While much progress has been made on gay rights in the United States- the recent Supreme Court decision in favour of same-sex marriage looming largest at this time- there are still many hurdles to jump before full equality is achieved. We still face discrimination in housing, employment and healthcare. We are still vulnerable to rejection by our families and thus a higher risk of youth homelessness. We still struggle with the effects of alcohol and drug abuse to which we are more vulnerable than the broader population. Because of all this, it is vital that we keep alive a strong memory of the struggles of the past. We can learn from their efforts to change society- where they succeeded, where they went wrong- and apply them to our own ongoing efforts. It is not time to depoliticise the LGBT community, to settle down and forget about the immense battles that were waged in the past to provide us with the relative freedom we have today.
We can only keep alive our tradition of activism if we refuse to forget the past, from the heroic campaigning of the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP) in the late 1980s and early 1990s, to the electoral campaigns of Harvey Milk in the 1970s. Our memory should stretch back from the founding moment of the modern gay rights movement in the famous Stonewall Rebellion of 1969, to the early homophile organisations of the 1950s. Each of these struggles however imperfect laid the basis for further efforts to free society from homophobia.
Cinema can be a powerful way to transmit this historical memory to LGBT people in the present. While Sean Penn’s performance in the 2008 movie Milk was critically lauded, a fantastic documentary from 1984 also exists called The Times of Harvey Milk. The film charts Milk’s rise as a local politician in San Francisco. His election in 1978 made him the first openly gay person to be elected to a position of public office in U.S history. But more than Milk’s story itself, the film offers some universal lessons for LGBT community and activism, chief of which is the power of being out. Milk’s lack of reticence about his homosexuality had an immense public impact locally and nationally.
Though he moved among the circles of San Francisco’s historically famous gay community, he was equally open about his identity when canvassing voters and conducting public meetings with those he represented. One man who came into contact with Harvey had harboured homophobic views, common at the time. But because Milk was such a diligent public representative, responding to local concerns and listening to the opinions of his constituents, he was able to transform attitudes amongst those who had no connection to the gay scene. The man who had formerly dismissed gay men as ‘fruits’ experienced a change in his attitudes after coming into contact with Harvey. When his own daughter came out as gay, he treated her with the love and respect any father should. Thus Milk’s openness about his sexuality could have profound effects on the people he represented and across the nation, too. Being gay and being a diligent holder of public office combined was a symbolic lesson to those who had internalised society’s homophobia. The film ends with Harvey Milk’s clarion call for gay youth:
“Gay brothers and sisters,…You must come out. Come out… to your parents… I know that it is hard and will hurt them but think about how they will hurt you in the voting booth! Come out to your relatives… come out to your friends… if indeed they are your friends. Come out to your neighbors… to your fellow workers… to the people who work where you eat and shop… come out only to the people you know, and who know you. Not to anyone else. But once and for all, break down the myths, destroy the lies and distortions. For your sake. For their sake. For the sake of the youngsters who are becoming scared by the votes from Dade to Eugene.”1
Milk’s words sadly remain as true and as significant as ever. The 1984 documentary is a great resource for teaching LGBT youth their history and helping them to learn these universal lessons of struggle. It’s as important today for gay, trans, lesbian and bisexual people to be out and to be publicly engaged in an effort to “destroy the lies and distortions” as it was in 1978.
Young LGBT people can also revisit LGBT lives and struggles of the past through literature. David Wojnarowicz was an artist, writer and political activist in New York City. Much of his writing provides testimony on the horrific effects the AIDS crisis had on the gay community through the 1980s. His words burn with a fury against homophobic politicians, journalists and church men who spread myths about AIDS being the fault of the irresponsible behaviour in the gay community. Writing in the Reagan era, Wojnarowicz documented how the state’s deliberate neglect of the pressing need for scientific research and healthcare to help those suffering from AIDS amounted to a quiet campaign of mass murder and took many lives including the lives of those around him. To make this crisis known to the world, he wrote. And he produced artwork- films, paintings, photographs, performance pieces. At the time his work caused quite a stir, and a good thing too. The lesson to be learnt from Wojnarowicz and the furious public demonstrations of ACT-UP is that sacrificing one’s justified anger and one’s political analysis for respectability is often a false economy. Recognition of the terrible effects AIDS was having on the gay community was not achieved through pleading quietly, but through loud and often dramatic acts of public engagement.
So let’s remember our proud history. And let’s remember it accurately, too. Roland Emmerich’s recently-released film Stonewall was widely criticised for its portrayal of the famous 1969 rebellion against police harassment in New York City. Critics charged Emmerich had erased the prominent roles played by transgender activists of colour such as Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera in the uprising.2 In our community, we should emphasise the ties that continue to bind the various sections of our community despite our immense differences. Gay rights owes its victories to all who participated in those struggles, whatever their race, class or gender identity. We will only achieve our goals if we respect our differences while continuing to work together. If we are to make progress in LGBT rights today, we must remember how we succeeded in the past: not by being divided but by being united.