History Repeating and Why it Matters that Milk Win an Oscar

03/22/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

In just a few days, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences will hold its 81st award ceremony, bestowing Hollywood's highest honors. For most of the worldwide audience, it is as much a night to regale glitz and glamour, as it is a night to honor art and science. Oscar recognition provides best-in-class status that can also translate into incremental box office revenue and influence society's perceptions and practices. Many Oscar-winning films, dealing with such subjects as anti-Semitism (Gentlemen's Agreement), racism (To Kill a Mocking Bird), and alcoholism (The Lost Weekend) raised the world's consciousness to these important human issues.

This year, there is a film with eight nominations, including Best Picture and Best Actor, called Milk. It is about the first out gay man elected to public office in U.S. history and one of the first gay leaders to rally and galvanize gay people against prejudice using tolerance and justice, much in the way Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. had done.

I remember Harvey Milk. He was energetic, ebullient, flamboyant and filled with promise. For one brief shining moment, gay Americans had their MLK and it was MiLK.

In seeing Milk, what stands out for many of us who remember him and his times, is Edmund Burke's oft quoted foreboding, "those who don't know history are destined to repeat it."

Milk reminds us -- and informs younger audiences -- that on the 1978 California State Ballot was an initiative -- Proposition 6 -- to ban gay and lesbians from working in California public schools, a proposition hauntingly similar in its hatred and exclusion to California's 2008 Proposition 8 that has banned the right for same-sex couples to legally marry. Fortunately Prop 6 was defeated. Unfortunately Prop 8 was not.

Supporters of both the 1978 and 2008 propositions, ironically, relied heavily on fear to influence the electorate, maintaining that without the passage of these laws, homosexuality would be taught in California public schools, indoctrinating children into a life of homosexuality and sexual abuse. It was Anita Bryant -- that former beauty queen turned Florida orange juice shill -- and her organization Save Our Children -- that was the catalyst to the bigoted 1978 California proposition.

In 1977, Bryant led a well-organized campaign against a Dade County Florida ordinance that banned discrimination in matters of housing, employment and public accommodation based on sexual-orientation, maintaining her right to teach her children Christian morality was being denied. Unfortunately, gay activists were unprepared for the highly motivated and vitriolic Christian fundamentalists that would support the misguided Bryant. The ordinance was appealed in a special election, winning 70% of the vote. It inspired the repeal of similar ordinances that protected gay people in Minnesota, Kansas and Oregon.

However, Anita Bryant and her well oiled, morality machine would be defeated in California. They met their match in San Francisco Supervisor Harvey Milk who led the opposition to Proposition 6 by reaching beyond the gay community and beyond his San Francisco base to appeal to Californians to vote against it. Milk, like MLK, understood the power of grassroots organizing, the power of the media and the power of his own charisma to raise awareness, shape public opinion and create action.

In 2008, gays would once again be unprepared for the highly motivated hate and vitriol that would come from Christian fundamentalists, including the Mormon Church, and mega-church pastors such as Rick Warren -- the who will liken homosexuality to pedophilia and incest. Unfortunately, in the fight against Prop 8, we had no Harvey Milk to transcend our base, to galvanize Californians against the misunderstanding, fear and bigotry fueling the "Yes" vote on Prop 8.

So when the Academy presents their awards for best achievement in motion pictures for 2008, I hope the film Milk wins Best Actor and perhaps even Best Picture. My motive transcends the artistic purpose of the Academy's recognition. As a gay man, as an American, I know the power of American film and the validation that comes with an Academy Award. If gays are ever to achieve equality, we need to gain acceptance, understanding and compassion. I think Milk the man -- through the power of Milk the film - might get us a bit closer there today, some 30 yeas after his assassination.

As California struggles to right itself in the months after it voted to deny marriage to same-sex couples, gays and their supporters must remember the lessons of Milk and MLK and the power of one person's dream and the actions of the many who share that dream. Perhaps, one day soon, our dreams too will come true, as long as we heed Burke's warning, that those who don't know history are indeed destined to repeat it.

It might also serve us well to remember that Burke also foretold, "all that is necessary for evil to triumph in the world is for good men to do nothing."