I finally got a chance to watch Milk on DVD, and thought it was terrific. I knew that he was a gay politician and that he had been killed, and that was about it. Having learned a little about him, I now want to know more — after watching the movie, I added The Times of Harvey Milk (which is a documentary about him) to my queue.
If the movie is portraying him fairly, Harvey Milk was a natural-born politician, able to talk to almost anyone, able to bring people together, able to make people have hope in spite of themselves. Watching the scenes of him leading crowds, knowing what was coming, was almost unbearable.
One of my favorite professors in college used to talk about "Dante's influence on Virgil" meaning that after the Inferno, no one ever looked at the Aeneid the same way. In the same way, Milk's story resonates differently today, in the age of Obama, with half a dozen states recognizing same-sex marriages, than it could possibly have resonated in 1984, when the documentary was made.
In the movie, Milk insists that all of his friends have to start coming out to their families and straight friends, because once your image of "the gays" is replaced by the face of someone you know, it's hard to hate. It made me wonder how the equality movement would be different if AIDS hadn't hit the gay community so hard during the 1980s. HIV/AIDS forced people out of the closet who would have stayed quiet otherwise. And it's certainly hard to imagine that the right to marry would have become such a central focus of the gay and lesbian movement if the bathhouse culture of the 1970s had continued on.
I highly recommend the movie if you haven't seen it yet.