Wednesday, August 12, 2009


Harvey Milk, slain San Francisco city supervisor and major gay rights pioneer, has just been awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom. His presentation was one in a group of recipients that also included open lesbian tennis player Billie Jean King, civil rights champions Desmond Tutu and Reverend Ralph Abernathy, and Senator Ted Kennedy, among others.

I'm not writing this blog as a news item, but as an essay. The actual White House ceremony at which the medal presentations took place was ridiculously plain and over quickly. It was, however, covered live, and as I sat here watching, my heart swelled with pride when Harvey's name was called.

In the recent movie, MILK, there is a scene in which a young kid in the midland sits contemplating suicide, but then he hears about Harvey Milk's election and he hears Harvey Milk's message. That kid might have been me. At a point in my early teens, young, terrified, bullied and abused, steeped in a fundamentalist family yet knowing that I was gay, I went outside late one night, tied a rope to a tree limb and put a noose around my neck. My father saved me and later sawed that limb off. That was maybe the first act of love I ever recall from my father. I never said the word "gay" to him, and he never said it, either. But we both knew.

Sometime not very long after, I heard about Harvey Milk on the radio or television. I forget which. He was a small glimmer of hope, but San Francisco seemed a very long way away. No matter, through Harvey Milk I realized I was not alone, that there were other gay people in the world, and that there was a movement. I learned about Anita Bryant and her ridiculous "Save the Children" crusade. I was little more than a child, myself. Who was going to save me?

Harvey's message was "Come out," but coming out was hard in the midwest. Kansas City was not San Francisco. Still, I discovered a community here; I discovered the Phoenix Bookstore; somewhere along the line I discovered self-worth. I discovered something else, too. When I heard about Harvey Milk's murder and the subsequent exoneration of Dan White with the prepostrous "twinkie defense," I discovered anger.

Anger, properly channeled, is a powerful force. Every gay person in America should be angry. You can't live in a state of anger every minute of every day, but you can turn it on and let it out and let it motivate you when need arises. We let that anger out when we fought the Briggs amendment in California. We let that anger out when the government ignored the AIDS crisis. We let it out after the passage of Proposition 8 this past year and we channeled it to make our outrage heard. We used that anger to form powerful new coalitions and to revitalize our support groups.

Don't let go of your anger. Let it empower you. Let it motivate you. We can't all be activists all of the time, but we can all be activists some of the time. Maybe you can't march in the street, but perhaps you can write a check. Maybe you can write a letter to your representative. Just do something to stand up for yourself in the face of forces that would knock you back in the closet or worse. Do something to stand up for your community.

I've stood in the shop that used to be Harvey Milk's camera shop. I've stood on the sidewalk where he used to talk with customers for hours. Harvey's speechwriter, now my adoptive grandfather and mentor, has told me many tales, often with the glimmer of tears in his eyes.

Harvey's ghost is with us now as we fight for equal rights, as we fight to repeal DOMA, and as we fight for the right to marry. He's watching over us as we fight for ENDA and for an end to the bullying of gay children in schools. And he's at our sides as we continue to fight for an AIDS Cure.

And now Harvey's ghost is wearing the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Remember that. Remember it because "Medal of Freedom" takes on an entirely new meaning when freedom is something we don't yet have. You cannot be free until you are equal.


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