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 baboonery, 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:
...to 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.
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.