Harvey's birthday too
May 22 is my birthday, but of course I share it with plenty of famous folks (Lawrence Olivier, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and so forth). But one person with whom I am particularly proud to share it is the late San Francisco Supervisor Harvey Milk, the first openly gay man elected to public office in America. Had he not been assassinated in 1978, Harvey would be 76 today.
Next to Star Wars (which I saw countless times as a kid), the film I have seen more often than any other (at least thirty times) is The Times of Harvey Milk, which won the 1984 Academy Award for Best Documentary. I always show it in my gay and lesbian history class, and of course, I showed the first part of it this afternoon -- the first time I've managed to do so on Milk's birthday.
Only three students in the class had even heard of Harvey Milk before my lecture on him last week and the showing of the documentary today. Every movement has its martyrs, but while almost all students know the names Malcolm and Martin, far too few young queer students even know the name (much less the story) of this extraordinarily important figure. The Time magazine profile is here.
Movements need heroes, and kids need to know the names of their heroes. This is why I am so strongly supportive of SB 1437, currently in the California state assembly, to require the mention of gay and lesbian history in the public schools and in state textbooks. All of us need to know who Martin was, who Malcolm was, who Cesar Chavez was; all of us need to learn about Susan B. Anthony. But we also need to learn about Harvey. Gay and lesbian students need heroes, and the rest of us need to understand that Queer History is a vital part of the American story.
Names like Karl Ulrichs, Henry Gerber, Donald Webster Cory, Harry Hay, Phyllis Lyon, Barbara Gittings, Del Martin, Evelyn Hooker, Frank Kameny, Elaine Nobel are entirely ignored by our textbooks. How many readers know even three of these names? Even one of them? All are vital figures in gay and lesbian history, and their stories are virtually unknown.
I may have seen the Times of Harvey Milk thirty-plus times, but showing it today, I teared up again as I always do. For Harvey's sake, let's get this bill through.
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Jonathan Dresner - 5/23/2006
Ditto Rebecca's comments, on both counts.
To be fair, though, I'm an Asianist and if I hadn't been hanging around these civil rights historians so long, I probably couldn't identify some of the equivalent African American figures.
Hugo Schwyzer - 5/23/2006
Googling around should lead you to most of them, but of course, the real solution is weaving gay and lesbian history into the larger narrative...
Rebecca Anne Goetz - 5/23/2006
Per the real point of your post: I've heard of Harvey Milk and know his story, but I have heard none of the other names you mention.
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