Walking home from seeing “Milk,” I found myself humming a song about another great American leader of people, Joe Hill. He was an organizer for the International Workers of the World who was framed on a murder charge and killed in Utah in 1915. A song by Earl Robinson that was famous when I was a boy (frequently performed by Pete Seeger) goes in part:
“I dreamed I saw Joe Hill last night, Alive as you or me. Says I, ‘But Joe, you’re ten years dead,’ ‘I never died,’ says he, ‘I never died,’ says he. ‘The copper bosses killed you, Joe, They shot you, Joe,’ says I.
‘Takes more than guns to kill a man,’ Says Joe, ‘I didn’t die,’ Says Joe, ‘I didn’t die.’ And standing there as big as life, And smiling with his eyes Joe says, ‘What they forgot to kill, Went on to organize, Went on to organize.'”
Joe Hill’s spirit remains alive among the few militant unions and workers that the Republicans, with the complicity of many Democrats over the years, have not managed to kill. That process began with the passage of the union-busting Taft-Hartley Act in 1947 and has been followed by the many state “right-to-work” laws (e.g., Alabama and Tennessee) enacted since then. And so, I thought, where is the spirit of Harvey Milk now?
Harvey Milk was the first “out” gay elected official in American history. (He was hardly the first gay elected official. For example, the bachelor president James Buchanan (1857-1861), who helped to usher in the Civil War by his inaction, has been widely considered to have been gay, but he was hardly out.) One of Harvey’s principal political agenda items was to urge gay politicians, professional, businessmen, and others, most of whom were “closeted,” to come out, hardly the done thing in those days.
The objective was to demonstrate to the society as a whole that, except for their sexual identity, they were, and are, just like everyone else and in a free society ought to be treated that way. The promotion of this truth was central to his campaign against California Proposition 6. This piece of referendum-based legislation would have banned homosexual teachers from the classroom. Mounting a strong effort, coming from behind, Harvey and his political team were able to mount a very effective campaign and defeat the proposition.
Homophobia was not central to the Republican Party’s political identity in those days. Among the important and very visible Republican politicians that Harvey was able to recruit as supporters was none other than former California Governor Ronald Reagan. Also key to his victory was the coalition that Harvey built among other discriminated-against constituencies such as African-Americans and farm workers. He had also built an alliance with certain trade unions that pitched in.
Since Harvey’s time, the gay-rights movement has made major gains, from the passage of broad-based anti-discrimination laws to the election of openly gay officeholders around the country. But in other areas, things have actually gotten worse. Most important, in my view, is what has happened to the Republican Party over the years. A major platform plank for them is the demand to pass a Constitutional Amendment banning gay marriage. It is well known that one of Karl Rove’s strategies to win the 2004 election for an increasingly unpopular George Bush was to arrange for ballot initiatives to ban gay marriage in 11 critical “battleground” states, in order to get as many homophobic Republican voters to the polls as possible. Rove saw gay marriage, as he and his allies were able to frame it, as a key “wedge issue.” And his party thrives on wedge issues. Just think. In this country, supposedly one of the major examples of freedom and democracy in the world, one of the two major political parties runs in significant part on organized homophobia.
But then let us consider what has happened to the gay rights movement itself, in the political arena, taking two examples, gay marriage first. In this country, marriage is a bimodal institution, religious and civil, the latter one covered by an extensive series of laws in each of the 50 states. The denial of access to civil marriage actually violates the equal protection clause of the 14th amendment (“nor shall any State . . . deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.”) Thinking of Harvey and how the contemporary gay rights movement deals with this issue, one wishes that it would put this argument front and center, taking on the Republican Party at the level of Constitutional politics, instead of relying on vaguer appeals to “equality, justice, and fairness.” Given his politics, I think that he would go for the basic, Constitutional argument.
“Milk” also made me think about where he would stand on the general abandonment by the gay rights movement of alliances which he promoted, especially with the trade union movement. Senator James DeMint of South Carolina is one of the leaders of the movement to kill GM and in the process break the United Auto Workers. Although I haven’t heard him talk about it since he made it to the Senate, in his 2004 election campaign, his first for the U.S. Senate, one of his platform planks was to — guess what? Ban homosexual teachers from the classroom.
I dreamed I saw Joe Hill last night —- and Harvey Milk too. Harvey we need you. Boy do we need you.
Steven Jonas, MD, MPH is a Professor of Preventive Medicine at Stony Brook University (NY) and a www.TPJmagazine.us Contributing Author; a regular Columnist for BuzzFlash; a Special Contributing Editor for Cyrano’s Journal Online; a Contributing Columnist for the Project for the Old American Century, POAC; and a Featured Writer for Dandelion Salad https://dandelionsalad.wordpress.com/.
[DS added the videos]
TheLastDJ2 on December 01, 2006
Harvey Milk Speech
Brandon Buck on Nov 9, 2012
Harvey Milk was the first openly-gay man to be elected to public office in the US in 1977. His most recognized speech, “You Cannot Live On Hope Alone,” was given in 1978, shortly before he was assassinated. His words resonate particularly today as Californians debate a resolution to ban gay marriage.
“Somewhere in Des Moines or San Antonio there is a young gay person who all the sudden realizes that he or she is gay; knows that if their parents find out they will be tossed out of the house, their classmates will taunt the child, and the Anita Bryant’s and John Briggs’ are doing their part on TV. And that child has several options: staying in the closet, and suicide. And then one day that child might open the paper that says “Homosexual elected in San Francisco” and there are two new options: the option is to go to California, or stay in San Antonio and fight. Two days after I was elected I got a phone call and the voice was quite young. It was from Altoona, Pennsylvania. And the person said “Thanks”. And you’ve got to elect gay people, so that thousand upon thousands like that child know that there is hope for a better world; there is hope for a better tomorrow. Without hope, not only gays, but those who are blacks, the Asians, the disabled, the seniors, the us’s: without hope the us’s give up. I know that you can’t live on hope alone, but without it, life is not worth living. And you, and you, and you, and you have got to give them hope.”
-Harvey Milk, 1978