Harvey Milk's Friends and Biographers on What He Would Have Thought of Prop 8 Trial

After the trial broke up for the day on Tuesday, actor Rob Reiner joined the line to get a spot in the elevator. I asked him if anyone from the movie Milk was here, and he pointed to a stout man also trying to get into the elevator, "That guy right there is the man you really want to talk to," said Reiner. "He worked with Harvey Milk for years trying to challenge federal laws, and here, 32 years later in S.F., that's what we're doing."

By the time we reached the lobby, Milk's friend Cleve Jones and I, and a young writer, Dustin Lance Black, decided we'd help each other try to find the building where the first posttrial press conference would be held. While trying to race with the pack, I asked Jones if gay marriage was ever something that Milk, the first openly gay man elected to political office, had discussed with him. "No, that wasn't even on his list," said Jones. "Don't rely on his account!" joked Black, who looks 21 but is 35 and won the Academy Award for best original screenplay with Milk. (The Advocate magazine has called him one of the most influential "Forty under 40" gay Americans.) Black worked closely with Jones to plumb his life's experience for the movie.

Walking past city hall, where he was one of the first people to find his mentor's body after Milk was shot and killed in 1978, Jones said "When the movement began, after Stonewall there were really only a tiny number of real visionaries like Harvey. The reality was we could really only take on fractions of the problem, small ordinances like jobs or housing discrimination. But Harvey, as early as '73, was criticizing the gay establishment for being too cautious and proclaiming our full equality."

At that time, the gay community was so cautious about fighting for rights that it chose to help elect liberals, not gays, to political office. "The strategy then was to fight for bits and pieces, city by city, state by state. But those victories were incomplete and impermanent," said Jones.  Those concerns sound oddly similar to the ones first raised by the gay community when Olson and Boies took on the Perry v. Schwarzenegger case: it was premature; it would hurt the state-by-state strategy; what if they lost?

Harvey's point, said Jones, "was that the most significant rights in this country were at the federal level, like Social Security and the inheritance tax." And that, says Jones, is finally happening now, with this trial and new emphasis of fighting for federal-level rights. "There is a sea change in the movement right now, with new leaders and one emphasis: we want equal protection under the law in all matters governed by civil law in all 50 states."

How exactly did Jones get to know Milk? "I was a street kid. I hung out on Polk Street. He encouraged me to go to school, he took me to city hall as an intern and got me involved in politics." Since Milk's death, Jones has been a leading gay rights activist creating the NAMES Project AIDS memorial quilt and organizing the National Equality March in D.C. last fall. "Emile Hirsch played me in the movie."

We were just about to reach the press room for the news conference. I asked Jones what Milk would think if he had been in the courtroom for the first day of the Prop 8 trial. "I think Harvey would have been delighted. He would have been so proud of the plaintiffs and pleased by the focus on unequivocal federal action." Back in the '70s, Milk would often tell Jones that the single most important thing a gay person could do was to come out. "We've been demonized so long that the reality is when we actually do come out, so much of the fear evaporates," said Jones.

"Can I add one thing?" asked Black, also racing up the stairs to reach the conference room. "I think he'd want the cameras to be here." The Supreme Court on Monday put a temporary halt on televised coverage of the trial. "Milk more than anyone understood the importance of cameras. He would have been disappointed that what happened today hasn't yet been seen."