The California State Legislature has seen fit to commemorate a man of historical note, who was awarded a Presidential Medal of Freedom posthumously, and who was among Time Magazine's 100 Most Important People of the 20th century. The first annual observation of Harvey Milk Day takes place on his birthday, which is Saturday. The Kern High School District, however, voted Wednesday to discourage its campuses from recognizing Harvey Milk Day. If Harvey Milk had been a pioneer of any rights but gay rights, would his day be dismissed by the KHSD, acting on an unenlightened proposal from board trustee Ken Mettler?
I know: Some less-than-fond readers of this column are probably thinking, "Here she goes again, writing her quarterly gay-loving, lesbian-raising rant." Well, yes. Here I go. Are we in Kern County really trying to sell the idea that Harvey Milk was not an influential figure who changed the political landscape forever, not a Californian worth noting, not an honorable man of our history?
Harvey Milk, like other American pioneers of civil rights, seized the historical day, the right person at the right time who rose to and met the challenge of his era. When Harvey Milk was the first openly gay person elected to public office in a major city, winning a seat on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors in 1977, there was no "Ellen." There were no "Will & Grace." Heather did not dream of having two mommies. There were no TV characters, entertainers or anyone else in the public eye who was accepted as openly gay or lesbian. Homosexuals pretended to be heterosexuals, so as not to lose their jobs, families or homes. Same-sex couples pretended to be roommates. Spinster aunts and uncles were assumed to be asexual, or at most, whispered about when relatives had too much to drink at holiday get-togethers. In many states, homosexuality was not only considered a psychiatric illness, but against the law. This is the social and legal background against which Harvey Milk came out of the closet and insisted on equal opportunity and treatment for gays and lesbians.
One of the lame arguments against honoring Harvey Milk with a special day, besides the biggest unspoken one, which is "But he was gay!" is that he was only in public office for a short time. Which is sort of like saying that JFK didn't even serve a full presidential term, so why is he important? Both men, public servants with no wish to leave their jobs, were assassinated in cold blood. At the age of 48, after serving 11 months of his first term, Harvey Milk was shot and killed by a disgruntled fellow politician, who also killed Mayor George Moscone on that terrible day. Clearly, longevity is not required to impact the world. Look at Princess Di. Look at Jesus. Besides, Harvey Milk had invested a lot of himself in changing hearts and minds before he actually won an election: Three times, he had tested the electoral waters and had found them inhospitable to gays like him. His time as a supervisor was a brief chapter in his fight for equal rights.
This is what I'm afraid it really means when a school board directs its teachers and administrators to ignore a day of education put forth by the state Legislature: it means that, when it comes to Harvey Milk Day, we adults have no interest in smoothing the rough road that a small percentage of our youth, already questioning their sexual orientation and apprehensive about their personal answer, must travel. We lack the sensitivity and insight our gay and lesbian youth need from us as they navigate the uneven terrain of this modern world. It says a lot about the grown-ups in charge of education, none of it good.
It also lets every gay and lesbian person in Kern County know that his or her sexual orientation, often incorrectly termed a "morally abhorrent choice," is neither respected nor tolerated, let alone even recognized. Is that the message we want to send to our gay community, that we expect them to suffer their identity in silence, or to vanish altogether, so that our prejudices and squirming unease with anything not exactly like us can go forward in ignorance, unchallenged and unchecked?
Opinions expressed in this column are those of Valerie Schultz, not The Bakersfield Californian.