Thirty years ago, I was living with my girlfriend just off Duke’s East Campus in Durham when the news came that Harvey Milk, the country’s first openly gay public official, had been gunned down in San Francisco. To be honest, I had no idea who Harvey Milk was. Twenty-one in 1978, I had yet to come out of the closet. But as Iand a generationwas to quickly learn, Milk’s achievement had been, as NBC News reported that evening, “not in spite of [his homosexuality] but because of it.”
For many, especially young gay men in San Francisco, Milk was a beacon of hope. Just before his assassination, Milk spoke out to his natural constituency “in the Altoona, Pennsylvanias, and the Richmond, Minnesotas,” in what is now remembered as his “hope speech.” He ended the speech with a plea: “We are coming out to fight the lies, the myths, the distortions. … You must come out. Come out to your parents, your relatives.”
With his death, Milk taught us what it means to be gay. For my generation, those lessons are secure, as is Milk’s place in history. But as the 30th anniversary of his assassination approached last week, coupled with the opening of the new Sean Penn bio-pic on his life, it became clear that the lessons of Milk are being lost to the newest generation of the LGBT community.
Within two years of Milk’s death, I had broken up with my girlfriend and moved to the Bay Area as if drawn there by his legacy. In the years following, I learned more about my own identity and communityas did so many others who came of age in the Harvey Milk era. For me, at first, it meant going into a gay bar and finding a roomful of others just like me. Sure, we were looking for hookups, but whether or not we were successful, we found friendsa community. This was part of Milk’s legacy.
By the mid-1980s, I found myself at the ground zero of the burgeoning HIV/AIDS epidemic, watching many of the men I knew from the bars succumb to the new plague. Soon, I joined the San Francisco AIDS Foundation as a hotline volunteer, spending Thursday evenings for many yearswith my newly found brothers and sistersdispensing treatment information and referrals to shadow callers living in fear. We came to spend much time togetherbirthdays, holidays and, of course, all too many funerals. These friends became my family. Again, the spirit of Milk pervaded those dark days.
Finally, in time, I had a partner. Our connection, our love, also came to define what it meant for me to be gay. To have him join my parents at the holidays and for me to help raise his two teenage sons, all of that is part of “the gay movement” Milk bequeathed to us.
But that seems no more. Last week, NPR ran a piece whose basic premise was that most gays and lesbians today have no idea who Milk was. “I don’t know very much about his life story,” said 35-year-old Patrick Wojahn, who was elected to the College Park, Md., city council last year. “It just shows that all this stuff is many, many years ago and unfortunately not as fresh in our minds as maybe it should be.”
“Unfortunate” is an understatement. Wojahn is now one of the 600 openly LGBT elected officials in the country. Milk was the first. Among those 40 and under, not only is Milk forgotten, they never knew him or were taught about his life. There’s little realization that many of the rights we have gained as a community, like the right to marry in two states and to enjoy civil unions in 12 more, flow from Milk’s 1970s crusade.
Movies like Milk remind those of us old enough to remember the crucial role the so-called Mayor of Castro Street played in our history. And for those too young to remember, whether straight or gay, this movie is a teachable moment. Among many lessons, Milk taught us that to be gay is about so much more than sex: It’s about identity, community and, ultimately, love.
Steven Petrow is the former president of the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association and a contributor to the Huffington Post.