Harvey Milk (left) and Sean Penn as Harvey Milk.
We are never far from trains here, where the Burlington Northern & Santa Fe and the Union Pacific cross --- at one place on the south edge of town like a layer cake: The UP in a deep cut north and south; the BN&SF, bridged across at ground-level east or west; and arching over both, U.S. Highway 34.
Two coal trains rumbled through 6-6:30 a.m. Tuesday and another at 6:45. All whistled salutes at the crossing a block east, following parallel tracks that if traveled far enough would take a guy from the deep Midwest to either coast.
I like to think about that. Someday I will sit in the back yard for hours and count trains although not, perhaps, travel to either coast again.
Gus Van Sant’s film “Milk” played out in track-like parallels, too, this week in my head as I watched it for a second time; not parallels of steel or accomplishment, but of time --- “Where were you and what were you doing when …?”
San Francisco County and City Supervisor Harvey Milk, the first openly gay male elected to public office in the United States, was assassinated by fellow supervisor Dan White in 1978 along with Mayor George Mosconi. “Milk” is a story of the last eight years of his life.
Some call Harvey Milk the patron saint of those of us who are gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender. He fought for us and then died, but parallels here are for others to find. I know little of saints.
Van Sant’s mixture of news footage from that time and deftly handled theater is amazing. Sean Penn as Milk is spellbinding. But there have been more than enough reviews.
Milk was 48 when he died and I was 32 in that year.
One of the first things good little boys like me born in those first years after World War II learned was not to trust --- not parents, not siblings, not aunts and uncles, cousins, friends or friends of your parents.
No toddler makes the distinction between homosexual and heterosexual or has any reason to. But there is an instinct shared by all GLBT people I’ve known, intertwined with our earliest memories, that tells us we are somehow not the answers to our parents’ prayers and that if anyone else figures that out we will be thrown away or sent back. Each of us also thinks he or she is the only one.
Keep your head down and guard up. Push those who get too close away. Wear camouflage. I still follow some of these rules.
In 1970, the year Harvey Milk celebrated his 40th birthday in New York by picking up Scott Smith, who became his lover and compelled him out of the closet and to San Francisco, I was in Vietnam.
I do not recall being asked when I was drafted, but if I had been I would not have told.
The intelligence operative who lived several doors beyond me down the balcony in Saigon that year had a Vietnamese boyfriend and it became a goal of our MPs to catch them having sex. They never did. But the prettiest of those MPs, trying to board a flight to Australia for R&R, got busted because he tried to smuggle Saigon street drugs out of country in a talcum powder tin.
A couple of years later and stateside, my guy and I got to talking and found out he’d been a patient at Third Field Hospital, also in Saigon, being treated for wounds on some of the days I had stopped there at its PX to buy cigarettes.
Growing up a little but long before this, back in the 1950s again, us gay kids found out next that Jesus didn’t love us --- although he did love all the other little children in his sight, red and yellow, black and white.
We didn’t tell our parents or Sunday school teachers this. It’s odd what parents think their children do and do not know.
It took me many years to figure out that it is the institution and a majority of those who call themselves Christian who do not love us, but that Jesus does.
By 1972, when Harvey and Scott arrived in San Francisco, I had returned to Iowa City to complete the master’s degree I’d started while waiting for Uncle Sam to close in.
My friend Bob, a teacher who came back east to Iowa every summer to work on his master’s degree, turned 40 in 1972 --- closed his door, pulled the curtains and listened to Judy Garland: “Somewhere over the rainbow, way up high, there’s a land that I heard of, once in a lullaby ….” Judy, with many problems of her own, empathized with some of ours. But there really wasn’t anything at the end of the rainbow for us then, or for her by that time.
In the fall of 1977, Harvey Milk won a race for San Francisco supervisor after three unsuccessful political races and once sworn in, in 1978, he drafted and the supervisors passed the most comprehensive gay antidiscrimination ordinance in the nation. He then led a successful campaign against great odds to defeat Proposition 6, a statewide referendum launched by churches that would have authorized a witch hunt for gay teachers in California public schools.
After 11 months in office, on Nov. 27, 1978, Milk was shot down. Thirty thousand marched that night, carrying candles, from the Castro to San Francisco City Hall.
Months later, Dan White used the Twinkie defense --- a junk food binge had unhinged him --- and was convicted of manslaughter for killing Milk and Mosconi (he served five years in jail, committed suicide less than two years after release). Tens of thousands marched again, but this time aimed to tear San Francisco down.
It was OK to kill homosexuals in 1978, we learned, and when Matthew Shepard died 20 years later, in October of 1998 --- poor kid beaten and then tied to a fence and left to die just outside Laramie --- we found out some thought it still was. This time, the killers got life terms.
I was editing two small weekly newspapers in north central Iowa in 1978, when Milk was killed, and had become adept at being one thing but appearing to be something else, living in an odd and sometimes unsatisfactory way in two worlds. Everyone I knew who was gay did the same. It was necessary if you wished to live and work in a place like Iowa, most places in fact.
But we were watching, eyes turned to the West, a direction that often has given Iowans hope.
If anything, Milk’s death strengthened what has been called the gay rights movement as martyrdom often does, and those of us who are getting older have seen amazing things and some tragic ones, too, in the years since.
Milk argued and preached that LGBT people had to work together and that it was imperative we come out, to live honestly for our own sakes and to give everyone else a clearer view of who and where we were. It is easier to hate an abstraction than a son, sister, neighbor or friend.
Iowans were slow to do that and still are. It took the crucible of AIDS and the death of someone I cared a great deal about among hundreds of thousands of others to compel me to have those conversations in the early 1990s with family, friends and co-workers.
Those of us spared AIDS and old enough to remember the worst of it still operate sometimes on survivor guilt, as do those of us who survived Vietnam.
One other thing about Harvey Milk: He was by all accounts among the kindest of men.
Relations between LGBT people and the heterosexual majority although astonishingly improved remain a bumpy road --- often amicable but at other times clumsy, angry, uncomfortable, full of misunderstandings and sometimes confrontational.
The current debate about gay marriage in many states, including Iowa (who’d have thought such a thing would come up here?), is an example.
Personally, I see no reason why the state should not extend to same-sex couples the same contractual rights and obligations marriage extends to couples of opposite sexes.
But we are not required to agree on this or any other issue, nor should anyone be surprised when we don’t. These are frightening times for all of us as the ground shifts socially, economically, religiously and in other ways.
The only thing we are required to do, I think, is treat each other kindly, especially when we disagree, another lesson from the life and times of Harvey Milk.