ONTD Political

When My 8-Year-Old Gay Son Taught His Class About Harvey Milk

8:30 pm - 03/09/2013
It was like telling a fairy tale -- not the pretty, fluffy, Disney kind, but one written by the brothers Grimm, the kind where everyone knows that all the characters will be dead in the end.

A long time ago, in a land far away, lived a man named Harvey Milk...

It all started a few weeks ago. My oldest son's second-grade class started a unit on civil rights. As the capstone to the unit, the students were going to write essays on a civil rights leader of their choice. Because the teacher knew that she has a gay student in her class (my kid), she added Harvey Milk to the list of potential essay subjects. When the list came home, we went through the choices, and my son zeroed in on Harvey Milk. Harvey Milk fought for the rights of gay people, and that's who he wanted to write about.

I have to admit that I was thrilled -- thrilled that his teacher is so awesome that she thought to put Milk on the list, thrilled that my kid picked Milk all on his own, and even more thrilled when I learned that the kids were going to be allowed to dress up as their subjects as part of their report (oh, the cuteness!).

But then when my son and I huddled together on my bed, computer on my lap, to start the research, I was anxious, uncomfortable and more than a little stumped. The story of Harvey Milk is not an easy story. It's not fun or simple. And everyone dies. I'd been so caught up in the excitement of my child learning about a gay leader in a public elementary school that I'd let myself forget about the realities of Milk's life. And that was going to be the hard part. Here are some of the exchanges we had:

Me: "Baby, back when Harvey Milk was a little boy, everyone thought gay people were bad."
Son: "All gay people aren't bad."
Me: "No, all gay people aren't bad, but that's what people used to think."
Son: "That's stupid."

Me: "Harvey Milk told gay people to come out of the closet and show everyone that gay people were good people too."
Son: "All the gay people were in closets?"
Me: "Not real closets, baby. That's just what we call it when gay people pretend they aren't gay."
Son: "Why would they do that?"

Me: "Then Dan White shot and killed the mayor of San Francisco and Harvey Milk."
Son: "Did he go to jail forever?"
Me: "No, honey, he didn't. Mr. White said he shot them because he ate too many Twinkies."
Son: "What are Twinkies?"

It went on and on like that. I was describing a world so foreign to him. He snuggled into me as we looked at pictures of Harvey Milk, read aloud his words and struggled to understand. By the end I was exhausted and left wondering whether this whole thing was a good idea at all.

Then the day of his report arrived. My kid was excited to dress up in a tan suit with a gold-and-yellow-striped '70s tie. We went over his facts on the drive to school, and my son was in great spirits as he waved goodbye to me at drop-off.

The students spent the first part of their day writing out their essays, then the second half reading them to the class. When it was my son's turn, he chose not to read but simply to tell his class what he had learned. He told his class that Harvey Milk was gay and fought for the rights of gay people. He explained to his class about what it meant to be "in the closet" and why it wasn't good. He told them about how Harvey Milk and Mayor George Moscone were shot by Dan White, and how the city rioted when White was not convicted of murder. And he told them that President Obama presented Harvey Milk's nephew with "the highest award in the land" (aka the National Medal of Freedom).

The other students had never heard of Harvey Milk. They were engaged in what my son had to say. They listened and then started asking questions and expressing their disbelief. They had the same questions that my son had asked me: Why would people hide being gay? Why did people think being gay was bad? What were Twinkies? My kid answered all the questions like a pro.

When I talked to my kid after school, he was elated. The report had gone very well, and everyone had loved it. Later I got a call from his teacher telling me all the details. She was thrilled, and so was I.

It doesn't take much to fill me with motherly pride. A ball going through a hoop, cookies being shared without prompting, a spontaneous "I love you, Mom" -- all of those things make my heart swell. But this was something bigger than that.

On this day in a second-grade classroom in the Midwest, Harvey Milk was on the same stage as Frederick Douglass, Sojourner Truth and Elizabeth Cady Stanton: an important civil rights leader in our country, someone everyone should learn about. Harvey Milk said:

Gay people, we will not win our rights by staying quietly in our closets. ... We are coming out to fight the lies, the myths, the distortions. We are coming out to tell the truths about gays, for I am tired of the conspiracy of silence, so I'm going to talk about it. And I want you to talk about it. You must come out.

There was no silence in a second-grade classroom where an 8-year-old boy, a gay boy who has never seen the need for a closet, told Harvey Milk's story.

Things are not perfect. There are still lies, myths and distortions to fight, but the battleground has changed. Thirty-four years ago 12 jurors swallowed the Twinkie defense and let a murderer off with a slap on the wrist, and today 20 second graders saw right through it.

To learn more about Harvey Milk and his legacy, please visit the Harvey Milk Foundation at milkfoundation.org.


