Much favorable media attention is being paid the movie,"Milk," that depicts the extraordinary life and tragic death of gay rights hero Harvey Milk. But don’t forget that not long ago, media coverage of gay Americans and the blatant discrimination that many suffer was virtually non-existent.
I recall, for example, a news report I did for public television in 1974 from Milk’s camera shop in the heart of San Francisco’s heavily gay Castro District. As often was the case with public TV, the story was on an issue generally ignored by the commercial media – in this instance, employment discrimination against gays.
That media coverage of the subject was so rare demonstrates how backward things were then and, though there’s still far to go, how very far society has come since then. We were indeed a long way from treating gay workers fair and equally, as my report clearly indicated. Here’s what I said:
"We talk lots about employment discrimination based on race, religion, age. But not many people outside the gay community itself seem much concerned with job discrimination against homosexuals. It’s impossible to come up with specific figures. No one has been studying the problem long enough for that, or to a great enough extent.
"But organizations that are devoted to the problems of homosexuals say the discrimination is widespread, even in San Francisco, which is supposedly liberal about such things. These organizations, in fact, say it is a ‘fairly common’ practice for San Francisco employers to discriminate against homosexual workers – male and female alike.
"They say the worst offenders are the larger corporations and retail stores. Some – Pacific Telephone is one – have had a flat prohibition against hiring homosexuals. And some – large department stores, for example – will hire known homosexuals, but never promote them to management positions.
"The federal government is considered to be probably the worst offender, since it has traditionally excluded known homosexuals from civil service jobs, and commonly engaged in undercover investigations to discover homosexuals on government payrolls and then force them out for ‘immoral conduct.’
"Recent court cases have forced the government to ease its restrictions, by holding that a person’s sex life is not a legitimate concern of the government unless it actually interferes with his particular job.
"The discrimination, by government and private employers alike, takes all sorts of forms. Some companies, for instance, prohibit any single males over 30 from entering their management training programs, on the theory that anyone who is over 30 and not married is probably a homosexual.
"Other employers let it be known to employment agencies and others who supply them help that ‘homosexuals need not apply.’"
"Many homosexuals ‘can pass,’ as it were, and not be identified to their employers as homosexuals. But once this is found out – as it often is – there also are not so subtle acts of discrimination practiced against them on the job. Denying them promotions, for one thing.
"Again: It’s impossible to be specific about the situation. But the problem obviously exists, and obviously is widespread, although not many outside of a few homosexual organizations are trying to do much about it. Not the government, which has passed laws against just about every other form of job discrimination. Not employers, certainly. And not unions, either."
I vividly recall delivering that report while perched on a couch in Milk’s shop, now an officially designated city landmark. It had become an epicenter of the gay rights movement that swept the nation in the 1970s, and the unofficial community center for the Castro. It also was headquarters for Milk in his several campaigns for political office that finally won him a seat on the city’s Board of Supervisors in 1977 as the first openly gay man to serve in an elective office anywhere.
Milk didn’t finish his four-year term. He was assassinated a year later, along with San Francisco Mayor George Moscone, by a homophobic fellow supervisor, Dan White.
Although surveys show that job discrimination against gays has decreased markedly since that time, there’s still a need for stronger legal protections.
Twenty states, the District of Columbia and some 300 other cities have laws against firing, refusing to hire or refusing to promote employees because of their real or perceived sexual orientation. In some places, the law also prohibits discriminating against people because of their gender identity.
But what of the millions of working people who are not covered by the state and local laws, which are in any case generally weak and poorly enforced? A federal law is obviously needed, and for more than 30 years there have been attempts to get one through Congress, originally as an amendment to the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and regularly since then as a separate measure.
That bill — the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, or ENDA — has never gotten beyond the House, which passed it last year. Why not finally enact ENDA this year, in honor of Harvey Milk, who had so much to do with laying the groundwork for its coming.
Dick Meister is a San Francisco-based journalist who has covered labor and political issues for a half-century. Contact him through his website, www.dickmeister.com.