Guest Blogger

What Harvey Milk Tells Us About Proposition 8

Filed By Guest Blogger | November 23, 2008 7:00 PM | comments

Filed in: Gay Icons and History, Marriage Equality, Politics, The Movement
Tags: California marriage equality, California Proposition 8, gay marriage, gay rights, Harvey Milk, LGBT equality, Prop. 8

Editors' Note: Guest blogger Rob Epstein is the director of the Oscar winning film "The Times of Harvey Milk", and is this years' recipient of the International Documentary Association's Pioneer Award.

Thirty years ago on election night Harvey Milk gave an electrifying speech at the "No on Proposition 6" headquarters in the Castro neighborhood of San Francisco. The results were in: Proposition 6 was going down to defeat.

In 1978, Proposition 6 ( "the Briggs Initiative") was the California ballot measure aimed at preventing gay people and supporters from working as teachers in public schools. Harvey Milk was a San Francisco city council member who had been in office for a mere ten months. Through his role in this campaign he proved himself to be more than just an "elected gay official." He was a leader at the height of his powers. When introduced to the crowd that night by Sally Gearhart (another important figure in the fight against Proposition 6), the response to Harvey was thunderous. He proceeded to give one of the greatest speeches of his relatively short political career.

Although there are many parallels to be made between Proposition 6 (1978) and Proposition 8 (2008) there are also many differences. Unlike Proposition 8, Proposition 6 had a name, a face, and a personality as its figurehead in the person of State Senator John Briggs. Briggs came across as a seemingly opportunistic and somewhat ineffectual politician, but regardless of his buffoonery, the issue that he and his supporters tapped into -- "gay teachers" -- was volatile enough to find large-scale support among the electorate. Only one month before the election it looked as if it would be a very close vote, with the majority of California voters in favor of its passage.

On the other side, we had Harvey Milk as our figurehead, a "community organizer" who understood the value and importance of a well-coordinated grass-roots campaign. As a coordinated master plan, Harvey debated Briggs in high school gyms and on TV and radio, while an army of well-trained volunteers went about "canvassing" door-to-door, speaking with people on the streets and in the shopping centers about the potential consequences of the "anti-gay" Briggs Initiative. Eventually, enough voters were convinced that the measure was both unnecessary and a possible violation of constitutional rights. Proposition 6 went down by a resounding 59 to 42 percent.

On election night Harvey delivered his galvanizing speech with gale-wind force: the gay community all over this state, my message to you is, so far a lot of people joined us and rejected Proposition 6, and we owe them something. We owe them to continue the education campaign that took place. We must destroy the myths once and for all, shatter them. We must continue to speak out, and most importantly, most importantly, every gay person must come out. As difficult as it is you must tell your immediate family, you must tell your relatives, you must tell your friends, if indeed they are your friends, you must tell your neighbors, you must tell the people you work with, you must tell the people in the stores you shop in (thunderous applause), and once they realize that we are indeed their children, that we are indeed everywhere, every myth, every lie, every innuendo will be destroyed once and for all. And once you do, you will feel so much better.

In light of the passage of Proposition 8, Harvey's message of thirty years ago remains as vital today as it was then. It is our responsibility to let our loved ones, co-workers, friends, and neighbors know who we are, so that those who vote in favor of discrimination have our names and faces in their minds eye when doing so.

Although Proposition 8 wasn't exactly a re-make of Proposition 6, it's the same disaster movie storyline pitch: any recognition of constitutional rights for gay and lesbian citizens will somehow destroy the natural order and as a result America's institutions -- be they schools or marriage--will crumble.

Harvey pitched a different storyline: an accommodating democratic society based on constitutional principles, including the separation of church and state, and equality for all its citizens will make our country stronger and freer. But Harvey was more than just a good pitchman. He had an innate sense of history, and as a result he made his mark on history. Three weeks after his Proposition 6 victory speech Harvey was killed, and we're still waiting for another leader of his ilk to emerge. While we may not be able to predict from where or when real leaders come, eventually they do. In the meantime, as we celebrate the election of a man whose own parents' interracial marriage would not have been legal in sixteen states prior to 1967, Harvey we're still waiting.

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Michael Crawford Michael Crawford | November 23, 2008 7:44 PM


Thanks for this great post! I didn't know Harvey, but seeing both your documentary and the new film Milk was incredibly inspirational.

The LGBT movement has a lot to learn from Harvey and his work.

Thank you. I didn't know Harvey addressed separation of church and state. That's my thing. I think it is the most important issue.

Thanks for your film, Rob. I saw it when I first came out, and it had a tremendous impact on me. Harvey Milk is one of my heroes and you are so right when you say "we're still waiting for another leader of his ilk to emerge."

Harvey Milk had a knack for working with people from all sides of the political spectrum, and he truly understood what coalition building was about. I think if more members of our community would take the time to read about Harvey Milk, we might be in a much better strategic position than we are right now.

My wife and I were extras in "Milk" and we've wondered more than once if Proposition 8 may have gone differently had the movie come out before election day. Of course seeing and hearing Penn as Harvey was quite moving as well and we can't wait to see it on the big screen.

We've also lamented many times over not having Harvey now. We could really use him for this fight...


Your remarkable film was a tremendous inspiration to me, as is Harvey Milk's example to this day.

Watching the Proposition 8 story unfold from Canada was saddening in the outcome of the vote, yet so encouraging in the galvanizing effect the defeat appears to have had on the LGBT community in the US. From everything I've been reading, it seems that Harvey Milk's always-in-motion (always-in-your-face!) political style and commitment to grassroots activism are just as necessary today.

All the best to everyone engaged in the fight to have 8 repealed. Don't stop marching, writing, and sharing your stories. And don't stop coming out! Canadian queers are right there with you.

Marla R. Stevens Marla R. Stevens | November 24, 2008 10:41 AM

Well put, Mr. Epstein. Mr. Milk has oft been in my thoughts since being told at the campaign's onset by the top tier of what passed for leadership against Prop. 8 (including national organizations' representatives) of their plans and that a grassroots component would be "too difficult" to mount in a state like California.

From Colorado Ammt. 2 to Prop. 8, including the Gays-In-The-Military debacle of 1992-1993, can we finally now learn that an out-of-balance over-reliance on wholesale, media campaigns at the expense of retail, the-personal-is-the-political, face-to-face-inclusive ground operations that assess voters (preferably on a seven, not five-point scale), educate as needed and as possible and reasonable, and get those who will vote with us to vote doesn't work!?!

Can we agree now to define as unacceptable-from-the-get-go campaigns that do not start with an assessment of the number of voters needed to win and a plan -- at the precinct level -- of where to find them and what it will take to get them to vote with us?!?

Please -- lest the giant "L" in the middle of my forehead (on the chakra where the Indians place a caste mark) get permanently redrawn into a "C" for "Cassandra"? Please!?!

Respectfully, I would like to disagree that the Prop 8 campaign had no face like John Briggs.

What about the face of Randy Thomasson of the Campaign for California Children and Families, The Reverend Jim Garlow of San Diego or even the face of the president of the Mormon Church and if we really got desperate to raise a face we could have brought one from the Prop 6 days, our old professional gay basher, Lou Sheldon who never shied from a camera or reporter.

No on 8 FAILED to challenge these faces to a debate by say, any of our elected gay/lesbian legislators or The Reverend Elder Troy Perry.

The Milk/Briggs debates meant a great deal to the success of defeating Prop 6 because Harvey was able to show how shallow Briggs and his position was.

The leaders of the No on 8 campaign failed us miserably because they didn't know their history and failed to look at the sucessful No on 6 campaign and what made it work.