A little more than a decade after Milk’s death, I had moved to San Francisco and come out. This was in 1990, during the height of the AIDS crisis. It was a time when you could be fired from your job for being gay, and so being out at work was an act of courage. This was also when I first encountered the Hope speech in the Randy Shilts book, “The Mayor of Castro Street: The Life and Times of Harvey Milk.” A big old bear named Bubba said that as a young member of the LGBT community (as it was called then) I needed to know my history and Milk was a central figure to that history.
The Hope speech has stayed with me these 30 years because Milk was right – people need to have hope. Every civil rights movement you could care to mention has been fueled by hope. It’s hope that made Andrew Sullivan bring up the idea of same-sex marriage (as opposed to domestic partnerships) as a fundamental right.
It was hope that led veterans, active-duty, and reserve military personnel to fight to be able to serve in the armed forces with honor and honesty. Hope was the engine driving the movement to include LGBTQ+ people in employment non-discrimination, a movement still in progress in many states. There was a time when all of those goals were considered beyond reach – but what a difference 30 years make!
While only 21 states have full civil rights protections for LGBTQ+ people, that is a vast improvement from over 30 years ago when the number of states with anti-gay discrimination protections could be counted on one hand (and you’d still have fingers left to hold a pencil).
There are fears that in the wake of the Supreme Court overturning Roe v Wade, the Obergefell decision legalizing same-sex marriage across the country is in danger. But I tend to think those fears are, at present, overblown. Time may prove me wrong and the backlash may be stronger than I currently think it will be. Despite the backlash, I still have hope though.
I have hope because being homosexual or transsexual used to involuntarily land a person in a mental health institution, and it’s now seen – by many, even if not by all – as just another way people get through this thing called life. It may not mean forever, but as Prince sang, life is long and full of trials and tribulations. Lots of people no longer believe we should live those lives from the shadows, playing pronoun games to hide our partner’s gender, and other closet games we played to survive the Bad Old Days. I have hope because, despite a backlash brewing against LGBTQ+ people, I believe we will win in the end.
How can I have hope in the face of backlash? Because the backlash still won’t be as harsh as things were 30 or 40 or 50 years ago. I maintain hope because the people driving the backlash no longer represent the common majority opinion. I maintain hope because of what I’ve seen with my own eyes and heard with my own ears. This isn’t to say there won’t be trials and tribulations in various states, mostly conservative ones, but the arc of history has curved toward justice, as Martin Luther King Jr. said.
“You have to leave them with hope,” Harvey Milk said, and I hope I’ve done so here.