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The times of Harvey Milk.

Repression is a personal problem that is also a public issue. Harvey Milk, the San Francisco city supervisor who was assassinated along with Mayor George Moscone in 1978, lived and worked in that hot and dangerous zone where the personal and the public intersect. Consciously gay at 14, Milk spent his adolescence and young adulthood in the usual social and institutional closets: a Long Island Jewish middle-class family, college, the Navy, a Wall Street job. Then, like countless other homosexuals of his gneration, he began a long escape from repression into the counter-culture of the 1960s. Long hair, protest politics, pot and a loose life style were easy exists. The route opened wider with immigration to the new gay ghettos on both coasts: Greenwich Village, West Hollywood, San Francisco's Castro Street. The hair and the flight were implicitly political, but Harvey Milk went further and developed an explicitly homosexual politics. He made the personal issue of gay legitimacy the basis of his public campaigns. He ran for office (and lost several times before winning the supervisory seat). He joined his strong base in the Castro with allies across the ethnic and ideological rainbow of San Francisco politics. And he pleaded--rather, in his warm and supportive way, he demanded--that gays come out and announce their sexual identity for the safety of the entire community.

Milk spoke to and for his homosexual supporters, but believed he was working for a greater good: the liberation of the surrounding society. Repressive forces damage gay men and lesbians, but they also deform the hearts and derange the minds of the sexual majority, such as it is. Some monstrous majoritarian morality found a perfect victim in Dan White, a young San Francisco fireman who rode the same populist wave as Harvey Milk and was elected to the Board of Supervisors at the same time. The two played our grand and historic themes on a tiny stage. White proposed a series of softball games between teams representing the supervisory districts, so that "the old-fashioned values that built this country" could be tested on the foggy playing fields by the bay. Milk pushed for, and won, an antidiscrimination ordinance protecting sexual minorities. White's was the only vote against it. Milk was a leader of the successful campaign to defeat the Briggs Amendment (Proposition 6), that masterpiece of the repressive genre which would have barred avowed gays and pro-gay heterosexuals from teaching in public schools.

At last the public clash of political positions between the rivals was resolved in one intensely personal moment. Dan White had resigned as a supervisor a few days earlier and was about to be rebuffed by Moscone and Milk in his characteristically erratic bid for reappointment. He crawled into City Hall through a basement window, shot and killed the Mayor, and did the same to Harvey Milk.

Robert Epstein and Richard Schmiechen have made a beautiful and powerful documentary around these urgent events. It is instructive, uplifting, sad and enraging. Friends and political associates of Harvey Milk cry on camera, and it's hard to believe that their tears are not mirroed in the eyes of many in the audience. When Dan White is given a light sentence on a lesser charge by a jury impressed with his defense that a feast of Twinkies fired him up for murder, we must share the anger of the crowd that rioted in response. The Times of Harvey Milk brings those emotions to life, which makes it not only extraordinary filmmaking but important historical documentation.

The homosexual culture is unique in many ways, not least of all in its lack of living history. All oppressed groups are invisible to a certain extent, for some period of time. Their strategies to gain equality and win a share of power are in large measure campaigns for visibility. Thus, we have recently seen blacks, women, Hispanics, Native Americans, the aged and the infirm (and other "minorities") turn up in the movies, on television, in books and magazines, in special-studies programs at universities, and in artworks. But there is pathetically little from and about gay culture in the straight mainstream. Hollywood has produced a few "problem" movies (Making Love, Cruising) which explain to wondering audiences what to do when one's husband goes off with another man, or how to avoid trouble in the leather-and-chains scene. Several psychological and sociological works have been published which look at gay life from about the same distance as the Leakeys watched the fossil families of Australopithecines in Olduvai Gorge.

But living gay history is in exceedingly short supply. Without it, gay people can hardly get a sense of themselves; history is identity. And without it, nobody of any persuasion can begin to understand the dynamic of sexual revolution. We are told, quite rightly, that American history minus blacks or women or Jews is dangerously imperfect. Cultural and social history without homosexuals is just as wrong. The Times of Harvey Milk joins the short list of filmic and literary documents about the daily experience and political struggle of gay people in the modern age. (Others in the group include Epstein's previous film, Word is Out, and a public television documentary scheduled for broadcast next year, Before Stonewall, with which I have had some tangential advisory connection.) This is not only filmmaking; it enters the realm of life where personal and public issues inform history and make art.
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Author:Kopkind, Andrew
Publication:The Nation
Article Type:Movie Review
Date:Nov 24, 1984
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