What Harvey Milk taught me about Passover

Passover, which this year starts at sundown on April 18th, is the celebration commemorating the Jews escape from slavery and Egypt into freedom and the promised land.  It’s my favorite Jewish holiday.  In retelling and reenacting the story of Exodus, we are reminded of how precious freedom is.

Living in an era and place in which one can be a practicing Jew while facing little or no stigma, upper-middle class American Jews, such as myself, treat the Seder, the Passover feast, as a time to reflect upon how lucky we are.  We also use that time to reflect upon how humans can be enslaved in ways other than being owned by another–the way Jews were owned by Egyptians or Africans were owned by Southern White Americans.  For example humans can be enslaved by their own unhealthy appetites.  That is why we might jokingly say a woman is a slave to fashion or, less jokingly, a man is a slave to booze.  However there is something that all humans tend to be enslaved by: to some degree everyone is enslaved by fears.  Passover asks us to reflect upon how our fears–of change, of loss, of the unknown–might be enslaving us.  It’s a useful exercise.

Which brings me to what Harvey Milk has taught me about Passover.  Harvey Milk was a political activist/politician who eventually became one of the first openly gay elected officials in America before being assassinated by Dan White, one of his former colleagues on San Francisco’s city counsel.  Milk is notable, in my mind, for being of the first gay people I was aware of who encouraged gays to seize political power by openly declaring themselves to be gay, “coming out of the closet.”

In my personal pantheon of American civil rights leaders, Milk stands second only to Martin Luther King.  If King teaches me that active but non-violent resistance to injustice is the best method of effecting social change, Milk teaches me that being proud of who I am and what I believe is a necessary step towards freedom and dignity.

By coming out of the closet in large numbers, and by being proud rather than ashamed of their sexual orientation, gays have had extremely rapid advances in the rise of civil rights in the past forty years.  When I began college thirty years ago, and started making gay friends for the first time, it was an era in which being gay meant being stigmatized, most politicians considered gays to be perverts, and often pedophiles, and most gay people kept their sexual orientation hidden.  While there is still much homophobia in America, open homophobia is largely confined to social classes who have little political power (though this doesn’t mean such folks cannot and do not do physical violence to gay people).

In the past thirty years, the portrayal of gays in the mainstream media has changed from disrespectful to respectful.   My eldest daughter attends an arts high school in which, she contends, there is no stigma attached to being gay (this was not the experience of my gay peer thirty years ago). The vast majority of Americans now support protection against discrimination against gays in the workplace.  Later this year gays will be able to openly serve in the military.  Recently President Obama ordered the Justice Department to stop defending the provisions of the Defense of Marriage Act that denied Federal recognition of legally constituted gay marriages.  A few states have authorized gay marriage, and others have authorized civil unions.  I believe that within my lifetime the prohibition against gay marriage in America will be viewed the way we now view the past prohibitions against mixed-race marriages–a moral blind spot that we finally corrected.

I believe all of this progress can be attributed to gay people deciding not to be ashamed and hidden about who they are and deciding to be open about their sexual orientation.  When the heterosexual majority were able to observe their gay peer as neighbors, friends and co-workers, it became much harder for heterosexuals to hold onto the stigma and prejudice they had previously felt towards gays.

This concept of obtaining dignity and respect by “coming out of the closet” applies not only to minorities but could also apply to other stigmatized groups, and also to stigmatized ideas and beliefs. People who hold unpopular views (or identities) are too scared to make their views (or identities) public. This creates a self-fulfilling prophesy that things will never change.

As an example, I represent a few marijuana-using clients.  I am convinced that if every marijuana user in America opened declared his or her marijuana use, marijuana would have to be legalized.  There are simply too many well-functioning marijuana users for the stigma to remain once other Americans see who and how many of their peer are regular users.  I represent an occasional client whom the culture at large would consider a pervert–urine drinkers, panty wearers, folks who seek anonymous–often homosexual–sexual encounters.  Such clients remain terrified that the court will find out about their desires, which are odd but harmless (I acknowledge that folks who engage in anonymous sexual encounters are not harmless to those with whom they are in monogamous relationships).  It’s sad to observe these clients because they are denied the dignity of living authentically simply because the culture at large chooses to judge harmless behavior as taboo.  Unwilling to “come out of the closet,” such clients remain psychologically fractured and enslaved.

Sometimes, in my family law practice, I have clients who are shamed because their behavior has harmed those they have committed to care for.  For these clients, I often counsel atonement (the theme of Rosh Hashanah, another of my favorite Jewish holidays).  By making it right with the person one has harmed, one can regain tranquility and dignity.  However sometimes my clients are shamed merely because their behavior or beliefs fails to comport with the views of their culture, their religion, or their spouse, without this behavior or belief harming anyone.  For these clients, I counsel the sort of coming out that Harvey Milk counseled for his gay peer.

Only by being authentic to oneself can we be truly free.  This is the Passover lesson, Harvey Milk, a gay goy,[1] taught this heterosexual Jew.

[1] A goy is a Jewish slang term for a non-Jew

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