Correction Appended: December 3, 2008
Harvey Milk, the San Francisco gay activist who was murdered 30 years ago tomorrow, has a New York City public school, a Georgia rock band and, as of this week, a Bay Area civil-service building named for him. The first openly homosexual city supervisor in the U.S., he organized gays into a potent political force. Then there are the movies. Bryan Singer, director of X-Men and Superman Returns, is completing a Milk documentary, The Mayor of Castro Street. Today we get Milk, a hurtling, minutely researched, close-to-irresistible biopic starring Academy Award winner Sean Penn, whose performance is likely to be nominated for another Oscar, as is this film. That makes it official: Harvey Milk is the gay Joan of Arc.
A lot of kids today, especially the most conservative, may think of gays as belonging to some vague outlaw culture. But they might be surprised to learn that when Harvey Milk was a young adult, gays were outlaws. The new movie begins with newsreel clips of men hiding their faces from the paparazzi's flashbulbs as police remove them from some furtive gay bar of the 1960s the decade when practically every underclass of society but theirs got liberated. Vicious assaults of gays were common, and the law rarely pursued the perpetrators. If, as you watch Mad Men, you wonder why the gay art director is so timid about declaring his sexual needs to his colleagues, prospective lovers or, for that matter, himself, it's because he'd like to keep his job and his police record clean. (See TIME's 1978 feature story on the killings of George Moscone and Milk.)
The dominant pop culture certified homophobia. Gays and lesbians were depicted as predators in best-selling novels (A Walk on the Wild Side) and respected plays (The Killing of Sister George), and the films based on them. The plot dilemma of that age's serioso movies was often just the threat of being accused of homosexuality, as in Tea and Sympathy, The Children's Hour and Advise and Consent. The tone was sensation dressed up as sympathy.
And when a film did take a compassionate approach to homosexuality, the mainstream press could pounce on it with cavalier ignorance and captious contempt. A review of the British drama Victim, about a barrister fighting the law that made homosexuality a criminal offense, took offense at the movie's "implicit approval of homosexuality as a practice ... Nowhere does the film suggest that homosexuality is a serious (but often curable) neurosis that attacks the biological basis of life itself. 'I can't help the way I am,' says one of the sodomites in this movie. 'Nature played me a dirty trick.' And the scriptwriters, whose psychiatric information is clearly coeval with the statute they dispute, accept this sick-silly self-delusion as a medical fact." The review, headlined "A Plea for Perversion?", appeared in the Feb. 23, 1962, issue of TIME magazine.
The medical nonsense spouted here which was also the stated position of the American Psychiatric Association underlined a conformist culture's fear of the Other. They're different. They dress and talk funny. They're a threat to our spouses and our kids. The arguments against homosexuals, like those against blacks, meant to turn irrational suspicions into punitive legislation. To counter the know-nothing majority, members of the afflicted minority needed a righteous, urgent spokesman. Blacks had MLK Martin Luther King Jr. Gays had MiLK Harvey Milk.
The Harvey Milk story needs little Hollywood embellishment; it's already the perfect outsider fable. A Manhattan investment banker raised on Long Island, Milk arrived in San Francisco in the early '70s. He opened Castro Camera in the run-down Castro district, which was fast becoming an enclave for the not-yet-outspoken gay culture. With the aid of an unlikely ally, the Teamsters, he organized a boycott of Coors Beer, which at the time refused to hire gays. After three losing runs for a city supervisor seat, he won in 1977, and a year later he helped defeat Proposition 6, which would have banned gay men and women from teaching in public schools. Through his efforts, gay society, high and low, coalesced into a politically effective movement. (You'll be reminded of a more recent band of outsiders who got an unlikely, charismatic candidate elected President.)