Remembering Harvey Milkby Euan Kerr, Minnesota Public Radio
In the late 1970's Harvey Milk became a national symbol as the first openly gay man to win a major political election. He won a seat on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, representing an area including the Castro, which had become a hotbed of gay activism. Then on November 27, 1978, Milk and Mayor George Moscone were shot and killed by former city supervisor Dan White.
Harvey Milk's story is told in the new feature film "Milk" starring Sean Penn. One Twin Cities woman knows the Milk story very well, because she was there.
St. Paul, Minn. — Diane Raff first met Harvey Milk shortly after she started college at San Francisco State University. She needed some film, and someone told her about Harvey Milk's camera store in the Castro.
When she got there, she could hear a meeting going on in the back, and it took ages for anyone to notice her.
"Finally, he comes out, and he's kind of in a hurry, and he helps me get the kind of special black and white film I wanted and sends me on my way, and I think 'That is an odd little man,'" laughed Raff.
So odd, Raff says, she never went back to the store. When she realized the huge election posters all over the area were for the man she'd met, she couldn't believe it. She says she even voted for his opponent in the city supervisor.
Despite losing Raff's vote, Milk won the race.
There were only two other openly gay elected officials in the country, including Minnesota State Senator Allan Spear who came out after he was elected.
Raff became friendly with Cleve Jones, who was a student volunteer for Milk. Several cities around the country, including St. Paul, Minn., had public referenda to restrict gay rights. Jones recruited Diane Raff as a student marshal on what became regular marches on City Hall to protest each ordinance.
"Being the kids we were, we were usually the ones who started up the march songs," said Raff.
It was after one of the marches that she and her fellow students jumped on a street car to take them back to campus.
"And there, sitting in those front kind of side facing seats with a couple of friends, and he finds himself holding court with these 18-year-old kids," said Raff.
Raff says she doesn't remember specifically what Milk said to them that night, but it was about how the fight for gay rights was a struggle for hope, and a fight in support of gay youngsters alone in small communities across the country.
"We had this sense of having been in the presence of somebody really special," she remembered. "And I think more than anything, it was that passion and that vision of this being something bigger than the freedom that people were discovering living in the Castro and doing what you want, and that really inspired us."
Diane Raff says at the time there was mounting fear about the rise of anti-gay legislation, and in particular California Proposition 6. It was a measure put before the voters by State Sen. John Briggs and supported by anti-gay activist Anita Bryant. It would have banned gays and lesbians from being school teachers.
"The joke was, 'Well they'll have to cancel school for six months while they go to find some teachers,'" laughed Raff.
Joking aside, the gay community felt under siege. People worried about a return to a time where some people would have to lie about their sexual orientation, and living in fear of being exposed.
"It was scary," she said. Raff said Milk saw that the best way to oppose Proposition 6 was to organize. As is shown in the film, Milk used his position in City Hall as a platform.
Diane Raff says there was also an effort to convince the public that gays and lesbians were little different from anyone else.
She says the campaign had to work on the general public, and on some gays themselves who had developed a sense of self-loathing as a result of the anti-gay sentiments they had heard over the years.
"And I think Harvey articulated, no, you really are everybody's sons and daughters, and they just need to see that, and you just need to believe it," said Raff.
The effort worked. Raff was at the Anti-Prop Six headquarters on the night of the vote, and she remembers the excitement when voters rejected it by a wide margin. In addition, she says there was something else, perhaps more important.
"An immediate sense of 'Wow, we did this? What's next?'" she said.
Tragically what was next was Milk's murder. Raff said she learned of it from an electronic news banner on campus. She said crowds just stood and stared. "And it just kept running, over and over and over," she recalled.
Raff says her activist friends assumed there would be a march that night. She says she was disappointed when just about 100 people turned up. They lit candles and moved off to walk to down the hill towards city hall. Eventually they got to the bottom of the hill.
"And we turned around, and it was a sea of light, all the way as far as you could see. Basically, the light when clear through the darkness, and it just kept coming," said Raff.
Tens of thousands of people marched that night.
Harvey Milk was gone, and the community didn't know it, but a new threat was already at work: HIV and AIDS. However, Diane Raff says that the gay movement put its organizational skills and the new sense of empowerment to work as it cared for the sick and pushed for research for a cure.
Today, Harvey Milk's name is unknown too many, although that may change with the new film. Diane Raff says it's not surprising the Milk story has faded over time, outside certain circles.
"We lost an entire generation in many respects, so those who would be out talking about the old days aren't here to say," she said.
But she says the Harvey Milk story is important for everyone.
"If it hadn't been for Harvey Milk's inspiration and his ability to convince people that they had power and they needed to use that power, the history of the last 30 years would be entirely different," she said.
Diane Raff says she is looking forward to seeing the film, and even dragging along her 15-year-old son, even though he claims he's not into history.
- All Things Considered, 11/26/2008, 6:24 p.m.