Not so long ago, and for the first time, I watched the classic documentary The Times of Harvey Milk, about the first openly gay individual in California elected to public office.
Harvey was elected to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors on November 8, 1977. On November 27, 1978, at San Francisco City Hall, along with George Moscone, the Mayor of San Francisco, Harvey Milk was assassinated. The killer, Dan White, a former colleague of Harvey’s on the Board of Supervisors who had resigned his post just weeks before, was tried for capital murder. This could have earned him the death penalty. Instead, he was found guilty of manslaughter and served 5 years of a 7-year sentence before being paroled. Approximately 1 year and 10 months after his parole, Dan White committed suicide.
What struck me about this film was not just the incredible story and the apparent injustice in the sentencing of Dan White, but the representation of what our culture was like at the time. California Proposition 6, also known as ‘The Briggs Initiative’ after its sponsor, John Briggs, was on the ballot in the November 1978 election. The language of the proposition, though convoluted, would have essentially prohibited the hiring of, and required the firing of, public school teachers for “public homosexual conduct”, a term defined so broadly that I think it would be hard for any homosexual, or even any what today might be called heterosexual ally, to not fall under the law’s purview.
Here’s the thing, for me: this proposition, clearly discriminatory and unjust by today’s standards, nearly passed. In September of 1978, only two months before voting, polling showed it ahead. It was only through the extraordinary and determined efforts of Harvey Milk and a broad coalition of others opposed to the proposition, including then-Governor of California Ronald Regan, that it went down in defeat, with 58% voting against.
I’ll admit that at least until I watched this extraordinary documentary, I was nearly wholly ignorant of the history of the LGBTQ+ movement. When I realized events such as this happened in my lifetime – I was 13 when the assassinations occurred – my eyes were opened just a bit more.
If you haven’t seen The Times of Harvey Milk, even if you already know the story, I believe it’s worth a watch, and worth sharing your thoughts over. It’s powerful filmmaking in the service of an important part of history, history not just for the LGBTQ+ community, but for all.