Top 100 American Movie Quotes of the 21st Century: #58

The actor:Sean Penn
The character:Harvey Milk
The film:Milk
The line:“My name is Harvey Milk, and I’m here to recruit you.”

To the best of my knowledge, there are only two other people who use the word “recruit” in this movie. One of them is John Briggs, who says it a couple of times while he’s stumping or debating for Proposition 6. In both cases it’s about teachers, who are trying to “recruit” children into the so-called “gay lifestyle” because they cannot make a kid together. “If it were true kids mimicked their teachers,” Milk says during a debate when Briggs uses the word, “you’d sure have a hell of a lot more nuns running around.” The other person who says it in the movie is Anita Bryant, who, if she had any guts at all, would have offered to do a cameo. (Bryant turned eighty-three this year, presumably continuing to do her thing, whatever that is, in the suburbs of Oklahoma City.) And then there’s Harvey Milk, who has that rare ability to be deadly serious and deadly funny at the same time. Over and over in front of large crowds, he announces with a straight face: “I’m here to recruit you.”

That word “recruit” has been weaponized against gay people for years. Even that connotation of bringing someone to the military feels like it ought to be a giant loser in front of his preferred audience of hippies and folks who, if they were honest about their sexuality, would not even be able to join the armed forces. (The real Milk played it straight enough when he was in the Navy.) No matter how loaded the phrase is, Milk makes it new. It means the same thing it ever did, but now he means it as part of a movement, as part of a larger politicized contingent that is as much about moving gay rights forward in the United States as it is about improving San Francisco or getting some benefits to his district. In this way, the line fits into Milk’s general approach to the issues, which is forthrightness well beyond the limits of individual comfort. When he’s starting to become a serious campaigner, he brings in a woman to manage the campaign and disrupt the too-comfy boys’ club he’s running out of his camera store. When confronted with the established gay community’s response to Prop 6 as an unfair attack of personal health, he condemns it as “shit and masturbation,” a line which continues to describe so much of the Democratic Party’s feckless messaging today. When one of his aides reveals that he hasn’t come out to his dad, Milk picks up the phone and demands that he call him right now. Recruiting at his rallies is about that same immediacy.

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