Learning from Harvey Milk: A Pakistani view

milk9By Aisha Fayyazi Sarwari
Many great men who face persecution as a minority or as a misfit in society turn the humiliation faced from constant and deliberate marginalization into strength. They draw power from the loss of status, to demand rights for others like them to exist and to have equal laws, perhaps even protective laws against age old discrimination. Harvey Milk was a man who was openly gay and that was the only ticket he ran on in the 1970’s to become the San Francisco city supervisor, a role that reports directly to the city mayor. This was the first time a gay man anywhere got elected though the ballot in a position of political power. As a developing world contrast, in an election in 1990s a eunuch was almost elected a Member of National Assembly in Pakistan, again a show of the power of the ability to organize.

Harvey Milk is among the 100 most influential men in History.  Being gay or lesbian is a sexual orientation that, until maybe even a decade ago was considered a choice into a life of perversion.
To fight for one’s rights based on how you prefer to derive sexual pleasure is often a controversial topic, partly because society, even the civilized part of society, has not yet even reconciled the rights of women to exist in a framework of identity which is independent of men. Men who fancy men are not only feminine, but they go as far to reject the narrow construct of manhood.

This challenges patriarchy to the core. In fact, it is not difficult to understand police brutality and targeted murders of gays if one imagines how men in the traditional role as providers of a family view other men who don’t have that financial pressure. Gays in America are a stand-apart segment now. The most sought after group that advertiser’s target because gays and their partners are among the most affluent, the most educated and the most well networked group after the baby boomers.

Gays are certainly a threat to the average American worried about insurance and foreclosure and high private education fees for his children– If not a threat then certainly an envy. In the film, MILK, Dan White who is also a supervisor asks Milk to support a proposition to increase supervisor salary and says to Milk, “I can’t support my family with this pay. That is something you don’t have to worry about.”
This is unfortunately the same Dan White, who murders both Harvey Milk and the Mayor of San Francisco.

Sean Penn in his depiction of Harvey Milk in the film MILK has outperformed himself.  His character performances are as deep as the issues he takes on. Penn’s role as a special person who almost loses the custody battle for his daughter in Sam I am and now in MILK, he has come a full circle as an actor.seanpenn-harveymilk-flm2

The film memoir’s Milk from his 40th birthday to the time he turns 48. In this brief period he turns his life around, not deliberately but as if there was no other way to follow but to fight laws that keep gays in the closet in fear of retribution ranging from job loss, banned from choice housing, disqualified from loan applications and of course to marry another man. The last point can be argued is not as important as say, world hunger, but this is the premise of the gay movement, the freedom to live a lifestyle of choice and yet be accepted as a loyal taxpaying citizen.

History is replete with groups that have often rejected the path of least resistance and have wrapped around themselves the mantle of their difference and come out to be accepted as part of a system, and a stakeholder in the territory they belong to, sans fear of rejection, persecution or even death.

Milk was a leader possessing, above all, courage. He failed multiple times at supervisor elections but kept at it. He learned the art of politics despite being from the periphery of the power circles. He created a team of astute political players and harnessed the power of marketing and press by appointing a woman press manager.

He also kept away from the nonsense value of Gandhi’s non-violence that would certainly dilute the strength of the civil rights movement’s own anger of perpetually being pushed out of an honorable existence. The slogan: “Civil rights or civil war!”

No one runs out of a burning house of moderation. It was the volatility of the movement of almost-rioting gays marching in the streets of San Francisco that got the movement its power. The weak don’t set the pace anywhere, and they certainly don’t get bigoted laws repealed.
Fill a form in the US, any form, from the DMV or for university standardized testing and there will be a clause outlining no discrimination based on various things, among which I always noticed, national origin and sexual orientation. As a Pakistani on a student visa, working in San Francisco, I always looked up to the gay rights movement as a mighty successful one, even perhaps more successful than needed. California is too self righteously liberal a state, you were looked down on if you owned a gas guzzling SUV, ate anything other than tofu or in certain circles, if you didn’t run every day and you especially couldn’t be anti-gay!

Raised Muslim, I thought homosexuality was a sin. My earliest forum entries still searchable in Google cache, attest to the highly moral, electrifyingly, religion-based view on homosexuality. My notions got knocked down just as fast when I worked as community reporter under one of the most competent and impressive men who headed the community relations department at KRON 4, CNN affiliate station then in 2003. He was openly gay, often referring to his partner of 7 years with a smile on his face. His partner played the orchestra at Broadway. In the time I worked with him, he covered every community issue, including the one about Muslim Imams with as much conviction as he would others like mounting crime or local pollution. He never used his position to overzealously promote his cause.
Once over lunch break, while I nibbled at my sandwich half heartedly, he walked in and asked me what was wrong. I said, “Nothing.” He said, “I am gay, I know when someone’s down.”

I responded with a breakdown, tears and all. I told him about how this editor at KQED, NPR affiliate had publicly humiliated me that same day, by ripping my morning copy of news and throwing it at my face, calling me a terrorist Muslim who comes from a country that beheads innocent people like Daniel Pearl. He knew how much of a nationalist I was. How much I missed Pakistan, how much I wished we were organized enough to be heard.
First he made me eat up my sandwich, opened up a fresh can of coke for me and quietly waited for me to finish like he was thinking of how to frame his speech. I thought it would be the same old lecture about how you can’t escape a bad boss. 

He asked me, “You were born in Africa right?” I looked at him upset as if he wasn’t listening to a word I was saying.  “Anyway,” He went on, “there’s this proverb that my mentor told me, that if a person is nice to you even once, you cannot hold a grudge against him your entire life.”
“I live in San Francisco, not a remote village in Africa” I said

“I live my life by that silly proverb. I know you won’t be able to see gays the same way you did before you met me…and that is the only thing that matters. That editor over at the other station won’t ever see Pakistan the way he saw it before he met you…the only difference is that some people chose to see the truth and others are afraid of it.”

It has been years since then, I always wonder how he knew my views on homosexuality when I never really showed my bias.   And he had hired me despite it.

Apart from the OTT nude-gay parades in San Francisco that my poor old mother once got stuck in when we went off looking for a Pakistani restaurant, I see no real damage gay and lesbian people can do to the world apart from break down the walls of prejudice.
Milk should be admired by anyone who has felt humiliated for something they can’t help being: Muslims, Pakistanis, Shias, Ahmedis, and Women.

Aisha Fayyazi Sarwari is a businesswoman based in Islamabad, Pakistan.   She blogs at http://hotelmohenjodaro.blogspot.com.

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