Not being a card-carrying progressive — by which I mean only that I’ve long suffered from an instinctive pessimism about what humans are capable of achieving, though it’s a reflex that I’ve gradually gotten better at keeping in check — I’m occasionally struck with a deep sense of amazement (and related feelings of both gratitude and guilt) at the amount of social change that has in fact occurred in the past century. My amazement can be triggered by something as simple as the visual memory of a British pub filled with a thick haze of cigarette smoke (a memory that takes me back only to 1990), an image that feels almost barbaric in comparison with the clear-aired restaurants of today, or by something as shocking — in fact, as forgotten — as the black and white news footage playing behind the initial credits of Gus Van Sant’s Milk, which shows gay men being herded out of taverns and, their faces turned away from the cameras, into police paddy wagons. North American society has travelled quite a distance from that time to this.
But Milk‘s depiction of change is much more than a simple lesson in “look how far we’ve come”. The campaign for gay rights — a story in this case centered on Harvey Milk, the first openly gay man elected to major public office in the United States — is shown to be a bruising, exhausting fight against a social order in which the majority of one’s fellow citizens are either indifferent or hostile to the cause. It is one in which potential recruits are constantly tempted to take the easy way out by staying in the closet — an option denied to blacks and women, a fact which helped spur their rights movements on with the goad of nowhere-to-hide vulnerability and the solidarity that so naturally follows from it. And it is a fight in which the political opposition has deep wells of support and, significantly, no belief in the narrative that depicts gay rights as merely one more happy outcome of the inevitable march of progress.
Thus after Milk’s remarkable election victory — one that required him to run for office not once but four times, and cost him his relationship with his long-term partner Scott Smith — he was soon faced with a national backlash against gay rights. In Dade County, Florida, a conservative Christian campaign led by former singer Anita Bryant opposed a recently passed ordinance banning discrimination against homosexuals, and sent the ordinance down to defeat with a stunning 70% of the vote. Similar anti-discrimination ordinances were rejected in Minnesota, Kansas, and Oregon during 1977 and 1978. Spotting a wave that might carry him to the governorship, California State Senator John Briggs sponsored Proposition 6, an aggressively anti-gay bill that would have required the firing of gay public school teachers as well as teachers who supported gay rights. Only a determined state-wide grass roots campaign, one in which Milk played a key leadership role, managed to turn initially overwhelming popular support for the initiative in September 1978 into a resounding defeat by November. But as Dade County reminds us, it could too easily have gone the other way.
It did go the other way, just last fall, in California. Gay marriage, which only a few years ago had seemed like merely the next logical step in an unstoppable process of change, was made unconstitutional by the state’s Proposition 8, a measure that won 52% of the vote in November 2008 — a vote held precisely thirty years after the defeat of Prop 6. In Arizona in the same year the almost identical Proposition 102 passed with 56% support, while Florida passed its Amendment 2 with 62% of the vote.
The gay rights movement is fighting back, of course, and general opinion polls do indicate that support for gay marriage has increased from 27% in 1996 to 46% in 2007, with particularly strong support among the young. But the overall lesson of Harvey Milk’s story — and Gus Van Sant’s movie — is clear. It is that nothing is inevitable, that people have to make change happen. On reflection, it is perhaps the very belief in inevitability that more than anything else can weaken a given movement for change, if for no other reason than that it makes it easy to sit on the sidelines and simply wait. It puts the responsibility for action, in other words, into the hands of abstract forces called “progress” and “history”, neither of which exist, and takes it out of the hands of the human beings who do.
“Come out! Come out! Wherever you are!” was the slogan used by the activists fighting Prop 6 back in 1978, and its spirit of personal commitment remains as important now as it was then. Whatever your cause, this movie quietly urges us, whatever you care about — come out and put yourself on the line for it. Because the only thing that is truly inevitable, after all, is losing the battle you don’t show up for.