￼Interview with Stuart Milk following the UK Premiere of Emily Mann’s Execution of Justice: The Trial of the Man Who Killed Harvey Milk
November 27th 1978: Dan White shoots and kills Harvey Milk, the first openly gay American to hold elected office and George Moscone, mayor of San Francisco.
May 21st 1979: Dan White is found not guilty of murder.
Execution of Justice is the story of how and why it happened.
A cast of 20 perform Emily Mann’s award-winning 1982 verbatim play – a panoramic view of a time of upheaval and change, told in words taken from trial transcripts, interviews, reportage and the street.
Moving in and out of the courtroom and backwards and forwards in time, Execution of Justice captures a divided city in crisis and the impact of loss.
Stuart Milk is the nephew of the late civil rights pioneer Harvey Milk, and formed the start up, not-for-profit Harvey Milk Foundation, whose mission is to fulfil Harvey’s dream of a world without discrimination and a world without hate.
On the evening of 12 January 2012 I got the chance to interview and speak with Stuart Milk about Proactive Diversity, as well as the play we just watched, and how times have changed in the gay community since his uncle’s assassination. After watching the play as a person in the courtroom in 1978, many things ran through my mind, such as how I would have perceived my place in the world as a gay activist, what I needed to do to ensure this type of thing never happened again, and of course a moment of sadness for the family.
I looked up into the eyes of a man looking into mine. He looked uncannily like the posters, newspapers clippings, campaign banners, and other items bearing the image of Harvey Milk, decorating the Southwark Theatre in London. When the world lost a great human-rights leader and role-model, this man lost a dear uncle. Now, I had the chance to find out first-hand what it was like to lose both at the same time. If you are no fan of speakers who begin with small talk, or jokes, this was an opening you would appreciate:
“My Uncle Harvey was killed when I was seventeen, and played a very important role in my life because he was the person I had some very important conversations with about my own authenticity. Whenever I see him portrayed in major motion pictures like Milk or documentaries like The Life and Times of Harvey Milk, or a play that just premiered at the Kennedy Centre called Dear Harvey, or what you and I just saw, Execution of Justice, its a bit of an emotional roller coaster for me. But more than just because in this case it was my uncle, its because killings like my uncle faced go on around the world every day.
I know that a lot of people look at the case and wonder how could a jury come back from deliberation and say that Dan White (the man who killed Harvey Milk and George Moscone) didn’t kill them with malice, and in cold blood. However, when you go back to 1972 when Harvey first went into public office, and even in 1978 when he was killed, homosexuality in the United States was still criminal, it was considered a mental illness by the American Psychological Association and the American Psychiatric Association. A lot of people felt that homosexuals were not valuable citizens, and were not to be treated fairly.
When Harvey was killed, there were several states in the US where laws on the books stated one was not allowed to serve alcohol to known felons, deviants, or homosexuals. There is still one state that still has that law – Virginia, although the law isn’t enforced.
Harvey was a first for the gay rights movement because he wasn’t just gay, or openly gay, he was loudly openly gay. Many people in politics before him admitted, sometimes unwillingly, that they were gay, but Harvey brought it up in every conversation he had with absolutely anyone.
One point about Milk, or The Life and Times of Harvey Milk, or Execution of Justice, that I’m not sure how clear it becomes, is that the actual jury: The majority of those jurors did weep during Dan White’s confession. But it wasn’t just the jurors, the majority of the courtroom wept, and many people who read the transcript wept. They wept for Dan white. They wondered how could a good, Catholic boy who was representing wholesome, Americans values get caught up in this web created by the gay community in San Francisco. And I can tell you the type of defence that you see so beautifully portrayed in Execution of Justice is an excuse is a defence that continues to get used today: Not only in the dark corners of the world, where homosexuality is still punishable by death, but last year in a predominantly gay community in South Florida. There, we have an anti-hate crime law in the United States that was signed by President Obama that makes it a stiffer crime and a special prosecution if a person is killed or attacked because of discrimination that includes lesbians and gay people, but the prosecution has to say that discrimination took place. So here was this young man who was beaten for an estimated 90 minutes, and he was killed: Brutally beaten by three young people he knew, which often tends to be the case in gay-hate crimes, but the defense attorney said that it was a robbery. However, his full wallet and expensive watch were not taken.
Less than six months ago we had a complete dismemberment of a sixteen-year-old youth in San Juan (Puerto Rico, a territory of the United States) whose murder was not prosecuted as a hate-crime. When the police chief found out about the crime, he said, to a reporter, “That’s what you get when you live that type of lifestyle.”
