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Harvey Milk And My Friend Todd Reichert

April 6, 2009


Every now and then something happens that makes me aware of having lived long enough to have seen some tectonic shifts taking place in society.  Most times events seem to move at such a glacial pace that we wonder if progress is ever taking place.  But in reality the world is moving steadily into the future.  It is only when we look backwards and see how far we have come do we understand to the degree that we are indeed making progress. 

Such a moment came to me today when we finally watched the award-winning film “Milk” on the big screen.  It was interesting to see the grainy film of Anita Bryant interspersed into the movie as she implored the nation to make homosexuality illegal.  She was the woman that during my early teenage years was ridiculed and laughed at in my circle of friends.  Her work in Dade County, Florida that resulted in so much meanness to be allowed, and sanctioned all over the country was not lost even on small rural high schools such as mine in Plainfield, Wisconsin.

At the time she was powerful, and truly the mouthpiece for a large segment of America that felt it was their right……no their duty….to stop the gay rights movement.   I recall a group of local farmer boys at our school that were only too happy to mimic her words, and up the ante in ways that showcased their own vulnerabilities.  But that realization only came to me years after leaving them far behind as I moved on with life.  Looking back on the images and words of Bryant today, my mind thought at once of the attacks on those black Americans who wanted nothing more than to drink from a water fountain in the south.  When we look back on the backers and purveyors of hate in our country they are rightfully placed in a sad and pathetic corner to be pitied as much as reviled. 

I remember the news of the death of Harvey Milk, and the jokes from Johnny Carson (no I should not have been up that late, but I always had a routine for the next day) about the ‘Twinkies Defense’.    Everyone seemed incensed with the verdict given to Dan White  for the murder of  Milk.  I recall those were also the days when the care-free world of being a kid started to collide more and more with the realities of  how small and limiting rural America can be.  The shrillness of those farmer boys who seemed content with one-dimensional thinking about every issue except the beer cans they drank and then tossed into the local gravel pit made me know I needed to escape to a larger and more educated area.

My best friend from fourth grade, Todd, was also aware that brighter lights and better people had to be over the horizon after Tri-County Area High School .  He dealt with the mean verbal taunts by spending weekends  writing truly hilarious satirical pieces about the issues of the day, and those who hurt his feelings while in school.  Each Monday was eagerly awaited to find out what his latest folder of papers would contain.  There was much potential in his ability to skewer with humorous words that stung just as hard as those that were flung at him for being gay.   I have often wondered if he would have been a writer for “Saturday Night Live”, or a show such as “South Park”.   It was never to be, as he committed suicide at age 18.  Sometimes hope in small town America is not enough to break through the dark nights in search of a new dawn.

I thought of Todd today during the film as I know he would have had witty and snide remarks about the images of Bryant on the screen.   I wish he could have somehow made it over his personal mountain to see the place that our country has come in 2009.  Today many schools allow gay dates for proms, college kids are open and excepting of gay friends, major companies have partner benefits, candidates seek out gay voters, and gay marriage is going to be allowed everywhere, I suspect, in the next decade.   The walls that limited expression, but then also allowed for farmer boys to act out without hesitation, are coming down.  In some cases the walls are just absent from the horizon all together.

As a result we are a better nation, a more complete society, and a more just country.  But it took anguishing moments to get here.    Harvey Milk and Todd Reichert are proof of that.

  1. Thomas J Canton permalink
    April 7, 2009 9:05 AM

    PS Sorry I won’t see Milk. It has Sean Penn in it. Someone who embraces Hugo Chavez and regards him as a hero is not my cup of tea. If Sean Penn played Private Ryan in “Saving Private Ryan” or Jesus Christ in “The Passion of the Christ” I wouldn’t have seen those films either.

    Why couldn’t they have got Greg Kinnear to play the role?

  2. Thomas J Canton permalink
    April 7, 2009 9:01 AM

    I am sorry for your loss. Sounds like Todd would have a great comedian or writer.

    When I was in High school, I suspect about the same time you were, Gay students were literally kept in the closet. You kind of suspected, but they kept up appearances by being seen hanging out with a girl. I did not know until my 10th reunion that two guys I had known since the sixth grade had moved in together right after high school and had bought a house a few miles away from where I grew up or that I girl I had date with moved in with my American History teacher a few years before.

    We have come a long way from the 1970’s…

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