Today, August 12, 2009, the first openly gay man to be elected in the state of California, Harvey Milk, will be given the Medal of Freedom Award by President Barack Obama. It's a well deserved award, one too many years in the making. But like everything else done for or to the gay community that is seen as positive, it's a two-edged sword because honoring someone for their activism and impact on a state or nation while their cause is still unfinished, their people still unequal, is interesting indeed.
The Medal of Freedom is the highest honor paid to a civilian, along with its brother, the Congressional Gold Medal (voted on by Congress). The award is for individuals who have made "an especially meritorious contribution to the security or national interests of the United States, world peace, cultural or other significant public or private endeavors." President Harry S. Truman planted the seed for the award in 1945 with the Medal of Freedom to honor civilian service during World War II. President Kennedy signed Executive Order 11085 establishing a new award with a new medal but keeping the name while expanding the award's purpose and boosting its prestige level nationally and internationally. Honorees do not have to be American citizens but must simply merit the award in the view of the President, advisors and the Distinguished Civilian Service Awards Board (established in 1957 by President Eisenhower and expanded by President Kennedy).
Now Milk, who would be 79 this year had he not been shot by Dan White 31 years ago in 1978, certainly meets the criteria for the award. His life, his politics, his movement and yes, his death, changed California politics and the tone of politics in the nation. He was a symbol of possibility and yes, a huge symbol for the rights of gays and lesbians throughout the country. His death hurt, the trial hurt, it all hurt, and galvanized a movement even more. He took on Bryant and Briggs and won and did it with flair and even sarcasm, with the trademark "My name is Harvey Milk, and I'm here to recruit you!" a jab at the assertion that gay teachers were in schools to recruit young people to be gay.
The spirit of Milk was alive not only in the cineplexes, thanks to Sean Penn, but also in the streets and halls of government in California, as the ugly Proposition 8 battle waged. Well funded religious interests successfully attacked the California State Constitution by removing the equal protection clause for gays and lesbians, somehow saying that equal doesn't equal equal, that all members of the state are not, in fact, equal and protected by the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. It creates a legal contract with legal benefits that only certain members of the state can enter based solely on gender and rooted squarely in religion. Milk would be exploding right about now.
As the marriage debate raged nationally in 2006 after Gavin Newsom granted marriage licenses in his city, as 11 states that year then voted to outlaw same sex marriage and some states even went so far as to ban domestic partnerships or gay adoptions, as George W. Bush spoke nationally about a amending the U.S. Constitution, the very document that protects freedoms, by putting in a provision banning same sex marriage, Milk would have been rallying people and holding every Democrat to task.
As a highly decorated soldier that appeared on the Rachel Maddow show on MSNBC and simply answered "yes" to the question "are you gay" is kicked out of the military, as same sex spouses are denied benefits for wounded or killed loved ones, as needed translators and personnel are removed during a time of war for no other reason than sexual orientation, Milk would again be taking every Democrat, every American to task.
As Bill Clinton signed the Defense of Marriage Act, as Bush and Obama have both defended it, Obama's administration going so far as comparing same sex marriage to bestiality and every other fringe coupling known to man, or animal, in its defense of DOMA in 2009, Milk would rally against it, denouncing any Democrat that supported it, including Barack Obama.
So it's with great wonder that I ponder what Milk would have done if he were alive August 12, 2009, to go and collect his medal. Would he take solace that on the medal there are 13 stars to represent the original 13 colonies, and six of those colonies now have same sex marriage or recognize those done in other states or would he be angry at the 44, including his own, that do not allow or have voted against marriage equality?
Harvey Milk served as a diving officer on a submarine in the Navy during the Korean War and went on to be a diving instructor at the Naval Station in San Diego reaching rank of lieutenant, Junior Grade. Would he look the Commander in Chief in the eye as he received his civilian award, would he look to the leader of the greatest fighting force in the world, and be honored or outraged at the ridiculousness of being honored for your activism to advance the civil rights of people whom, with one signature, the presenter of the award could rectify so much of the institutionalized inequality that exists?
Would he grab the medal and say how much he likes jewelry, that he may need matching earrings and then begin to speak to the fact that pandering to a community is fine, recognizing those in it admirable, but doing so while approving through your inaction the oppression of that very community is simply unacceptable?
The fact is, at this point in American's history, I'm not sure Milk would even accept. I truly am not.
