“If a bullet should enter my brain, let that bullet destroy every closet door.”
– Harvey Milk, November 1977
I was probably sleeping at 1:20 a.m. on June, 28, 1969, when police raided the Stonewall Inn, in Greenwich Village, setting off several days and nights of riots now credited with launching the modern gay rights movement. I was four months old. Too young to know what was happening in New York or its significance to me, or that I would be among the beneficiaries of the fight started that night. I was probably more concerned with mastering the art of rolling over or holding up my head.
I was about three years old in 1972, when Harvey Milk opened his camera store in the Castro, which became the launching pad for a political career and — arguably — the next phase of the movement started at Stonewall. And, again, I was too young to know who Harvey Milk was, or that I would be among the beneficiaries of what he was starting.
But, one day, I would know.
By November 1977, when Harvey Milk ran what would be his last race for public office, and won, I was eight-years-old (going on nine). And though I didn’t know who Harvey Milk was, I was beginning to know that there was something that made me different from the boys I grew up with and went to school with. And I knew almost instinctively, then, that it wasn’t likely to be accepted by my family, my church, or anyone else I knew in Augusta, Georgia.
I was still years away from “knowing” that I was gay, in the sense of putting the word together with what I had always felt inside. It wouldn’t be until puberty that the fascination I had with other boys would blossom into an undeniable to attraction. I didn’t know who Harvey Milk was, or that he’d just become the first openly gay man to be elected to public office, but I knew who Anita Bryant was. I knew the sick feeling that I got when I watched news stories about her Dade County campaign was the same sick feeling I got when I was occasionally teased and harassed at school. I didn’t yet know how much that harassment would increase in just a few years, or how it would affect me.
I didn’t know in 1977 that I would go on to become an activist — and even receive a couple of death threats myself, after becoming a fairly high-profile gay activist at the University of Georgia — when Harvey Milk sat alone in his apartment and made this recording.
I didn’t know that, after that “mountain top moment,” Milk went on to play instrumental roles in passing San Francisco’s gay rights ordinance and defeating the Brigg’s initiative.
I was just nine-years-old when Milk gave this famous speech in 1978.
It was that same year that Milk and mayor George Muscone were assassinated by former city Supervisor Dan White.
It was 1983. I was a 14-year-old skinny, effeminate, non-athletic, black gay boy growing up in the south, during the Reagan era. I’d finally come out to myself, and was beginning to come out to friends at school. But I was kind of like “only gay in the village.”. I walked into the Jeff Maxwell branch of the Augusta Library, into the stacks, and found on the shelf a copy of The Mayor of Castro Street.
And Harvey Milk’s story, along with another book gave me of hope.
What I’ll always remember is that at the end, there was a chapter telling the stories of a dozen other people who were gay or lesbian. They were old, young, single, coupled, etc., and they were all living happy productive lives. By the time I finished reading it, I knew two things: I wasn’t the only one, and a happy life wasn’t out of my reach because I was gay.
Those bullets did help shatter my closet door. Not only that, but the world could change and I could help change it.
In December 2008, I was 39 years old. I took the day off with my husband. We dropped the kids off at their respective schools and/or day care, went out for breakfast, and caught a matinee of Milk.
We knew how the story ended.
I laughed several times, while watching a superbly written, directed and acted depiction of Milk’s life. Sitting there in the theater, I felt many things, but most of all gratitude. For Harvey Milk, and even for Gus Van Sant and Sean Penn for giving me a portrait of one of my heroes. Not a glorified, idealized portrait, but a warts-and-all portrait of a man who felt fear and doubt, contradicted himself, and sometimes failed to live up to his own values. But saw a world that needed a change and did it anyway.
I was reminded that we don’t have to be perfect, but that we just have to be who we are and then stand up for who we are, and we can create changes that ripple out beyond even the boundaries of our own lives.
I watched the history that happened as I grew up and that shaped my adult life unfold around me. At least twice I wept in my husband’s arms. When it was over, we stepped out of the theater together, kissed, and set out to go pick our kids up, have dinner as a family, play with them a while, read to them, and tuck them in for the night.
And despite the depiction of Milk’s assassination, we walked out of the theater, feeling hopeful and talking about the future. (OK, mostly what to have for dinner.)
Maybe that’s because we know how the story ends.
I think Harvey Milk knew how the story ended. In the movie, it seemed like he did, and Van Sant’s directing in that final reminds us — by literally placing us on the other side of that moment as viewers — that the story did not and does not end with Harvey Milk, that we are living on the other side of that moment, after that final bullet, many of us having walked through closet doors that it destroyed.
It hasn’t destroyed every closet door yet, but it is still in play, and the story hasn’t ended. It doesn’t end with us either, or even with our children, or children’s children. It ends, it will end, when every closet door is destroyed. It will end when those last words from Angels in America — “We will be citizens.” — is a present-tense truth, not a future-tense promise.
It hasn’t ended. But it will end. And it will end with justice and equality for us, and for all. That’s the hope Harvey Milk gave us, and that Milk reminds us is ours.