Where is Harvey Milk Today?

01/01/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

"I know you're angry. I'm angry!" Standing atop a structure in the center of San Francisco's Castro District in 1977, Harvey Milk addressed a growing crowd of mostly gay men. The group gathered in the neighborhood to protest the repealing of a law in Dade County, Florida that made it illegal to discriminate against people based on sexual orientation. In San Francisco, something was ignited. The crowd shouted for gay rights and held signs that showed they were tired of not being treated as equals. Harvey Milk, the supposedly self-proclaimed Mayor of Castro Street, would become the voice for the gay masses. In early 1978, Milk was sworn in to San Francisco's Board of Supervisors -- the first openly gay person to be elected to a major political office in the entire country. Sadly he would only serve 11 months.

On Nov. 27, 30 years to the day of Milk's assassination by Dan White, a Board of Supervisors colleague who also shot and killed Mayor George Moscone, I saw Milk, the Gus Van Sant-directed biopic starring Sean Penn as the ebullient, outspoken, forceful politician. While many moments moved me and even brought me to tears, the aforementioned scene where Milk shouts to the crowd reverberated with me because it happened again just weeks ago.

Hundreds of thousands of people gathered in more than 300 cities across the country to protest the November 4 passing of Proposition 8 in California that defined marriage as a union only between a man and a woman. People, gay and straight, shouted about the need for equal rights; held signs reading "Say no to H8," "Marriage is a Human Right," and "Separation of Church and Hate;" and marched throughout their cities and shut down major thoroughfares. It could have been 1978. But is was 2008.

Watching the film on the 30th anniversary of Milk's tragic and unnecessary death, one that he predicted and documented in a series of cassette recordings that served as his will, I was reminded that while we've come far, we really haven't gotten anywhere. In the late '70s, fundamentalist members of the Christian church outwardly advocated against gay rights, tried to take away basic civil rights and even attempted to pass a law to have gay people fired from teaching in California's public schools (a proposition that Milk was instrumental in defeating). In 2008, members of the Mormon Church gave millions of dollars to the campaign supporting Prop 8 while many Christian and Catholic church leaders in California preached to their members to support the cause.

How far have we come in 30 years? What would Harvey Milk think if he were alive today? To that, would we even be seeing this sort of discrimination against the LGBT community had Milk not been killed? It's amazing to me that in the short time he was in office, Milk was able to pass an anti-discrimination bill based on sexual orientation, but today we have more than 30 states that don't allow same-sex couples to be married.

Where is Harvey Milk today? We have gay leaders and activists who are fighting for the movement that Milk started out of his camera shop on Castro Street; there are more openly gay elected officials in government offices than ever before. But we still have a long way to go. Since Prop 8 passed, and Barack Obama was elected to the White House, many people have said that gay is the new black. It wasn't long ago that black people were discriminated against in employment and housing, yet it's been shown that many minorities supported Prop 8. And how long ago was it illegal for white people to marry black people -- or Asians? But, despite that, loving gay couples still can't legally say, "I do."

After Dade County repealed gay people's civil rights, Harvey Milk said, "Anita's [Bryant] going to create a national gay force." Following the passing of Prop 8, many supporters of gay rights said it would ignite a movement across the country. So far, it has. But we need more. We're awaiting a decision by the California Supreme Court on the constitutionality of Prop 8. If it is overturned, there's no reason that other states, like New York and Illinois, shouldn't follow suit. If they don't, we need to "get out of the bars and into the streets," like they did when Milk lived in the Castro, and make our collective voices heard. This isn't about what people do behind closed doors. This is about basic civil rights for all people. This is about being able to openly express your love for another person and not be shunned or persecuted for doing so.

Milk said that life was not worth living without hope and wished that with hope no one should feel alone or victimized for being gay. Today we need hope now more than ever. We are closer to realizing equal rights for all people. But we still have a ways to go. On the cassette Harvey Milk recorded predicting his assassination, he said, "If a bullet should enter my brain, let that bullet destroy every closet door." A bullet did enter his brain, but there are doors still standing; too many still exist. Until everyone comes out and stands up for what's right, we will all be held captive inside the closet. It's time to blow the doors wide open. Not enough people know Milk's story, but hopefully this movie will continue to stoke the flames that were started by the passing of Prop 8 and help keep alive the dream and movement Milk started back in the '70s in San Francisco. If Milk were alive today he may still be leading the cause; since he's not, we can all be Harvey Milk. We just have to open our mouths and believe. It's time to get angry. If not now, when?