Saturday, January 3, 2009

Harvey Milk/Barack Obama

Last night I finally saw "Milk" and was absolutely devastated by the story. I knew that he had been assassinated and that he was the first openly gay politician to be elected in the United States, but what I was struck by -- besides Sean Penn's incredible, Oscar-worthy performance - were the similarities between him and Barack Obama.

An outsider/insider privileged man leaves his cushy job to become a community organizer in a marginal neighborhood. Using mouth-to-mouth grassroots methods, he builds a political movement that creates a series of unlikely alliances. Despite early defeats, his refusal to give up and his ability to put himself in the situations that will garner the biggest publicity pay off, earn him name recognition, and eventually lead to elected office. An enormous ego and charisma, as well as great speaking ability, enable him to mobilize thousands. His use of testimony to elicit empathy and humanize himself to those who would hate him because of his sexual orientation or religion is similar to Obama's strategic referencing of his own race and class in his campaign.

Like Obama, Milk made reference to historical parallels to shock people into awareness of the horrors of discrimination. In Milk's case, the Holocaust was a point of reference he used, citing the famous quote about how the Nazis would go after the Jews and if people did nothing it would be the Communists, the Catholics, and so on. In Obama's the Civil Rights struggle was an event that he often recalled, placing himself as the heir of that heroic generations' struggle for justice.

Unremarked is the fact that I think Obama is also an heir of Milk. Without the precedent set by Milk, who risked his life to go into office to serve everyone while watching out for the human rights of those who were among the most discriminated against, someone like Obama could never have been the first black man in office. I think Van Zant may have been purposefully making some implied parallels between the two campaigns and the two men. It is staggering to me to realize that Milk was murdered only 10 years after MLK and RFK; that 30 years later we still don't have full civil rights for gays, lesbians, bi-sexuals, and transgendered people in this county; that few people know who Milk was.

But most of all, what I find staggering is that Obama, who built his campaign on civil rights, defending the oppressed, presenting himself as an improbable candidate coming from marginalized groups in American society, can throw G/L/B/T supporters under the bus, again and again and again. Even though we fought for him (I count myself as a bisexual woman) in many ways, he felt free to draw the line at G/L/B/T issues during speeches and debates - defending marriage from us as his trump card to show right wing zealots that he was OK. A negro they could let into the Master's House, as long as the gays remained working out in the fields. By inviting Rick Warren to give the blessing at his Inauguration, he is doing the equivalent of inviting Anita Bryant. Milk is turning over in his grave.

I was struck by the rhetorical similarities of Milk's speeches with Obama's. For example, this is what Milk said when he won:

"It's not my victory, it's yours and yours and yours. If a gay can win, it means there is hope that the system can work for all minorities if we fight. We've given them hope."
- Harvey Milk, after winning a seat on the Board of Supervisors in 1977

As an Obama volunteer, I was given encouraging talks by precinct captains, and received emails from Obama or his deputies, telling me again and again that it was not Obama's victory but mine. And that it was "because of you" that he won.  Obama also used this phrase in his acceptance speech, to dramatic effect. I remember that this rhetoric brought me to tears more than once.

Here is an example of Obama's use of the "because of you" rhetoric:

"And today, on this Tuesday in February, in states North and South, East and West, what began as a whisper in Springfield has swelled to a chorus of millions calling for change. It's a chorus that cannot be ignored, a chorus that cannot be deterred. This time can be different, because this campaign for the presidency of the United States of America is different. It's different not because of me. It's different because of you."

Just as Milk often cited the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, so too did Obama, and just as Milk cited himself as an example of the fact that democracy had to include everyone, so too did Obama, as in the quote that follows:

"It's a promise that says each of us has the freedom to make of our own lives what we will, but that we also have the obligation to treat each other with dignity and respect." 

Obama's mantra of change could well have been spoken by Milk, and if we believe in what he says, then we have to take responsibility for our own share of duty to bring human rights to all Americans, not just for those that Obama feels are politically expedient to support.

"Change will not come if we wait for some other person or some other time. We are the ones we've been waiting for. We are the change that we seek."
-- Barack Obama

For more information -

Link to the documentary The Times of Harvey Milk:

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