Harvey Milk was the first openly gay man to be elected to a political office in the United States. After running unsuccessfully several times, Milk was eventually elected as a city supervisor in San Francisco. His election was a sensation at the time, especially considering the circumstances in the US, where even today puritanism and sanctimony are virulent. But after 11 months in office, on November 27, 1978, Milk and Mayor George Moscone were shot inside San Francisco's City Hall.
The story traveled around the world. I heard about it then, but over the years forgot. Now those memories have been roused again, and I owe that to Gus Van Sant's film "Milk." In my opinion Van Sant has erected a monument with this film, which has also been nominated for eight Oscars.
I'm neither an expert nor a film director -- I do my directing, so to speak, only in the realm of politics. But it's my opinion that this film is extremely accomplished in carrying its audience back to the 1970's. Watching it, I sometimes felt the film had been made in the seventies, because the style was so absolutely documentary.
Sean Penn is excellent in his role as the title hero. He's convincing and authentic, even as a heterosexual man playing a homosexual role. I, for one, would give him an Oscar for his performance!
The film also shows how Harvey Milk started out as a relatively apolitical person, running a camera store in San Francisco. But even there in that supposedly progressive city at the heart of the Flower Power movement, there was often discrimination against gay people, including Milk. One California senator, for example, wanted to ban homosexuals from teaching in public schools. It was such incidents that made Milk want to fight back. He organized a movement that advocated for rights for gays and other minorities. Milk had a personality that spread hope and confidence, and he understood that serious political goals could be better achieved with more good humor and less grim determination.
Milk's example encouraged others to be open about their sexual orientation as well. It was similar for me after I made my statement that "I'm gay, and that's a good thing." Young people, and also the parents of gay people, contacted me to say that after hearing my statement, they finally dared to be more direct with their relatives and acquaintances, and no longer felt they had something to be ashamed of.
Milk was a tenacious fighter. As a politician, despite many public and private setbacks, he always dared to try again. And that, in fact, is typical for a successful political career. He took a close look at the target groups in his district and, like every politician, he analyzed where he could gain favor and win majorities.
And Harvey Milk as a role model? Not for me. But he was certainly a trailblazer. He showed that an openly gay person can achieve anything, maybe even become President of the United States -- though my imagination doesn't quite stretch that far! Then again, who could have imagined even a few years ago that Americans would elect an African-American into the White House?
But let's not deceive ourselves. There are also still influential groups in the US that want to overturn gay rights. In California last November, a ballot proposition revoked the right to civil unions.
Thankfully, in Germany we're further along. I'm confident that the majority of Germans can accept a homosexual politician in a leadership role. But here as well we shouldn't maintain any illusions -- there are surely still many people who wouldn't vote for a gay candidate simply because of his or her sexual orientation.
Discrimination against homosexuals still exists in Germany, too -- it's sometimes more and sometimes less subtle. I myself receive hate mail regularly. As soon as the facts of the case are clear, I press charges. These are generally unsuccessful, though, since most of this mail is sent anonymously. Of course I don't let these letters affect me. But they do make it clear to me what other people living in a less privileged situation than I do have to endure.
In one scene in the film, Harvey Milk receives a postcard with an anonymous threat. Something will happen, it says, if he speaks at a certain rally. Nonetheless, Milk goes onstage and gives a speech that electrifies the audience. My hope is that Van Sant's film will inspire as many people as Milk did.