Me:  Thoughts?  Personally, this story made me feel so warm and fuzzy and happy, while also thinking "ugh, too bad it's not like this for all lgbtq children/adults/individuals in and outside of the US.  Also, please let me know if you have any tag suggestions and could we add a "Harvey Milk" tag mods, please?
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cherriesarered 10th-Mar-2013 02:53 pm (UTC)
Mad props to pretty much everyone in this story. It is sad that this isn't the way that everyone thinks, but it gives me some hope for the present and future.
papasha_mueller What a crap.10th-Mar-2013 03:17 pm (UTC)
How can one know of 8-years-old boy if he's a gay?
OMFG, he also may be communist...
encircleme Re: What a crap.10th-Mar-2013 03:36 pm (UTC)
bmh4d0k3n 10th-Mar-2013 03:17 pm (UTC)
OK, so,

1. An 8-year-old kid who identifies as gay,
2. and his mother knows and is OK with it,
3. and his teacher knows and is OK with it,
4. talks to his class about a gay rights leader,
5. and his class understands and is OK with it
6. in the Midwest.

It was strange enough when I went back to school for a second attempt at an undergrad and the underclassmen -- even the Republican guys -- were totally OK with teh ghey. This BLOWS MY MIND, having been a second-grader in the Midwest in 1993. This seemed so far outside the realm of possibility 20 years ago (oh my god, that's how long ago that was), and now it's actually becoming normal.

Edited at 2013-03-10 03:19 pm (UTC)
caerfrli 10th-Mar-2013 06:53 pm (UTC)
It'll become normal when people stop noticing it. No one posts about a straight kid (and I'm with those who think of 8 year olds as presexual) having straight heroes.
kagehikario 10th-Mar-2013 03:35 pm (UTC)
Oh jeez. Had to step into the break room at work to avoid crying. Er, openly and in front of clients. Because um. wow.

This, this right here so hard, is how the world changes.
scolaro 10th-Mar-2013 03:54 pm (UTC)
This article makes me feel like hugging people. \o/

In retrospect this sounds grammatically wrong somehow, so let me just say that I also feel incredibly warm and fuzzy inside. *happy sigh*

Edited at 2013-03-10 03:57 pm (UTC)
quizzicalsphinx 10th-Mar-2013 04:37 pm (UTC)
Heart = warmed
aviv_b 10th-Mar-2013 05:01 pm (UTC)
Awesome teacher!
natyanayaki 10th-Mar-2013 10:43 pm (UTC)
I KNOW! If I ever have children, I really hope they'll have a teacher like this one.
tabaqui 10th-Mar-2013 05:39 pm (UTC)

Excellent and wonderful all the way 'round. We need more stories like this, because we need things like this to happen more often.
readyfuels 10th-Mar-2013 06:37 pm (UTC)
Everything about this story is wonderful.
maenads_dance 10th-Mar-2013 06:53 pm (UTC)
The world is changing so quickly it makes my head spin.

When I was fourteen years old - less than a decade ago! - I asked my father, "hypothetically", what he would think if my brother or I turned out to be gay.

"I would never want to know about it," he told me. I remember having arguments with him about gay marriage where his emotions spun wildly out of control at the very idea that gay people might marry.

Now - eight years on! - my father has switched to voting for the Democrats for the first time since 1976, and can talk (almost) comfortably about the possibility that my spouse might be a woman OR a man. If I had grown up in the 1970s, would this have been the outcome in our family? I doubt it.

There is no better time for me to be living than today.
the_physicist 11th-Mar-2013 12:56 pm (UTC)
dunno, i'd take living a few decades down the line any day.
nesmith 10th-Mar-2013 07:29 pm (UTC)
It's a measure of how cynical I am that I got towards the end of the article just waiting for the part where an administrator or another parent got involved to object about the presentation or something like that. I hope the attitudes of those kids someday (real damn soon) become the norm.
bellichka 10th-Mar-2013 07:33 pm (UTC)
Awesome article. Disappointingly shitty comments here.
the_physicist 11th-Mar-2013 12:57 pm (UTC)
yeah, i read the article and then saw the number of comments and was like... OH. do i really want to read down to find out 'what happened' in this thread? -_-
killerqueen 10th-Mar-2013 08:09 pm (UTC)
This is such a sweet story. I'm so glad it's beginning to be seen as normal. I hope one day it can be like that where I live.

Me: "Harvey Milk told gay people to come out of the closet and show everyone that gay people were good people too."
Son: "All the gay people were in closets?"

hahaha, awww ♥
bgd_thrifty 10th-Mar-2013 08:16 pm (UTC)
It's so important for kids who suffer from oppressions to have role models who are just like them. And just as important for other kids (like the other class members) to see that they can be inspired by people who are nothing like them.

'Thirty-four years ago 12 jurors swallowed the Twinkie defense and let a murderer off with a slap on the wrist, and today 20 second graders saw right through it.'

I love this line. I really appreciate anything that shows that the youth of today are growing up with less bigoted ideals than the ones that came before them. I also think it's really cool that kids are doing nuanced things like this at what I would consider a young age because this is before people have taught them to be awkward about these things and avoid the subject.

All the trolls/misguided people in this post who see a problem can eff off.

Edited at 2013-03-10 08:17 pm (UTC)
sesmo 11th-Mar-2013 05:33 am (UTC)
I really hate the Twinkie story, because it's just dead wrong. The defense attorneys used his eating of Twinkies (and his general stopping of basic hygiene activities, and his stopping of his prior exercise habits) as evidence of his depression, which was the actual reason used. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Twinkie_defense

Other than that one line, though, loved this story.
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