The Cultural Act of Coming Out: A Harvey Milk Brand of Political Theater
Coming of age for many people consists of driver licenses, first dates, and college acceptance/graduation. But in the case of the gay community there is a dichotomy present in the coming of age. The onset of a growing sexuality over the adolescent years marks another coming of age of sorts. Coming out of the closet, the act of pronouncing gay sexual orientation is an act of social attribution and delineation from traditional heterosexually defined statuses and roles assumed in many societies. This act often comes with sever persecution from the individual’s family and friends, but also the potential for an embrace. Coming out of the closet for a gay person is an act that occurs in many different ways. The need to speak out in light of oneself often comes in a weight that people carry for years. In to a story published on the website of “Human Rights Campaign,” a woman took two years after coming out to her husband to tell her daughter about her sexuality (Elizabeth). The manner in which people often come out to friends and family can differ: some write letters to a best friend, others leave it in doubt till moments of compromise do not equate to their identity. Such is the case with another girl who posted her story stating, “[after attending a prom with a male date] the after party was a big sleepover at [the dates] house, where I hooked up with a female classmate” (Jen). Here it is interesting to note the ritualistic elements of her story, which parallel the common story of the prom date, coming of age, hook up. The girl later states in her story, “what happened had felt so natural, much more natural than anything had been with former boyfriends” (Jen). One wrote at the end of his story that, “coming out means so much more than telling someone that you are gay; it means freeing yourself from the bondage of self-hatred and fear. It means empowering yourself. It means you allowing the opportunity to love and be loved” (Karl). This last statement evokes images of high emotional content in an act that has very personal implications and also conveys how this one event can change the course of not just one persons life, but the also the lives and perceptions of those who know them.
Within the United States the gay community has created a presence over the years through a collective act of coming out as a culture in itself. This coming of age as a culture manifests itself through the coming of age of many people of alternative sexual orientation. As this community grows larger, the tendency to expose oneself as gay on the individual level has increased, and thus so has the level of awareness that ultimately perpetuates this tendency to come out via acceptance and/or understanding of homosexuality in the community. This iconic act of coming out has held many meanings in the past and now. While primarily regarded as a disclosure of ones sexuality and entrance into a culture, it has also carried a political past intricately tied to the struggle for gay rights. Over the last half of the 20th century many gay groups have attempted to lobby the government for their human rights. This has met with firm resistance from a society that has long held notions of homosexuality as a social disease, a part of a self-destruction urge to flirt with danger, and moral decadence (Reed 180, Shilts 17). Much of this image stems from lack of knowledge about the gay community and the arrogance of religious beliefs that find their way into government policies and legislation. To counteract these obstacles, proper representation in government is necessary as well as widespread social awareness; in the case of the gay community in 1977, San Francisco’s first openly gay city supervisor Harvey Milk led these acts.
Harvey Milk entered office during a very controversial time. Despite a growing liberalism in politics, in part due to the growing population of the gay community within the city, there was enormous opposition to gay rights in general. This was specifically directed towards openly gay people and those who supported them. This came in the form of Proposition 6, initiated by Californian politician John Briggs and reiterated by San Francisco Chronicle reporter and Milk’s biographer Randy Shilts, as banning “public homosexual conduct” as “advocating, imposing, encouraging, or promoting of private or public homosexual activity direct at, or likely to come to the attention of, school children and/or other [school] employees” (Shilts 240). The result of any violation of the initiative would result in job termination and thus conveyed direct legal oppression of the gay community. One reverend spoke openly about the dilemmas that would ensue by the passing of proposition 6 in a sermon saying, “jobs are at stake…but far more importantly, lives are at stake…those of us who have heard the debates and read statements on the subject believe the bigotry and poison spread by John Briggs need speaking to, not only by those studying the phenomenon of homosexuality, but by those of us who can give you a clear example of who we are…now more honestly…I am gay” (Shilts 242). The personal dimensions that were exploited by Proposition 6 led many others, such as the reverend, to come out as a result. This effect of the stakes becoming ever higher for the gay community also began to shed light on the issues at hand leading to the inquiry of society into this “phenomenon of homosexuality” that began to grow as the subject gained more media and trans-social attention. Channels that Milk would use to his advantage to move forward the key aspect of his political work of art: the revelation of gays en mass.
