It was like telling a fairy tale -- not the pretty, fluffy, Disney kind, but one written by the brothers Grimm, the kind where everyone knows that all the characters will be dead in the end.
A long time ago, in a land far away, lived a man named Harvey Milk...
It all started a few weeks ago. My oldest son's second-grade class started a unit on civil rights. As the capstone to the unit, the students were going to write essays on a civil rights leader of their choice. Because the teacher knew that she has a gay student in her class (my kid), she added Harvey Milk to the list of potential essay subjects. When the list came home, we went through the choices, and my son zeroed in on Harvey Milk. Harvey Milk fought for the rights of gay people, and that's who he wanted to write about.
I have to admit that I was thrilled -- thrilled that his teacher is so awesome that she thought to put Milk on the list, thrilled that my kid picked Milk all on his own, and even more thrilled when I learned that the kids were going to be allowed to dress up as their subjects as part of their report (oh, the cuteness!).
But then when my son and I huddled together on my bed, computer on my lap, to start the research, I was anxious, uncomfortable and more than a little stumped. The story of Harvey Milk is not an easy story. It's not fun or simple. And everyone dies. I'd been so caught up in the excitement of my child learning about a gay leader in a public elementary school that I'd let myself forget about the realities of Milk's life. And that was going to be the hard part. Here are some of the exchanges we had:
Me: "Baby, back when Harvey Milk was a little boy, everyone thought gay people were bad."
Son: "All gay people aren't bad."
Me: "No, all gay people aren't bad, but that's what people used to think."
Son: "That's stupid."
Me: "Harvey Milk told gay people to come out of the closet and show everyone that gay people were good people too."
Son: "All the gay people were in closets?"
Me: "Not real closets, baby. That's just what we call it when gay people pretend they aren't gay."
Son: "Why would they do that?"
Me: "Then Dan White shot and killed the mayor of San Francisco and Harvey Milk."
Son: "Did he go to jail forever?"
Me: "No, honey, he didn't. Mr. White said he shot them because he ate too many Twinkies."
Son: "What are Twinkies?"
It went on and on like that. I was describing a world so foreign to him. He snuggled into me as we looked at pictures of Harvey Milk, read aloud his words and struggled to understand. By the end I was exhausted and left wondering whether this whole thing was a good idea at all.
Then the day of his report arrived. My kid was excited to dress up in a tan suit with a gold-and-yellow-striped '70s tie. We went over his facts on the drive to school, and my son was in great spirits as he waved goodbye to me at drop-off.
The students spent the first part of their day writing out their essays, then the second half reading them to the class. When it was my son's turn, he chose not to read but simply to tell his class what he had learned. He told his class that Harvey Milk was gay and fought for the rights of gay people. He explained to his class about what it meant to be "in the closet" and why it wasn't good. He told them about how Harvey Milk and Mayor George Moscone were shot by Dan White, and how the city rioted when White was not convicted of murder. And he told them that President Obama presented Harvey Milk's nephew with "the highest award in the land" (aka the National Medal of Freedom).
The other students had never heard of Harvey Milk. They were engaged in what my son had to say. They listened and then started asking questions and expressing their disbelief. They had the same questions that my son had asked me: Why would people hide being gay? Why did people think being gay was bad? What were Twinkies? My kid answered all the questions like a pro.
When I talked to my kid after school, he was elated. The report had gone very well, and everyone had loved it. Later I got a call from his teacher telling me all the details. She was thrilled, and so was I.
It doesn't take much to fill me with motherly pride. A ball going through a hoop, cookies being shared without prompting, a spontaneous "I love you, Mom" -- all of those things make my heart swell. But this was something bigger than that.
On this day in a second-grade classroom in the Midwest, Harvey Milk was on the same stage as Frederick Douglass, Sojourner Truth and Elizabeth Cady Stanton: an important civil rights leader in our country, someone everyone should learn about. Harvey Milk said:
Gay people, we will not win our rights by staying quietly in our closets. ... We are coming out to fight the lies, the myths, the distortions. We are coming out to tell the truths about gays, for I am tired of the conspiracy of silence, so I'm going to talk about it. And I want you to talk about it. You must come out.
There was no silence in a second-grade classroom where an 8-year-old boy, a gay boy who has never seen the need for a closet, told Harvey Milk's story.
Things are not perfect. There are still lies, myths and distortions to fight, but the battleground has changed. Thirty-four years ago 12 jurors swallowed the Twinkie defense and let a murderer off with a slap on the wrist, and today 20 second graders saw right through it.
To learn more about Harvey Milk and his legacy, please visit the Harvey Milk Foundation at milkfoundation.org.