I got together with friends recently and watched “Milk,” Gus Van Sant’s movie about the life and death of gay pioneer Harvey Milk. For me it was the second viewing of the film, and it was just as emotional as the first time.
I came out and became politically active in the mid-1970s. Along with members of the Gay Community and Feminist Center at UW-Milwaukee, I helped organize fundraisers to defend the Dade County, Fla., gay rights ordinance from Anita Bryant’s repeal campaign and to defeat the Briggs Initiative in California, which would have prohibited gays and lesbians from working as teachers.
Harvey Milk’s political leadership of San Francisco’s gay community and his bigger-than-life personality made him a media star, and we knew about him even here in Milwaukee. He was a source of inspiration as the movement revved up and the forces of reaction began to organize against us. When we heard that Milk was murdered, we were shocked and angry. Watching the cold-blooded killing re-enacted in the movie brought renewed tears and heartbreak.
Later that night at home, I went online to catch up with the outside world and learned of the assassination attempt on U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and the killing of six others, including a child and a federal judge, in Tucson, Ariz.
Once again, some unhinged loner with an axe to grind and easy access to weaponry has destroyed others’ lives and shaken our sense of security. Once again, it has happened in an atmosphere of hatred and fear-mongering. However different Harvey Milk and Gabrielle Giffords may be and however complex or inscrutable the motivations of their assailants, both atrocities were carried out in the contexts of political and social cultures saturated with violent images and rhetoric.
Harvey Milk was killed during a time when right-wing campaigners claimed that homosexuals “recruited” children into the “gay lifestyle” and therefore should be prohibited from teaching. Basic civil rights provisions outlawing discrimination based on sexual orientation in housing, jobs and public accommodations were decried as giving recognition to “deviants” and “perverts.” The growing political activism of gay communities at the local level was seen as threatening to the status quo, whose knee-jerk response often amounted to “They don’t belong here” or “They’re taking over.”
The movie captured this sentiment perfectly by having Dan White, who killed Harvey Milk, mutter at one point, in jealousy and bafflement, “Where did you come from?” Milk was an intruder, an alien to him.
Fast forward to Arizona, a place Pima County Sheriff Clarence Dupnik says has become “a mecca for prejudice and bigotry.”
Last year, Arizona adopted a law making the failure to carry immigration papers a crime and giving police broad powers to detain anyone suspected of being an alien. Then the Mexican-American studies program of the Tucson school district was declared illegal by the state (while the programs in African, Asian and Native-American studies remain intact). Add false, inflammatory statements by Gov. Jan Brewer, a tolerance for vigilante groups and the loosest gun restrictions in the country and you have the recipe for political violence.
In the immediate wake of the Tucson shooting, politicians and pundits are promising to rein in their rhetoric. We’ll see how long that lasts. If it does not, and the vitriol keeps flowing, the country will continue to corrode and splinter.
We all need to do our parts to be civil to one another and to demand that our leaders model civility as well. That alone won’t solve our problems, but it’s an important – and essential – beginning.