Harvey Milk’s goal in getting elected was simple; his view was that the government should be there to solve people’s problems (Shilts 203). His bid for supervisor was therefore as much about to his own persecution in the past for being a gay man as it was to work for the interests of those he represented. This took on even more meaning when it became a matter of politics that would legally affect him and the entire gay community, which he represented, through Proposition 6. In T.V. Reed’s book, The Art of Protest, he states, “all movement politics involves a degree of cultural politics” (179). Milk was in the midst of a cultural movement and to respond to these legal oppositions he would instigate a cultural revelation. Harvey called upon the gay community to come out of the closet and reveal the reality of alternative sexuality. This is best summed up in a speech in which he said, “Gay people, we will not win our rights by staying quietly in our closets…we are coming out to fight the lies, the myths, the distortions…we are coming out to tell the truths about gays…you must come out…to your parents, your relatives. I know that it is hard and that it will hurt them, but think of how they will hurt you in the voting booths…(Shilts 224). Coming out went from being a part of a culture to an act of protest against the ignorance of the culture.
What Milk was striking at were the powerful social norms that permeated society. Reed describes this as “social norms that define what is normal, natural and appropriate versus what is abnormal, unnatural, and deviant” (Reed 186). Milk’s goal was to show society that gays were normal productive members of society that did not contribute to moral decadency and crime in society. This revelation of gay’s ubiquitous presence and their ability to contribute to society had profound political implications as gays came out of the closet to friends and family. Shilts reported, “voters who knew gays personally were twice as likely to support gay rights than those who said they had never known a homosexual” (245). This ultimately turned the tide of anti-gay sentiments in society that initiated oppression such as Proposition 6 thus allowing society to embrace the gay community as their own.
Despite the assassination of Harvey Milk less than a year after his election to city supervisor, the gay community carries on inspired by his acts and incorporating his legacy in their fight for rights. This has happen in both in Milk’s time and more recently. Harvey’s leadership in the gay community was both a catalyst and navigator. The gay community, though greatly afflicted by the loss of their leader, swelled in active ranks after his death to pursue their rights in tandem with Milk’s political legacy. Milk often commented that his life would end before the age of 50 and labored to leave the gay community some continuity in spite of his expected early demise. Recorded on audiotapes played after his death, Milk spoke about his role in politics and the gay community stating, “I have always considered myself a part of a movement. I think there is a distinction between those who use the movement and those who are part of the movement... almost everything was done with an eye on the gay movement” (Shilts 276). This echoes the statement by Reed, which underscores the cultural influence in politics and the “impossibility of fully separating cultural from political dimensions of movement activity” (Reed 179). By combining politics with a cultural piece, Milk was able to undermine the ideas embedded deep with society that perpetuated the oppression of the gay community. With the exposure of the gay community through the coming out of homosexuals, the ideas concerning what was “normal” in society were changed. This is a process with not just cultural, but also political ramifications.
The political work of art of coming out has several degrees of influence within society and in the end politically. It begins in society through the exposure of facets that have otherwise been hidden, such as gay family members or gay members in the community at large. Henceforth, embedded ideologies of society are compelled to be examined and then reinforced or changed. For example, many of the ideas that were countered by this process of coming out derive from fundamental Christian ideologies. Dictated by an interpretation of the Bible, a common base for many social ideologies have been slowly ingrain into the society’s subconscious and/or at other times is purposely instigated. This can be seen as the catalyst in the case of the Briggs initiative, where political measures were taken to suppress homosexuality and its cultures dissonance with beliefs held by society. In response Milk called gays to come out of the closet and show who they were and to expose how many people knew gays personally, but did not realize it. These tactics revolved around what some call “bridging,” which focuses on relationship between people as a means of acceptance or tolerance. New York Times commenter Robert Wright says it well stating in an article on tolerance in society, “a few decades ago, people all over America knew and liked gay people ¾ they just didn’t realize these people were gay…once they, having already accepted people who turned out to be gay, accepted gayness itself – more gay people felt comfortable coming out” (Wright). This cultural act does not immediately extend into the political realm, but the social impact can be profound. In the past, coming out implied “disgrace, despair, and, to some, even suicide” but with the advent of a cultural awareness, via bridging, it became conceivable for gay acceptance and tolerance. Soon thereafter, the disclosure of homosexuality of many public figures such as Elton John or Dave Kopay, a linerbacker for the Green Bay Packers, shows “the extent to which the social pressures for staying in the closet had crumbled” due to this shift in awareness (Shilts 124-125).
