February is LGBT History Month. In honour of this, yesterday evening I finally watched “Milk”, the excellent film of the life of Harvey Milk, starring Sean Penn. For those of you who don’t know who Harvey was, he was an ordinary, successful businessman who encountered extreme homophobia in his adopted home of San Francisco in the 1960s and 70s. Instead of taking it lying down, as most homosexual people were forced to in those days, he organised a mass protest movement in the gay community.
He persuaded gay men in the area to carry whistles, which they could blow if they were attacked. Any gay man who heard a whistle would then rush to help. Through this simple idea, he was able to galvanise the disparate gay community into coming together to fight against the forces that stood against them in a way that had never happened before.
He ran for a position on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors (San Francisco’s city council) three times, each time gaining more and more votes as he campaigned on a wide range of human rights issues, including education, public transportation, child care, and low-income housing, as well as gay rights. In 1977, he was finally successful, and became the first openly gay person to be elected to public office in the city’s history.
However, the fight didn’t end there. A strong fundamentalist Christian movement was sweeping America urging people to vote for a bill that became known as Proposition 6, or “Prop 6”. This was a proposal to repeal the law that stated that people could not be discriminated against in employment and housing on the basis of their sexual orientation. Milk mobilised the now considerable gay rights movement, and succeeded in persuading San Francisco voters to vote “no” to Prop 6. He also was instrumental in preventing a law coming into force which would have prohibited homosexuals from teaching in California schools.
On November 27, 1978, Milk and San Francisco Mayor Moscone, who had supported him in his campaigns, were shot dead in their offices in City Hall by Dan White, a former city supervisor who had resigned from the board to protest the passage of the city’s gay rights law.
Why am I writing Harvey Milk’s story here? Because I am appalled by how many LGBT people seem to know so little of our own history. Without brave people like Harvey Milk and countless ordinary people, of every sexual orientation and gender identity, who have chosen to take a stand against our oppression and invisibility, we would not be in the position we are today. Without the sacrifice of the many gay men who endured jail in the UK before homosexuality was legalised in 1967, and the countless men and women who lost jobs, careers and families because they could no longer hide who they were, we would not have the rights we have today.
Unless we understand our history, we run the risk on taking what we have for granted. We can’t understand where we are now without looking back at where we were. Look at Civil Partnerships, the Gender Recognition Act, the age of consent, anti-discrimination legislation and, most importantly, changing social attitudes that allow most of us to live our lives now without fear of hatred, attack or even death. None of this would have been possible without these brave people who stood up for what they believed were their inalienable rights to live as they had to.
For them, it wasn’t a choice, and thanks to them, we now have more choice than we ever did.