I’m bringing this up because, unfortunately, we still have a lot of challenges. We have progressed in many ways – we have a tremendous leader in the President of the United Staes, we have great leaders around the world who stood up to the myths and the lies about gay people, ethnic minorities, religious minorities, and who have started to call people on this type of violent discrimination and violent hatred, but we have a long way to go.
So we’ve got some strong voices, and many strong allies, and Harvey was tremendously impacted on being a Jewish-American whose writing had been getting notice at the State University of New York in 1951 about why are we dividing people, why are we teaching teachers about war by having ROTC on campuses (Reserve Officers’ Training Corps – a programme where qualifying persons have their four-year college expenses paid for in exchange for four-years U.S. Army enlistment after said schooling.) So unlike the movie Milk where he meets an activist on the subway and instantly becomes charged, he had it in him many years earlier.
The knowledge that he was going to be killed was profound. We have two letters in the family that he wrote after the Briggs Initiative (a proposition in California that would have denied gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people the right to teach school. That was a tremendous victory that Harvey helped lead – Dan White was opposed to that proposition. Harvey got tonnes of hate-mail over that, and he knew he was going to be killed. He had conversations with friends, he talked with family, but he just knew that it was inevitable, similar to how Martin Luther King felt when he said to his followers, “I am not going to get to the mountaintop with you. Harvey knew he wasn’t going to get there – that isn’t Hollywood. The taped wills are there, the journals to be read after his death – we have those. He just didn’t know it was going to be Dan White. He felt what he did was worth a shortened life. Anne Kronenberg and I set up the Harvey Milk Foundation right after I accepted the Presidential Medal of Freedom (the highest civilian honour in the US) for Harvey who, posthumously, was the first openly gay person to ever receive the award, but he was also the first GLBTQ activist to ever receive such an award, and we felt it was important to take Harvey’s message further.
In 1951, Harvey wrote, in a university paper, a column called You Didn’t Ask Me But… On one occasion he wrote about Göring (a leading member of the Nazi Party) and Hitler’s speech – he was really obsessed how a community can turn against multiple communities within their own nation, within their own statehood. He wrote about Göring and Hitler’s use of the word tolerance, where as they envisioned a Germany that was tolerant of second-class citizens by taking away their citizenship and putting them in places where they could be tolerated. There is work now, carried out by Dr. Caitlin Ryan who runs the Family Acceptance Project on semantics and the effects of semantics on families and their ability to accept their children and their differences including GLBTQ kids. Other researchers as well have looked at the people who commit these terrible hate crimes, and the overwhelming majority of people who perpetrate these crimes and murders do so because they say just couldn’t tolerate ‘those people’ and their type anymore. So the Harvey Milk Foundation wants to move the bar away from people tolerating other people. I’m from Florida, where we tolerate mosquitoes. We, in the gay community are the ladybugs, the dragonflies, and the butterflies of the world, and we aren’t meant to be tolerated. Nobody wants to be tolerated.
So our programme is called Beyond Tolerance and our goal is to move the bar to get everybody to include and accept everyone. Communities will realise that we are richer, and we are stronger when we accept and include everyone. There are a lot of people who are not remembered like my uncle who were killed just as violently, just as brutally, at the hands of people who simply could not tolerate them. According to the latest figures I just checked, murders that occur from GLBT hate-crimes are one every nine days. And that’s only the ones we can measure.
Daniel Lee is CEO of Proactive Diversity, whose mission is to advise, assist, and support the GLBTQ community and gay-rights organisations, movements and advocates worldwide to help achieve acceptance.
EXECUTION OF JUSTICE
By Emily Mann
Directed by Joss Bennathan
Main House, Southwark Playhouse, Shipwright Yard ( Corner of Bermondsey St. and Tooley St.) London SE1 2TF
Nearest Tube: London Bridge
11 January – 4 February 2012
Monday to Saturday at 7.45pm
Saturday matinee at 3.15pm (28 Jan only)
Box Office Online www.southwarkplayhouse.co.uk
24 HOURS/NO BOOKING FEES
By Telephone 020 7407 0234
NO BOOKING FEES
Ticket Prices £10, £14, £18
‘Airline style’ pricing. The earlier you book the cheaper the tickets.
Concessions – Disabled people can bring one companion free of charge. There are no other concessions.
Access – Please inform Southwark Playhouse of your access requirements at least 48 hours before you attend the performance by phoning 020 7407 0234.