr — but often forget what the man really advocated.
Support for gay rights is de rigueur for anyone who aspires to public office in San Francisco. But a quarter of city residents still voted to take away same-sex marriage rights in this election. Many older gay men today are barely able afford their AIDS medication and rent. And transgender people and other nontraditional types are still ostracized, unable to get good jobs, and sometimes treated contemptuously when they seek help from their government.
Sure, marijuana is supposedly legal for medical uses in California and pot clubs proliferate around San Francisco. But even these sick patients are still targeted by the federal government and its long arms in San Francisco, including former US Attorney Kevin Ryan, whom Mayor Gavin Newsom named his top crime advisor and who is now seeking to crackdown on the pot clubs. Why, 30 years after Milk was shot, does one have to claim an ailment or illness to smoke a joint in this town?
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