Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Mild-Mannered Army

Re:fracas in the wake of and neo-con gloating around the passage of Proposition 8:

Many of us will be ringing in the holiday season this year with visions of sugarplums and burning Mormon churches dancing in our heads, but before we add another Yule log to stoke the flames of our resentment (because let's face it, many of those who voted for the passage of Prop 8 and its ilk were center right/left, meaning that chances are those "near and dear" to us stabbed us in the back at the booth), take heart that eventually conjugal parity will prevail. Right now, Obama's win may feel like a Pyrrhic Victory, but there are already lawsuits being lobbed at the California legislature challenging this insidious measure, which has been widely condemned, even by centrist Governor Schwarzenegger. The nationwide protests show a group driven from complacency to action -- it's the clarion call of injustice. Unfortunately, the protests should have taken place before the election in a better-organized campaign.

See the documentary The Times of Harvey Milk for some eerie parallels to the current situation, as well as a counter-example of some rather ingenious political organizing. Harvey Milk, an openly gay man and community organizer in San Francisco's Castro District, had risen to the City Supervisor position on the back of a clever campaign to purge the city of doggy-do. Harvey won local hearts and minds with his everyman demeanor, which put a human face for local voters on the love that dare not speak its name. Enter the progenitors of Proposition 4, another bill based on fear, ignorance and religious hatred, with a view to banning any openly gay teachers from California classroom. This measure, like Proposition 8, was predicated on the notion of "protecting the children" from fear of molestation and indoctrination into the homosexual "lifestyle" (nevermind that statistically nearly all perpetrators of sexcrimes against children are heterosexual males). Milk then launched a vigorous grassroots campaign, sending his staffers, articulate and passionate gay men and women, out to canvas local neighborhoods. You can actually see them at work changing the minds of undecided voters. At one point, a genteel Asian couple admits on camera they hadn't much thought about Prop 4. The activist plants a tiny seed for them, convincingly tracing a through-line of discrimination that affects all minorities, and you can see on an infinitesimal level the forces of social change at work. Because, guess what, folks? If you slam one minority, you slam them all, and if you take away the rights of one group, it's a slippery fucking slope. Much to the surprise of everyone -- remember, this was a time when gays were still seen as sinister, and this was pre-AIDS -- Proposition 8, I mean 4, is defeated, with commensurate celebration all around and Harvey being elevated to anti-hero status.

Of course, what follows is a Greek Tragedy of staggering proportions, which was really reduced a footnote in history because of the simultaneous mass suicide of 900 followers of the People's Temple in Guyana. Dan White, a right-wing conservative and champion of "Family Values" who served on the Board of Supervisors with Harvey,resigned over the Prop 4 defeat. Increasingly unstable, White eventually approached Mayor George Moscone at his City Hall office to ask for his job back. When Moscone refused, White pulled out a gun and shot him five or six times. He then repaired to Harvey Milk's office and plugged him several times in the torso and head. Neither men survived. Dan White eventually received the bare minimum sentence for his crimes --6 or 7 years, for killing two men in cold blood. White's lawyers had employed the infamous "Twinkie defense", claiming that White's diet at the time of too much junk food had contributed to the instability leading to his actions. The message was abundantly clear: the murder of a gay man was a nominal crime at best, a theme which has inspired generations of hate crimes. The eve of the sentencing gays took to streets in droves, storming City Hall in a violent protest known as the White Night Riots, smashing windows, overturning and setting alight police cars. It was a truly galvanizing moment in which the grief so touchingly displayed in Harvey's mammoth candlelight vigil mutated into white-hot anger.

The situations then and now are similar,but different. In Harvey's time these men and women were fighting for their lives and their jobs. We are fighting for something less tangible and crucial, but if we really want it, we need get a fire under our collective ass. The current protests, although more than the religious right bargained for, feel like too little, too late. Current gay voters and our brothers and sisters should take a page from the book of Harvey, learning foresight and how to fight, fight, fight channeling all of your resources.

Although the Yes on 8 Campaign was effective, the train to Auschwitz isn't leaving just yet. It passed by a small margin, showing that in addition to churchgoers, many undecided voters who probably advocate civil unions were swayed by specious, unforgivable "doing it for the children" arguments. I hope many people on both sides of the Prop 8 fence see Gus Van Sant's upcoming operatic version of the Harvey Milk story, Milk, so they can learn from the humanism, skill and optimistic spirit he represented. His rational, well-spoken comportment threw into stark relief the straw man arguments, factual gaffes and logical jumps of the Religulous Idiotocracy.

No comments: