"You commie, homo-loving sons of guns!" Sean Penn wins Oscar for playing Harvey Milk who came to Walnut Creek!

Bay Area-based actor Sean Penn won his second Academy Award for Best Actor for his amazingly accurate, heart-felt depicition of slain gay rights advocate and San Francisco Supervisor Harvey Milk

Soccer Mom writes this, just after finishing watching the Oscars, which in her household–at least to her–is as sacred a TV viewing night as the Rose Bowl, the Superbowl, or the finale of American Idol.

Soccer Mom (why, tonight of all nights, am I referring to myself in the third-person?) especially loved how political some of the speeches got. None of this Halle Barry crap about weeping and expressing gratitude over her lawyer.

Instead, we had the lovely and artfully talented Spanish actress Penelope Cruz. In a not so political, but still moving speech (as she accepted her Best Supporting Actress Award for her role as a fiery ex-wife of an amorous artist in Vicky Cristina Barcelona), she spoke about how films and art are the “world’s universal language.”

Then, in a more overtly political speech from the newly crowned Academy Award-winning writer of Best Original Screenplay for Milk, we had Dustin Lance Black, talk about how he, as a 13-year-old, moved from a Mormon home in Texas to California. He recounted how he heard the story of Harvey Milk and how “it gave me hope. It gave me the hope to live my life; it gave me the hope that one day I could live my life openly as who I am and that maybe even I could fall in love and one day get married.”

Notably, Milk, the biography of Harvey Milk, premiered shortly after California’s same-sex couples lost their right to marry in the November 4 voter referendum

Near the end of the Oscar ceremonies came Sean Penn, winning his second Academy Award for playing Harvey Milk. He used his moment on the international stage to refer to his support of gay marriage and his opposition to Proposition 8, the California voter-approved ban on gay marriage. In expressing his surprise and delight at winning, the famously outspoken actor jokingly praised the Academy voters as “commie, home-loving sons of guns.”

Penn then said: “I think it is a good time for those who voted for the ban against gay marriage to sit and reflect and anticipate their great shame and the shame in their grandchildren’s eyes if they continue that way.” He added: “We’ve got to have equal rights for everyone.”

Over the past few months, some very amazing readers, all of whom are alums of Walnut Creek’s Northgate High, have sent me, Soccer Mom, personal tales and documentary evidence showing that Harvey Milk did indeed come to Walnut Creek in September 1978. The newly elected San Francisco supervisor, the first openly gay elected government official in the United States at that time, came to Walnut Creek as part of a series of debates on 1978’s Proposition 6.

Voter approval of this this prosposition would have allowed school districts to fire openly gay teachers or any district employeees who showed open support for these teachers.

The proposition was championed by conservative Southern California Senator John Briggs, who now occupies a rather shameful, comedic footnote in state history.

Milk challenged Briggs to a series of debates in the runup to the November 1978 election. Milk, with his charm, intelligence, and command of facts, trounced Briggs in those debates and showed Briggs to be the intolerant prig that he was.

And one of those debates took place in the gymnasium at Northgate High. In Milk, the film depicts the debate as part of live TV coverage of an event taking place at some school in the Walnut Creek School District. Further research, including reading through Randy Shilts’ authoritative biography of Harvey Milk, The Mayor of Castro Street: The Life and Times of Harvey Milk, shows that a debate took place at a Walnut Creek high school auditorium.

Some dogged research by some Northgate alums pieced together the facts and uncovered the solid evidence and first-person anecdotes that Harvey Milk and John Briggs debated at Northgate High School in September 1978.

The image of the San Francisco Chronicle story was provided by Northgate alum Jonathan Butterworth, who now lives in Seattle but who was delighted at the idea that his outwardly conservative suburban hometown might have played such a significant role in gay civil rights history. Butterworth was so intrigued that he spent several hours scouring through microfiche of old SF Chronicle stories at the University of Seattle library to find this image and several others.

Meanwhile, another Northgate alum and current Walnut Creek resident sent me screen shots of the debate as depicted in the 1984 Academy Award-winning documentary The Times of Harvey Milk (which, by the way, is available for free online viewing on on Hulu.com).

Finally there is this story from reader who recently posted on Crazyinbuburbia.com:

“I was at Northgate in 1978. Not only did Harvey Milk debate in the Northgate auditorium in the evening, he also met with students in the music room after school–perhaps before the debate with Senator John Briggs. An announcement had been made over the PA that Mr. Milk would be available to meet with students after school. There was a lot of talk about who would attend his talk, but in the end only about 10 of us showed up to hear what he had to say.

“… He was an eloquent speaker, extremely funny, and so dedicated to his civil rights cause. Later that evening when I proudly told my father I’d gone to see Harvey Milk at school he was furious and said horrible things to me. The next day my father went to [the principal’s] office and screamed at him for letting a “pervert” on our campus. I ound out years later that my father also tried to get [this principal] fired. I was so ashamed by my father’s reaction and to this day it remains an “issue” between us. I am so thankful for Harvey Milk and am so fortunate to have spent an hour in a small group hearing about his dreams for civil rights for the gay community.”

2 thoughts on “"You commie, homo-loving sons of guns!" Sean Penn wins Oscar for playing Harvey Milk who came to Walnut Creek!

  1. Right on, Sean Penn! He was great in Milk, and the film, more than ever had an important message about equality and civil rights. Yeah, I’m a commie, homo-loving son of a gun, too! And proud of it!


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