How different would I have been if I had lived in San Francisco during the Harvey Milk era? This question arose after watching and being deeply moved by the documentary, The Times of Harvey Milk. I was twelve when Harvey and Mayor Moscone were assassinated. My family had taken a vacation to San Francisco the summer prior, so you would have thought I would have noticed it on the news or talked about it with my parents, but I have no recollection of that and so it was another 25+ years before I ever heard Harvey Milk’s name.
Our small town in the Midwest was a world away to be sure. I certainly didn’t know the word gay when I was 12, except that it was the last name of some family friends and I’d heard it in a Christmas song that made no sense to me… “Don we now our gay apparel”. Huh?! My introduction to same-sex relationships came during a TV episode of Family, where one of Willie’s friends tried to explain to Kristy McNichol, his feelings toward her brother. I was very confused. Somehow I must have figured it out or had further education, because my next memory about the subject is my awareness of the one known “gay” in our town. Well, the only one known to me anyway. It was a whisper… I never heard anyone outright bash her for being gay, but I was definitely left with the impression that she was doing something that was not okay. She was “less than” because of ‘it’ and definitely, ‘it’ should only be whispered. Being gay did not define her though – it was the shadow we all cast on everything she did. In spite of the whispers and our shadow, every year, she organized this amazing event that brought money and respect to our city.
She would have been one of the most likely people in town to be a mentor to me, not because she was gay, but because she had traveled a road which I aspired to travel. She had once been in the world of professional golf and many in town thought I was on my way. Our paths crossed often in local competitions and I could have learned much from her, just about the game of golf, not to mention about life as a gay woman. But no one encouraged that, most likely because she was gay. I wasn’t wise enough to know that I was missing an opportunity, but still, a silent piece of me was observing her with a fair amount of respect.
So although there was no gay community like the one in San Francisco and no Harvey Milk in my world, there was this one gay woman going about her business of contributing something good to the world. In hindsight, I can see her as having the courage to stand tall in the face of the whispers, rather than seeing her gayness as a stain on all the good that she did. I don’t even know if she was “out”, or if people had just figured it out, but I know she knew there were the whispers and the judgement.
Would I have been different if I hadn’t known this one woman in my hometown? I think so… I think I learned that being gay was not very acceptable, but I also learned that it was possible to be gay and make a difference. Perhaps that is reflected in the way I’ve lived my life. Once I understood I was gay, I tried to keep it hidden and when that became too much work, I moved past it and put my energy into other pursuits.
So what if my hometown had been San Francisco and I had been in college when Harvey Milk was elected, would I have followed his urging to tell my family and friends much sooner that I did? Would I have marched with thousands of others upon his death? Would I be boldly “out” today? It’s not unimaginable. I used to be a chameleon and if I had been surrounded by gay people who were inspired by Harvey Milk, I probably would have been right there with them. Instead, I stand tall in the face of the whispers, change hearts and minds one person at a time, and try to make a difference.