One of the greatest weapons in Harvey Milk’s considerable political arsenal proved to be his sense of humour. The opponents of gay rights, such as John Briggs and Anita Bryant, huffed and puffed, then indulged in paranoid claims that homosexuals were out to recruit children into the lifestyle because they could not reproduce. The more worked up this ill-starred pair got, the more reasonable Milk was in his response.
In a debate that included Briggs – who thought homosexuals should not be allowed to teach in schools just as prostitutes should not be allowed to teach in schools because they’re not good ‘role models’ – Milk maintains his seriousness, is never glib, but delivers a killer line that has the audience laughing and Briggs looking like an uptight, curtain-twitching village scold.
“I was born of heterosexual parents, taught by heterosexual teachers, in a fiercely heterosexual society. So why then am I homosexual? And, no offense meant, but if teachers are going to affect you as role models there’d be a lot of nuns running around the streets today.”
It is humour, not anger, that controlled the situation. It is an interesting lesson at a time when there is a backlash against the equal marriage movement. The visibility of the issue, the importance of the issue as an equal rights issue, has been so twisted that it has been portrayed by the political right as an attack on the very fabric of our society. And so the old myths, the old assumptions, are again in play. This is why history is important. This is what we can learn from scenarios that, in an ideal world, we would rather forget.
On the night that Proposition 6 was defeated, this is what the idealist Harvey Milk had to say about why it is important to come out.
“We must destroy the myths once and for all. We must continue to speak out and most importantly every gay person must come out. As difficult as it is, you must tell your family, you must tell your relatives, you must tell your friends, you must tell your neighbors, you must tell the people you work with, you must tell the people in the stores you shop in, and once they realize that we are indeed their children and that we are indeed everywhere, every myth, every lie, every innuendo will be destroyed once and for all.”