Monday, November 24, 2008


In a few days it will be the 30th anniversary of the assassination of Harvey Milk, the first openly gay man elected to public office in the United States. This video is an excerpt from his 1978 speech "You Cannot Live on Hope Alone", given shortly before he was killed.

His speech and his life remind us of how far we have come in 30 years, but also of how much work there is still to be done. There are still thousands of gay and lesbian teenagers that are thrown out of the house, that suffer verbal and physical abuse each day at school, that take their own lives because they cannot change who they are. In more than half of the United States, a person can lose his or her job for being gay. In almost all states, same-sex couples cannot legally join together in marriage, thus depriving them of nearly 1,100 federal rights, benefits and privileges given to married couples. Some states do not allow gay couples or individuals to adopt children, and some do not allow second-parent adoption; which means that when a lesbian couple has a child together, the non-biological mother cannot be considered a legal parent to that child.

But what Harvey Milk's speech reminds us is that we cannot lose hope and we cannot stop working for what we know in our hearts is right. The message of hope that we have heard in this country over the past year awakened a nation and inspired millions of people who once felt disenfranchised and unempowered. Gay and lesbian Americans must keep Barack Obama and Harvey Milk's message of hope alive. We can have a different world.

In an op-ed piece on Prop. 8, the California amendment that took back the legal right of marriage for same-sex couples, Human Rights Campaign president Joe Solmonese gave a call-to-action alongside his own message of hope:

"In recent years, I've been delivering this positive message: tell your story. Share who you are. And in fact, as our families become more familiar, support for us increases. But make no mistake: I do not think we have to audition for equality. Rather, I believe that each and every one of us who has been hurt by this hateful ballot measure, and each and every one of us who is still fighting to be equal, has to confront the neighbors who hurt us. We have to say to the man with the Yes on 8 sign—you disrespected my humanity, and I am not giving you a pass. I am not giving you a pass for explaining that you tolerate me, while at the same time denying that my family has a right to exist. I do not give you permission to say you have me as a "gay friend" when you cast a vote against my family, and my rights.

"Wherever you are, tell a neighbor what the California Supreme Court so wisely affirmed: that you are equal, you are human, and that being denied equality harms you materially. Although I, like our whole community, am shaken by Prop 8's passage, I am not yet ready to believe that anyone who knows us as human beings and understands what is at stake would consciously vote to harm us.

"This is not over. In California, our legal rights have been lost, but our human rights endure, and we will continue to fight for them."

He reminds us that we must both hope for and work for a better future. One thing that Proposition 8 and Initiative 1 (the amendment that voters in Arkansas passed, which prohibits adoption and foster care by unmarried, co-habitating individuals) taught us is that we cannot expect our rights to simply be handed to us. Throughout American history equal rights for oppressed groups have rarely been popular causes and have virtually never been handed over without the hard work and perseverance of those oppressed populations and their allies. Would integration have happened if it had been put to a vote? Would the voters in Virginia or Mississippi or Alabama have said "Yes" to interracial marriage had it been put to a vote years ago? Would women have earned the right to vote without the picket lines, the hunger strikes and the lobbying of countless suffragists? And had those issues been put to a vote, and had equal rights been denied, should those groups have thrown up their hands and said, "Oh well, the majority doesn't want it"? As Martin Luther King, Jr. stated in his "Letter from a Birmingham Jail", "We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor, it must be demanded by the oppressed."

As Joe Solmonese reminds us, our human rights still endure. We are still people of worth; we are not second-class citizens. And we must believe that, no matter what the majority is telling us. We cannot give up, even in the face of defeat. Let us be reminded that in 2000, Californians voted on the marriage issue with a margin of 61.4% to 38.6%. This time the vote was 52% to 48%. It is reassuring, but also reminds us that there is still work to be done, to change the hearts and minds of those who would vote to harm gay and lesbian individuals and families. We can remember these words also written by Martin Luther King, Jr. in his famous letter. He reminds us that time itself is neutral and that, "Human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability; it comes through the tireless efforts of men ... We must use time creatively, in the knowledge that the time is always ripe to do right. Now is the time to make real the promise of democracy."

It is important that the LGBT communities consider how this work is to be done. For, as Audre Lorde once said, the master's tools will never dismantle the master's house. There has been much talk about the sexism, racism, transphobia, etc. that has kept the gay rights movement from being truly cohesive. There have also been criticisms of some of the violent tactics used by small groups of individuals protesting Prop. 8, etc. If we act in hate and violence, we cannot win. I believe that this is a cause that will win through love and understanding. But how can we expect the world to understand and love us, if we cannot understand and love one another? The coming together of LGBT individuals, as well as straight allies, following Prop. 8's passing was encouraging to me. But there is much change still needed within the movement if we ever hope to have victory.

And while we continue our struggle for equality, we must always maintain our hope. As Harvey Milk said 30 years ago, "You cannot live on hope alone, but without it, life is not worth living."