My official biography lists that I’m a “hopeless idealist.”
Often when I’m introduced to audiences, the person making the introduction points this out about me, smiling as they do so. I’m never quite sure whether that smile represents true admiration or instead signifies some inside joke: “Ellie’s idealism is sweet but a bit naive.” I’d like to think it’s always the former rather than the latter, but I just never really know.
I’ve written here before at how my idealism is grounded in growing up in the tumult of the 1960s and early ‘70s. I really did get to watch Dr. King and Robert F. Kennedy contemporarily on television and, similarly every week, I was kept informed about the civil rights movement, the Vietnam War, and the “gay liberation movement” via Life Magazine. Somehow, someway, all of that sparked me into believing in the greater good of humans and their collective ability to create a just and equitable world.
Along with that came my unyielding belief in the power of one human to make a positive difference. How can I not believe that? Just look at people like King, or Kennedy, or Obama, or even Rosa Parks—each made profound differences in the world. Yes, they had help for sure, but each movement sparked by their idealism started with them taking a stand and saying, “I will not bend to those who oppress.”
The GLBT community has its own idealists; among them was Harvey Milk.
Milk didn’t start out believing that a single human can make a difference and, instead, he was a closeted man with a penchant for pursuing younger men. However, Milk underwent a personal transformation in his early forties when he began to pay attention to the world around him; what he saw—a system that discriminated against gays and lesbians and which ignored small businesses like the camera shop Milk owned in the Castro District—made him angry. At that point, Milk decided to run for city supervisor in San Francisco. As he said later, “I finally reached the point where I knew I had to become involved or shut up.”
Milk didn’t succeed at first. It took several election attempts before he was finally elected San Francisco city supervisor in late 1977. Tragically, his political tenure and life were cut short by an assassin’s bullet on November 27, 1978.
Idealists lead by example and through their words. We have King marching across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma and his “I Have a Dream” speech; Kennedy visiting South Africa at the height of apartheid in 1966 and his “Ripples of Hope” speech condemning the South African government; and Milk, organizing what had been voiceless groups—gays and lesbians, people of color, small business owners—into a political force.
Milk also had words, rich and summoning, in June of 1978 with what became known as “The Hope Speech”:
… And in San Francisco, three days before Gay Pride Day, a person was killed just because he was gay. And that night I walked among the sad and the frustrated at City Hall in San Francisco, and later that night, as they lit candles on Castro Street and stood in silence, reaching out for some symbolic thing that would give them hope. These were strong people whose faces I knew…They were strong, but even they needed hope.
And the young gay people in Altoona, Pennsylvanias, and the Richmond, Minnesotas, who are coming out and hear Anita Bryant on television and her story. The only thing they have to look forward to is hope. And you have to give them hope. Hope for a better world, hope for a better tomorrow, hope for a better place to come to if the pressures at home are too great. Hope that all will be all right. Without hope, not only are the gays, but the blacks, the seniors, the handicapped, the ‘us-es,’ the ‘us-es’ will give up….
Now to be clear: I’m not close to being any of the aforementioned humans. I’m just someone, a relative nobody, who can speak and write fairly well. What I have going for me is that I am persistent as hell in my belief in a better world. Nor will I shut up about it.
Most of all, I am persistent in believing in the power of hope.
Thus, this column is titled “Part I” because I will soon take a road trip across the American South where I’ll speak and listen about how our country can be better than what it is today. Yes, I’m going to Alabama, Mississippi, and Tennessee (and other states) to remind that we have far more in common than we have in differences. And to offer hope.
My goal: to be received as an idealist instead of as naïve.
I’ll report back after the trip in a “Part II.”
Wish me luck.
Ellen (Ellie) Krug is the author of ‘Getting to Ellen: A Memoir about Love, Honesty and Gender Change’ (2013). She speaks and trains on diversity and inclusion topics; visit www.elliekrug.com where you can also sign up for her newsletter, The Ripple. She welcomes your comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.