The first time I heard of Harvey Milk was in 6th grade. My best friend Wilhelm (who was fond of making up fantastic stories) told me the story of a disgruntled city supervisor who shot the mayor of San Fransisco and another city supervisor then blamed the murder on an over-indulgence of Twinkies brand snack cakes and got off with manslaughter. My response to this was going to Jim’s food mart with Wilhelm to spend all our money on Twinkies to test the theory. After consuming several boxes, we notice not a lack of homicidal rages but a mild case of suger hangover for sure.
By this time I was sure that Wilhelm’s story was full of shit, that I filed this improbable piece of information away in the back area of my brain until it was suddenly revealed to me almost 25 years later that he was in fact, telling the God’s honest truth (well kind of). On November 27, 1978, San Fransisco’s Mayor George Moscone and City Supervisor Harvey Milk (the nations first openly Gay man elected to major office) were assassinated by Dan White, another city supervisor who had recently resigned and wanted his job back. At his trial, White’s defense argued that his mental state at the time of the killings was one of diminished capacity due to depression. Therefore, they argued, he was not capable of premeditating his act of violence, and thus was not legally guilty of first-degree murder. Forensic psychiatrist Martin Blinder testified that White was suffering from depression and pointed to several behavioral symptoms of that depression, including the fact that White had gone from being highly health-conscious to consuming sugary foods and drinks such as Twinkies and Coca-Cola. A remark by Blinder that the sugar might have worsened such a depression was widely reported as a claim that the sugar had contributed to the depression, giving rise to the derisive label the Twinkie defense.
I realized Will wasn’t fibbing in 2005 when I volunteered to be the teacher adviser to my high schools Gay-Straight Alliance student club. The 20th anniversary edition of the 1984 documentary “The Times of Harvey Milk” had recently been released and we watched it at one of our meetings. The kids already knew about Harvey Milk but his story was an education for me. Harvey’s journey from an insurance agency employee to the first openly Gay man elected to public office is a fascinating one, and interesting from a historical perspective as well as a personal perspective.
Last night I watched the premier of the biopic “Milk” starring Sean Penn as Harvey Milk and Josh Brolin as Dan White. It was an amazing film, Penn nailed the gregarious Milk, warts and all, while Josh Brolin played Dan White in a role that didn’t demonize White, but painted him as a desperate, troubled man at odds with his own emotions. The timing of this film is eerie, especially here in California where less than 6 weeks ago, Californians narrowly voted an amendment banning Gay marriage with Prop 8. In Harvey’s day it was Prop 6, an initiative designed to root out homosexual school teachers, as well as any school employee’s advocating homosexuality. A proposition opposed by both Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan, it lead to the first major organization of the Gay community and helped to spawn the Log Cabin Republicans.
Milk (2008) Directed by Gus Van Sant.
Starring: Sean Penn, Josh Brolin, Emile Hirsche, James Franco