“OMG! Marriage is the new AIDS!” a friend screeched to me through her cell phone after witnessing West Hollywood’s cop-clashing response to the passage of Proposition 8. She meant, of course, the unexpected, exhilarating, and somewhat clumsy reemergence of queer protest energy that has overtaken many a civic center and public park since the November election and its attendant LGBT letdown.
Folks are dusting off their framed ACT-UP poster collections, those old-time “When do we want it? Now!” chants are filling gay air space, and former Queer Nation, Gran Fury, and Boy with Arms Akimbo enthusiasts like myself are feeling nostalgic sensations in their radical nether regions that have suddenly freed us, however temporarily, from the tyranny of approaching middle age. The spirit is back! Let’s tear some shit up.
Much has been made of this “Great Gay Awakening” in the homoblogosphere. Is it heading toward long-overdue political organization or a White Night Riots reprise? How can it be effectively harnessed? What the heck should one wear? And some interesting things have already resulted from it. Gay issues have once again taken the national stage, and everyone’s looking for leadership. The “great national conversation on race” has exploded in the gay community, with some prominent hotheads blaming the African American community for Proposition 8’s win, and many queers of color finding their own voice in response.
But let’s hit the snooze on the “awakening” for quick drag minute and consider one of the thorniest questions floating around. Where was all that energy when it could have done some freaking good? “I felt totally apathetic about gay marriage until it was taken away,” another friend said. And at a recent rally I overheard “Why did it take losing something to get us out on the streets? Haven’t we learned anything from the past?”
In terms of past-learning, it’s not as if Harvey Milk and the Milk movie haven’t been the omnipresent topic on everyone’s cocktail-pickled lips all year. Were we too busy ogling Milk actor James Franco’s hip knit neckwear to co-opt Harvey’s winning strategy of inclusivity, outreach, and preemptive rallying against the infamous Briggs Initiative? People have pointed fingers until they’re blue in the wrist at the various perceived missteps of the No on 8 campaign. But a campaign is only as good as its participants — if the queer community can organize a 300-city mass protest around a viral e-mail, as we did Nov. 15, then why didn’t Harvey’s lessons on how to effect political change sink in earlier?
Of course I have a theory. I think we’re obsessed with Harvey’s martyrdom, paralyzing him in the glistening amber of legend rather than the actively engaging him in the now. His tragic mortification makes a great story, an epic drama for us eager drama queens. It sells screenplays in Hollywood. Milk, for all the good that may come of its release, would never have been green-lighted without Dan White. Harvey Milk the haloed icon — the beatified victim whose presence can only be summoned in times of gay grief — has been elevated in queer culture above Harvey Milk the canny tactician, the voluble freak, the erring human with restless hands and solid instincts.
Reflecting on Harvey’s sacrifice is important. “Saint Harvey: The Life and Afterlife of a Modern Gay Martyr” was the title of an extremely moving 2004 display at the GLBT Historical Society, one that presented the supervisor’s personal effects in various reliquaries, the bullet-riddled suit in which he was murdered suspended as if from a crucifix. Inspired by “Saint Harvey,” artist Leo Herrera displayed graphic, impressionistic photographs of the suit in 2007 as part of his “San Francisco: Sex & Icons” series, recontemporizing Harvey the martyr for San Francisco’s young alternaqueer population.
Both those shows were beautiful — and helped keep Harvey’s story in play. Milk, however hagiographic, will probably do the same. That’s great, and if it inspires the community to finally fund the Historical Society enough to establish a queer history museum here — a sickening absence in San Francisco, of all places — we may be able to at last live and learn from the past rather than just light a candle to it.
For most queers now, though, the thought of Harvey Milk brings only grave tears and intimations of tragedy. Maybe the current emergency will finally break the glass around St. Harvey and inspire us to take the practical examples he left us seriously.