In 2009, California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger officially designated May 22 as Harvey Milk Day––even though the year before he vetoed the measure. What changed? “Milk has become much more of a symbol of the gay community," explained Schwarzenegger’s spokesperson Aaron McLear, citing the award-winning film Milk and President Obama’s posthumous Presidential Medal of Freedom as reasons for Schwarzenegger's change of heart.
Today Gus Van Sant’s powerful portrait of the slain gay San Francisco leader still resonates as a profile in courage and a blueprint for social change. Sean Penn––who won an Academy Award for his performance––brilliantly embodies the passion, humor, and humanity of Harvey Milk. In our unsettled political times, the role of citizen-fueled resistance movements is greater than ever. In honor of this gay rights hero––and as part of Focus Features' 15th anniversary celebration––we look at six powerful lessons modern-day activists can take away from Milk.
1) Don't get angry. Get organized.
After facing discrimination from a local merchants association, Milk and his lover Scott Smith (James Franco) could have just walked away in a huff. Instead, Milk created a new, inclusive community of business owners by forming the progressive Castro Village Association (CVA). Within a few years, the CVA kicked off the Castro Street Fair, which remains a must-attend date on the San Francisco calendar.
2) Unite those whose voices have been silenced.
In 1973, a year after he’d moved to San Francisco, Harvey Milk decided to run for city supervisor of San Francisco. While he lost multiple times before finally being elected in 1977, he discovered along the way how to become a voice for the unrepresented and disenfranchised. His campaign manager Anne Kronenberg (played by Alison Pill) remembers how he often stated, “if we can unite all the minorities, we can be the majority.”
3) Inspire the next generation.
As a political visionary, Milk deeply believed that to plan for the future you had to connect with the youth of today. Cleve Jones (played by Emile Hirsch), who was just a teen living on the streets, joined up with Milk after hearing him speak about the fate of the young. “The only thing they have to look forward to is hope,” Milk explained “And you have to give them hope. Hope for a better world, hope for a better tomorrow.”
4) Harness the power of technology.
Before Facebook and Twitter, Milk and his band of activists used telephones to win a national campaign against anti-gay demagogue Anita Bryant. Van Sant hired Portland’s Bent Image Lab to colorfully illustrate how quickly a single call can swell into a political movement. To illustrate how everyone is connected, co-star James Franco’s brother Dave shows up as "Telephone Tree #5" in the piece.
5) Focus your energy on a single action.
In 1978, California was about to vote on Proposition 6 (dubbed the Briggs Initiative), which would’ve mandated the firing of gay teachers and public schools employees who supported gay rights. In response, Milk ignited a crowd of over 350,000 people gathered for the Stonewall anniversary with a single plea. “Brothers and sisters, you must come out,” he pleaded. His plea to come out would live on as one of the most significant actions LGBT people could take to guarantee their rights.
6) Battle hate with humor.
Milk’s neighbor Ernie Asten remembers how Milk “used humor to undercut seriousness,” making his whimsy and wit two qualities people loved about him. One great example of this is when Milk faced off against his arch nemesis Senator John Briggs (played by out actor Denis O’Hare), dismantling his intolerance with his wisecracks.