Thirty years ago I was living with my girlfriend in Durham, N.C., 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. I was 21 years old in 1978, and I had yet to come out of the closet. But as I - and a generation - were to quickly learn, Harvey Milk's achievement had been, as NBC News reported the evening of his murder, "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, Harvey Milk taught us what it means to be gay. For my generation those lessons are secure, as is Milk's place in history. But last week, as the 30th anniversary of his assassination approached, coupled with the opening of the new Sean Penn bio-epic on his life, Milk, it became clear that the lessons of Harvey Milk are being lost to the newest generation of the LGBT community.
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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 community - as did so many others who came of age in the 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 friends - a community. This was part of Harvey Milk's legacy.
By the mid-1980s, I found myself at ground zero of the burgeoning HIV/AIDS epidemic, watching many of the same 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 years - with my newly found brothers and sisters - dispensing treatment information and referrals to shadow callers living in fear. We came to spend much time together - birthdays, holidays, and, of course, all too many funerals. These friends became my family. Again, the spirit of Harvey 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 be a part of raising his two teenage sons, all of that is part of "the gay movement" Harvey Milk bequeathed to us.
But that seems to be gone. Last week NPR ran a piece with the basic premise that most gays and lesbians today have no idea who Harvey 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 elected LGBT officials in the country. Milk had been the first. Among those 40 and under, not only is Harvey Milk forgotten, they never knew him or were never taught about his life. There's little realization that 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 for gay rights.
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, Milk is a teachable moment. Among many lessons, Harvey Milk taught us that to be gay is about so much more than sex: It is about identity, community and, ultimately, love.
Visit Steven Petrow on the Web at www.gayandlesbianmanners.com