Politically speaking, the government works to represent its people and provide them with what the Forefathers called their inalienable rights. With the needs, wants, and the beliefs of the people at the helm of a politicians rise or fall, it is only reasonable to assume that even the most corrupt and bigoted politician would concede to the demands of a society at large. This follows suit with the democratic ideals in which the United States operates according to the voice of the majority. In this instance, it is a society that has been introduced to the normalcy of “gayness” and a familiarity with its members. Thus, coming out invokes a sense of who a politician is working for and ideas/wants of the majority in society, whom ultimately elect its government’s leaders. One of Milks associates once said, “Harvey’s legacy is a legacy of hope. Hope in the political process” and another stated, “Harvey is the first guy I know of who could see coming out as a political tool. That was his word all the time…come out” (Milk). In response to a culture in oppression, Milk began a crusade of honesty in his own style of exposé, with the consequences in the hands of those receiving this honesty. He critiqued the legal oppression of homosexuals by highlighting their membership in society not as pests, but people who deserve equality and freedom like everyone else. In comparison, coming out stirred up a notion in society similar to famous literature pieces of exposé such as Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Toms Cabin and Upton Sinclair’s, The Jungle: transparency and exposing of issues leads to change by garnering a demand for the correction of injustices provoked by social oppression and lack of governmental representation of rights. As one can see, this is not just applicable to one issue; it is a process that occurs within many instances of protest whether it is the political act of pronouncing ones homosexuality or a protest novel concerning the corruption in a nations food production.
After his Milk’s murder, the gay community continued its fight for gay rights, the political act of coming out contributed to the defeat Proposition 6 and led to a society charged with new ideas and concessions towards the gay community. The legacy and ideas of Milk also evoked an aspect of gay visibility in society that was further elaborated on by gay rights groups such as ACT UP of the 80s and 90s. This group took an active stance on spreading awareness and medical welfare for AIDS. Using similar tactics of exposing to society the reality of an issue, ACT UP initiated reforms not only in medical offerings for AIDS victims but also a challenge to cultural assumptions. This was done through provocative artwork and protests that emphasized the facts of AIDS and essentially “taking on socially constructed medical knowledge, and in analyzing and using mass media framings of the ‘real’” (Reed 184). Using such slogans as “silence=death,” ACT UP methods were often reminiscent of Milk’s political work of art of coming out against Proposition 6 and brought about similar idea changes within society about a deemed gay disease.
Outside the gay community and its drive for its rights, coming out has become an act of political protest appropriated by groups such as illegal immigrants. In a New York Times Magazine article describing the plight of these “undocumented” immigrant college students who arrived in the US as babies. The article states, “Borrowing tactics from civil rights and gay rights movements, in the last year [advocates of undocumented immigrants] have orchestrated dozens of demonstrations, hunger strikes, [and] “coming out” events…” (Jones 38). “Coming out” in the words of one of these “undocumented students” is necessary due to the confinements of their illegal status. Their act of protest revolves around their exposure of their status and their predicament in hopes of garnering media and social attention that could bring about change. While mixed results have ensued, this exposure sets a foundation in society as well as politics for further change. It stands to reason that their rights will follow soon after, just like coming out did for the gay community.
Over thirty years ago, Harvey Milk beckoned the gay community to come out of the shadows and change society’s idea of them. His legacy lives on in his ideals of showing society the heart of issues. His zeal for the opera manifests in an interesting parallel to the politic act of coming out. Within San Francisco’s city hall there was a grand marble staircase that Milk would call his stage where he put forth the spectacle that Shilts called “[Milk’s] unique brand of political theater” (Shilts 189). For the gay community, this invokes the exhibition of homosexuals and their lives as not deviants, but equally human and deserving of human rights, not oppression. Following in the Milk’s footsteps, the understanding of the situation for undocumented immigrants and the recasting of legal attitudes towards them begin by showing society that they are a part of it. It is the coming of age; the grasping of an identity and acknowledgment from society, and ultimately a coming together that truly validates that “Living in the shadows [is] no longer acceptable” in the face of prejudice (Jones 38).
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