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Hope in the Gay Rights Movement
Gus Van Sants Milk focuses on the life of Harvey Milk the first openly gay person to
be elected into public office. The first shot of Harvey Milk, played by Sean Penn, shows him
recording his will nine days before he was assassinated. The film is intercut with testimonials of
his will as he recounts his political career as a gay activist.
Frustrated with the opposition he feels in the San Francisco community, Milk decided to
be a gay rights activist. The film chronicles his unsuccessful political campaigns to become a city
supervisor. During his third political campaign, Milk won a seat on the San Francisco Board of
Supervisors. At the time of his victory, Milk worked tirelessly against Proposition 6 an
initiative that sought to ban gays, lesbians and anyone who supported this group from working in
the California public school sector. This was just a small part of a conservative movement to ban
equal rights for gay U.S. citizens.
Harvey Milk was a pioneer in the fight for equal rights for gay citizens. His industrious
work helped defeat the passing of Proposition 6. However, less than three weeks later, Milk and
Mayor George Moscone were assassinated by former City Supervisor Dan White.
Comtes Interpretation
Auguste Comte sought to establish the basic laws of society. The first law is defined as
social statics, the principles by which societies hold together and order is maintain. The second
law defines social dynamics as the factors that bring about change and shape the nature and
direction of that change. He believed that society is a dynamic static. While there are values
and norms that build the foundation of society, new ideas are constantly exposed. In order for
society to progress, positive social change must be incorporated with the existing social order.
The social static in this film is based on the norm of heterosexuality. In the 1950s and the
1960s, Gods law was used to justify the traditional family unit. According to this law,

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marriage was seen as a union between a man and woman. In addition, the Bible was frequently
cited for condemning homosexuality. Conservatives referred to this text to justify the deviance of
homosexuals. Since they were seen as lesser individuals of society, these norms were also used
to justify the limitation of civil rights for gay citizens.
Comte would identify the gay rights movement as the social dynamic. Homosexuality
challenged the foundation of this conservative society. Although homosexuals differed in their
sexual orientation, there were no other fundamental differences to pinpoint. They held the same
values of love, family and responsibility as any other demographic. Despite these similarities,
sanctions were used to discourage homosexuals from exposing their true identity. Milk and his
political team challenged the existing social order. They fought relentlessly against the
ordinances that would limit of the civil rights of gay citizens.
As seen in the film, Americans voted against Proposition 6. Even though homosexuality
is still discriminated against, society is more accepting of this demographic. With hope and
optimism, Comte would suggest that society will progress in their recognition for gay civil rights
Marxs Interpretation
Karl Marx focused on the impacts of social inequality in society. He defined social
inequality as the ownership, or lack of, key material resources. His emphasis on social
inequality showed the division between the elite and the inferior.
At the time Milk moved to San Francisco, the community was seen as a haven for gays
and lesbians. The Castro offered a place for people who were rejected for their sexual
orientation. Even though The Castro offered this kind of support, its members were not safe from
the government officials that ruled over San Francisco. Conservative officials sought to protect
the traditional foundation of the family. According to Marx, conservative officials represent the
elite. Because they hold the most power, they control what can be defined as deviant and

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undesirable. The elite tried to protect their own entitlements, such as the traditional foundation of
family, by passing anti-gays laws in the country.
Inequality and conflict paved the way for social change. Social change redefines the
previous social structure. It reconstructs it by incorporating new values, norms and ideas into the
culture. Harvey Milk was a pioneer for the gay rights movement. He fought to become a public
official so the gay communitys interests and rights would be represented. He inspired social
change in the community by inspiring his supporters to come out to their family, friends and
peers. He also staged peaceful marches down The Castro. His work as an activist brought
awareness to many social issues of the time. Through his tireless efforts, he motivated people to
vote against Proposition 6. U.S. citizens were reminded that no person should be denied their
civil rights. Milks legacy continues to inspire social change as our society works to eradicate
prejudicial and discriminatory laws.
Durkheims Interpretation
Emile Durkeim emphasized social order to maintain the structure of society. He felt that
society exerts its influence over the individual. A shared cohesion of common experiences,
values and ideas is the glue that holds society together. When this structure declines, Durkheim
believed that this would lead to a weakened social integration. His focus on social order laid
the fundamentals for the functional perspective. In the film, conservative officials and the police
officers are institutions that work together to preserve the social order of San Francisco. Because
homosexuality was seen as a threat to the traditional social structure, these institutions
cooperated to eradicate such a threat.
Conservative officials were a branch of the government that sought to regulate the
behaviors and values of its citizens. As illustrated in the film, conservatives often cited Gods
law for condemning homosexuality. Conservative officials tried to socialize individuals under

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this norm. This allowed the government to label homosexuals as degenerates. Under this logic,
homosexuals were not seen as equal members of society. In order to punish such deviance, the
government tried to pass ordinances that would limit the rights of the gay community and those
who supported them.
In opposition to the socialized members of society are those who do not uphold the same
ideals and values. These members create social dysfunction social patterns that have
undesirable consequences for the operation of society. Members who create this kind of
dysfunction are labeled as deviant. Because they threaten the social order of society, they
threaten its functionality.
Police officers represent another institution in this film. Their function is to protect the
functionality of society. By punishing gay citizens for their lifestyle, officers were able to protect
the traditional structure of the family unit. Officers enforced this social order by freely arresting
gay men on faulty charges. Some officers took this enforcement further by frequently raiding,
beating and arresting gay patrons while covering their badge.
Durkheim would also see the weakened social structure that started to unfold in the
film. He believed that society functioned when its members shared a social cohesion of norms
and values. However, when new ideas were introduced to the culture, this led to a split in
society. Society was torn between two realities: accepting homosexuality and the identities of its
members, or rejecting it to preserve the traditional structure of family. This was particularly
evident in scenes showing certain states passing or rejecting Proposition 6. Even though there are
citizens that are more accepting of the culture, there are other members who still refuse to
acknowledge the homosexual culture.
The Social Conflict Paradigm

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Marx would interpret the legacy of Harvey Milk as a literal translation of the conflict
perspective. The social conflict perspective states that the distribution of power and valued
resources determines who holds the most control in society. The status quo centers on the elite
who own and control the means of resources. Resources could range from material wealth,
prestige to schooling. This kind of inequality illustrates how conflict affects the social structure.
In this model, the social structure divides the status quo and those inferior to that group. Existing
social structure could also exploit inferior groups at the expense of maintaining the
entitlements of the elite.
The conflict paradigm is most represented because of the social change it inspired from
the gay rights movement. While conflict and inequality divide the status quo and inferior groups,
it provokes positive social change. Harvey Milk was one of the pioneers of this movement. He
invigorated citizens to express their true identity. He brought awareness to the injustice and
sufferings the gay community endured. His work as an activist also inspired other individuals to
protest other inequitable laws and norms.
The film ended with a candlelight vigil for City Supervisor Milk and Mayor Moscone.
The last words in Milks testimonial edited with this scene. He said, Its not about ego, not
about power Its about the uss. People deserve to be who they want to be. It gives hope that
society can progress in their acceptance of different cultures and norms.