12/28/2008 05:12 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Giving Thanks For Harvey Milk


Today, millions of families will sit down to the obligatory feast with all its fixin's and rejoice to be reunited with their loved ones. Or not. For thousands of gay teens too terrified to come out of the closet, this family gathering will mean tip-toeing through the minefield of aunts and uncles saying things like "You're such a nice-looking young man, why don't you have a girlfriend?" Legions of lesbians have brought their partners home for the holiday masquerading as their "roommate," a charade deemed necessary to preserve domestic harmony.

How many tormented young gay people commit suicide every year rather than risk rejection by their friends and families? How many more are singled out and savaged for being "different"?

The number of such tragedies is fewer today than it was a generation ago, thanks in part to Harvey Milk, America's first openly gay politician. Though the office he held was minor--he served on San Francisco's Board of Supervisors in the late seventies--he became a powerful advocate for gay rights, giving untold numbers of tortured young men and women the hope that they could lead a life free of persecution.

This Thanksgiving also happens to be the thirtieth anniversary of Harvey Milk's assassination at the hands of an unstable colleague. Gus Van Sant's brilliant biopic Milk, which just opened, achieves a breathtaking authenticity in its recreation of Milk's extraordinary life (and death), thanks to a phenomenal performance by Sean Penn, a terrific supporting cast, and painstaking attention to detail.

The most poignant aspect of this period piece, whose sets and costumes evoke the era of Milk's ascendance perfectly, is that the story it tells--of the fight against ignorance and intolerance--is, unlike the hairdo's and the Haight couture--all too current.

Even as we're grappling with the aftermath of the passage of Proposition 8 in California, denying gay couples the right to marry, Milk takes us back to Proposition 6, a 1978 ballot initiative sponsored by a conservative Orange County politician named John Briggs that would have banned gay teachers--or possibly even any public school employees who supported gay rights--from teaching in California's public schools.

Milk and his fellow activists galvanized opposition to the initiative, rallying the support of everyone from Ronald Reagan to then-president Jimmy Carter. Proposition 6 lost by a million votes despite vigorous campaigning by anti-gay crusader and citrus industry sweetheart Anita Bryant. The previous year, Bryant had succeeded in repealing a Florida ordinance that banned discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, calling her campaign "Save Our Children."

Part of Bryant's legacy was a Florida law passed in 1977 that banned adoptions by gays and lesbians. Yesterday--three decades later--a Miami-Dade judge declared the law unconstitutional, stating that "The best interests of children are not preserved by prohibiting homosexual adoption."

Yes, and the best interests of families are not preserved by preventing committed partners from benefitting, if they so desire, from the covenant of marriage. Someday, gays and lesbians will enjoy the same rights as the rest of the human race. In the meantime, give thanks for the Harvey Milks of the world, who really want to save our children, be they gay or straight.