Last Thursday, President Obama announced that he would be awarding a posthumous Presidential Medal of Freedom -- the nation's highest civilian honor -- to Harvey Milk, the first openly gay elected official in American (and maybe world) history and a vocal activist for gay rights. Harvey was elected to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors in 1977 and was assassinated, along with then-mayor George Moscone, eleven months later by another city supervisor, Dan White.
While Sean Penn and Gus Vant Sant's film Milk got a lot of well-deserved attention last Oscar season, there's a better film about Harvey Milk that had already won an Oscar -- the excellent 1984 documentary The Times of Harvey Milk. Watch my ReThink Review below.
Many see this as a shrewd political move by Obama to win back the support of gays. The LGBT community and their supporters have been largely disappointed with Obama for not repealing Don't Ask Don't Tell (DADT) and the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), despite campaign promises to do so. As California State Senator Tom Ammiano, who is gay and had also been a San Francisco supervisor, said, "If Harvey was alive today, he would say, 'Thanks for the honor -- now repeal those bills.'" Considering Harvey's penchant for bravery and theatrics, I'm sure he wouldn't be afraid to say that right to Obama's face.
While symbols are less important than action, that's not to say that symbols aren't important. Harvey's name will now be forever listed with activists like Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King Jr., Helen Keller, Cesar Chavez and Desmond Tutu, along with many of the best that America and the world has to offer. This is also a welcome change from the Bush administration, which often saw the Medal of Freedom as a way to reward Bush's allies and enablers, no matter how ass-backward they were (I'm looking at you, George Tenet, Paul Bremer, Tony Blair and John Howard).
While some say that it's wrong to equate the fight for gay rights to the fight for civil rights and racial equality, it's clear that this administration doesn't think so. Now we just need to make sure they act like it.
So congratulations, Harvey. You deserve this honor -- and a lot more.
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