Adam Bink

Harvey Milk and the holidays

Filed By Adam Bink | November 25, 2009 2:00 PM | comments

Filed in: Gay Icons and History, Living, Marriage Equality, Politics
Tags: briggs initiative, coming out of the closet, Harvey Milk, marriage equality, No On 1

Awhile back, I wrote a piece at my home blog,, looking at the map of results in Maine, and noted the results in small towns where we lost badly. A colleague of mine at OpenLeft, Mike Lux, who has done a lot of small-town organizing in his earlier days, asked me what the campaign did to organize in some of these towns. I wrote at the time:

In truth the campaign did a great deal to organize in smaller towns, but there is one tactic no political campaign can fully execute with money or resources or organizing. Part of the reason these small towns are so hardcore against marriage equality, Mike noted, is because in many of these communities, there are no gay people, or if there are, they are usually closeted. To some extent, no amount of TV advertising or direct mail or surrogate work will work as well as person-to-person communication with gay people in your community.

As we all talk with family and friends over the holidays, there is one thing we can do if we want to advance marriage equality- without any campaign going on. It's to do what Harvey Milk would have done... but with a twist.

Here's some background on what I mean:

In 1978, Harvey Milk played a major role in defeating the Briggs Initiative in California, which would have banned gays and lesbians from working in public schools. What he used as perhaps his most central organizing tactic was getting people to come out of the closet, to demonstrate that this gay person is your beloved schoolteacher or principal or aide, and thus move voters in a very personal way to vote no...

We won that campaign with 58% of the vote, and a famous speech Milk gave during it is instructive today:

On this anniversary of Stonewall, I ask my gay sisters and brothers to make the commitment to fight. For themselves, for their freedom, for their country ... We will not win our rights by staying quietly in our closets ... We are coming out to fight the lies, the myths, the distortions. We are coming out to tell the truths about gays, for I am tired of the conspiracy of silence, so I'm going to talk about it. And I want you to talk about it. You must come out. Come out to your parents, your relatives.

The same tactic Milk used for school employees everywhere must continue to be used in these communities.

The twist, and the difference between 1978 and 2009, is that this call to action doesn't just apply to coming out of the closet anymore. Many of us are out. That's the first step. Now we have to talk to family and friends about why it's important to support marriage equality. In between cooking, eating, board games, and explaining to Uncle Vic (yes, that was a trite Queer as Folk reference) how to pronounce Bilerico, we all have a small piece of homework to do: talk to a family member or friend about marriage equality. It beats any direct mail, TV ad, radio ad, or anything else our side could do.

To that end, Courage Campaign, which did a lot of work in Maine, has set up a Courageous Conversations tool. Make a pledge to have a conversation with a family member who is opposed to marriage equality. You can even do it in the name of an LGBT person you know. Your first name and that of the person you're talking to will appear on an interactive map next to the thousands of other people who are doing the same thing. If you don't have any idea how to start, they have a great How-To guide to get started and help you through it. And you can report back on how it went, which will help Courage Campaign learn lessons about what kinds of conversations are best.

You can also Tweet about it:
Give the gift of equality for the holidays with a Courageous Conversation #LGBT

I made a pledge to heed Harvey Milk's call and take the next step. I hope you'll join me. Happy Thanksgiving.

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Thanks for your post. You know, Friday is the anniversary of Harvey's death. Harvey would have been the first to remind us all today that the fight for marriage is the fight for visibility.

Excellent- signed up!
I'll be doing it- I'll need some quiet time alone with my sister anyway.
Thanks Adam!

Rev. James M. Evans, Jr. | November 25, 2009 2:40 PM

Thanks, Adam. Being a United Methodist pastor with a twenty-one year old gay son, I have become somewhat energized into the whole realm of working for the time when equal rights for everyone no matter what race, creed, color or orientation might apply will not be an issue for full inclusion. Not that I wasn't before but in this one area, I had some definite blinders on...especially if one knows anything about the current disciplinary rulings regarding ordination prohibiting our beloved GLBTAQ brothes and sisters from being ordained into the clergy of this particular denomination. Your words are well-taken and the opportunities for telling one's story are often handed to us on the proverbial platter and we just don't seize it. And if comments that I make in the Bilerico Blog somehow "out" me to the church hierarchy, if the powers-that-be even subscribe to something like this, then maybe it's high time it happened. I, too, have story to tell...if anybody's listening. Thanksgiving blessings on everyone.
Pastor Jim

And here I thought your "one thing we can do if we want to advance marriage equality" was to come out to other people's families.


Michael @ | November 25, 2009 4:52 PM

Totally agree everyone should be open to their families, friends, etc. [unless you live in Iran, for instance].

BUT your article, as written, perpetuates some myths that we are not served by, and I'm not referring to the fact that Elephant Walk, which you exalt in your original essay linked-to opened two years after picture-windowed Twin Peaks.

1. Knowing someone gay is OVER estimated as a mind changer by itself. 49% of those who voted FOR Prop H8TE knew someone gay.

2. Both those who first came out to CA voters they knew in 1978 and Harvey Milk's role [tho, bless them both] are greatly exaggerated. In a campaign of a few months, it's ludicrous to assume that enough people could have done that in a giant state like CA let alone tiny Maine to erase decades of Antigay Industry poisoning. One of the most infuriatingly absurd assumptions that "strategists" in both CA and Maine made is that they were beginning with a clean slate.

As "Out for Good" by Dudley Clendinen & Adam Nagourney, "From Identity to Politics" by Craig A. Rimmerman, and contemporaneous newspaper accounts document, more than anything else it was the success of David Mixner, and his close friend Peter Scott, convincing Ronald Reagan to publicly oppose Prop 6 that turned the tide in 1978. Loathing Reagan as I do, trust me, it pains me to admit that.

"When Reagan subsequently announced his opposition to the Briggs Initiative, the campaign turned around almost overnight. California pollster Marvin Field found that at the beginning of September 1978, voters supported the initiative by 61 percent to 31 percent. [After Reagan's mid-September statement opposing it] by the end of the month, voters favored it by a statistically insignificant 45 to 43 percent." - Rimmerman.

In addition to leaving out the history making Mixner-Reagan story, and the tireless anti-6 efforts of NATIONALLY known gay activists such as Troy Perry, Leonard Matlovich, Del Martin, and Dave Kopay, as indicated by the poll numbers above, the election night scene in the film in which Penn as Milk, supposedly expecting a landslide defeat, screams in surprise, "The numbers were wrong! The numbers were wrong!" is a fiction.

Yes, come out, and along with thanks tomorrow give your loved ones the truth. But realize it's the beginning of change not the destination. Just as with the micro experience of most of us having to reeducate our loved ones over a period of time that being gay is NOT all those negative things they've been programmed all their lives to believe, election campaigns are the macro version...worse really for, save the occasional homohating relative or clergy affiliate, we're not up against multimillion dollar funded saturation TV commercials screaming, "accept your [son or daughter] and everyone's children will be taught gay sex in schools and Civilization will end as we know it."