I posed that question to actor Alan Cumming during an interview for an upcoming story in the Long Beach and Orange County Blade. He is openly gay, comes from a Scottish and European background, but became an American citizen so he could vote for Barack Obama. He missed that by three days, but still is a proud American now, a gay American at that.
"I don't know that he'd be too happy about it really," he stated. "If the Obama administration had given the community some kind of clue or agenda of some kind. If they had said, 'Look, we really have to do healthcare and the economy right now, but in 2010 the agenda is going to include repealing DOMA, getting rid of Don't Ask Don't Tell and working on marriage equality for all,' then maybe. But their actions in some ways have been negative towards the community, including their brief in defense of DOMA. They didn't have to do that. So with no real vision as to what they plan to do for the community specifically and when, and some of the recent activity, I'm just not sure where he'd be on this."
Where he'd be is a second class citizen receiving the highest civilian award his country has to give. The schizophrenia of that situation would not escape him. It'd be like a slave receiving a service award and then being put back in the slave quarters. No? Too harsh? Really? This weekend my best friend Daniel Amspaugh's sister got "married." But she didn't really, because she couldn't. She, and her tax-paying partner live in Long Beach, CA. And 51% of this state thinks civil rights can be approved by the masses, granted and denied based on religious belief. That's not societal slavery? Be a part, pay your taxes, but don't live with us as equals? Do as we say not as we do?
How would Milk feel about the prosecution of crimes committed against gays and lesbians in this country, when so many juries still return lesser sentences for killing or beating a gay person versus another. Gay panic defenses are used, the person freaked out when they found out the other was gay and went in to a panic or rage and couldn't control themselves. Hell, even movie stars like Tom Cruise are able to prove damages to the tune of millions of dollars against tabloids that allege he's gay. Somehow, being classified as gay can cost one millions of dollars in hurt and damages to this very day, like being called a pedophile or something. When Milk himself was killed Dan White was basically slapped on the wrist (think Twinkie defense, he was amped out on too many Twinkies...) serving two of five years for gunning down two people in cold blood and things haven't gotten much better than that today. When transgendered Gwen Araujo was beaten and killed her killers got anywhere from six years to 15 years for slamming her head through a wall, beating her to death in a garage and then burying her in the hills all at 17 years old. Her crime? She was a man living as a woman. The first jury deadlocked and there had to be a retrial, after all, when the football players found out that they had been having some kind of sexual activity with a boy, well, how could they not be expected to freak. As Madoff sits for 150 years in jail for a financial crime, shows where our priorities lay.
And in California where it will be years before marriage equality is obtained, where its Supreme Court wussed out and did the wrong thing, where religion sways the ballot box through financial might...well, I wonder if he might up and move to Iowa, where at least he could marry whatever partner he was with at the time.
Harvey Milk, and Billy Jean King, deserve to be openly gay champions receiving the Medal of Freedom award from the President of the United States. But more importantly, they are Americans that deserve or deserved equal rights and protection under the law from the government over which that president presides and from the civilian population of which they are a part.
Anyone that saw Milk speak knew one thing: no matter what, he wanted gays and lesbians to have hope. He wanted them to remain hopeful that things can, would and will change if we care enough to change them. He wanted everyone on the bus, championing causes like affordable child care facilities, free public transportation, a board of civilians to oversee police, neighborhood issues, family issues. He wanted his hope to be infectious, and maintained humor by pranking public officials like Diane Feinstein and the mayor and being often outrageous on television or in person in some way.
He dated younger men and never had a relationship longer than six years of any real substance (according to all accounts) yet formed a strong family of friends and coworkers that remain loyal to this day and while he may or may not marry himself, would advocate for everyone's right to do so.
He'd use his acceptance speech to inspire, to instill his trademark hope, and to put more than few politicians on notice that he, or his wards, were coming for their jobs.
"Like every other group, we must be judged by our leaders and by those who are themselves gay, those who are visible. For invisible, we remain in limbo -- a myth, a person with no parents, no brothers, no sisters, no friends who are straight, no important positions in employment. A tenth of our nation is supposedly composed of stereotypes and would-be seducers of children. But today, the black community is not judged by its friends, but by its black legislators and leaders. And we must give people the chance to judge us by our leaders and legislators. A gay person in office can set a tone, can command respect not only from the larger community, but from the young people in our own community who need both examples and hope."
Let's hope Barack does more than award Milk: Let's hope he takes the spirit and lessons Milk taught and actually begins changing things for members of his country still oppressed by institutionalized bigotry and religious dogma.