Thirty years after Harvey Milk's murder, the gay rights movement still misses his powerful voice

By Oliver Jones
Updated February 09, 2009 05:15 PM
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Credit: Corbis; Focus Features

For the filmmakers behind Milk and the real-life activists portrayed in the Oscar-nominated film, the movie serves as a reminder of how the nation has changed – and how much they miss the slain gay politician.

Harvey Milk – played by Sean Penn in the film – was a San Francisco supervisor and California’s first openly gay elected official. In the 1970s, he successfully led the charge against a proposition that would have disallowed gays and lesbians from teaching in California schools.

Three decades later, Proposition 8, a measure that revised the California constitution by defining marriage as being only between a man and a woman, was approved by voters in the recent election.

“They were able to win in a far more homophobic time, so why aren’t we winning now?” asks Milk‘s Oscar-nominated screenwriter Dustin Lance Black. “This truly has been a devastating year for gay and lesbian people across the country.”

A Missing Voice

For those who were on the front lines of that fight, the answer is simple: they had Harvey Milk.

As his activism gained momentum, Milk was murdered in 1978 by his onetime colleague, former supervisor Dan White, who also killed San Francisco mayor George Moscone.

White was convicted of the lesser charge of voluntary manslaughter after a jury accepted his infamous “Twinkie defense,” which attributed his crime to a diminished mental capacity caused by spending the night before the murders eating junk food.

“If Harvey had been here, Prop 8 would have never passed,” says Cleve Jones, a student intern in Milk’s Castro Street headquarters who went on to co-found the San Francisco AIDS Foundation and conceive of the AIDS Memorial quilt.

“The election in California was just a temporary setback. We shouldn’t look at it as people turning back the clock. It was more that our side ran a very poor campaign,” says Jones.

A New Generation

Indeed, for longtime activists, as difficult as the past year may have been, it is a far cry from the 1970s, when popular entertainers like singer Anita Bryant campaigned against gay rights in openly homophobic terms.

“I’m thrilled with where we are right now,” says Anne Kronenberg, who was Milk’s campaign manager for his successful run for San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors. (She is played in the film by actress Alison Pill.) “Prop 8 has ignited a whole new generation of people who are going to continue this fight stronger than ever before.”

For Kronenberg – who went on to marry and have a family and is now the deputy director of the San Francisco department of public health – and others who lived this story, one of the largest measures of the strides made in the movement may be Milk itself, a film financed by a major studio and nominated in eight Academy Awards categories.

“I feel as if the promise I made to Harvey Milk 30 years ago has finally been kept,” says Jones. “When he died, I promised I would do whatever I could to keep his name alive. Now that responsibility has been lifted, and I could not be more pleased.”