“You gotta give them hope,” Harvey Milk, played by Sean Penn, says in Milk.

Director Gus Van Sant's biopic about gay rights pioneer Harvey Milk opened Wednesday, the eve of the 30th anniversary of Milk's assassination.

And what a triumphant anniversary it is.  Milk would have been proud of himself – the picture that bears his name is about to give a new generation of gays downtrodden by recent gay rights losses in Arizona, Florida, Arkansas and California a whole lot to hope for.

The movie hits a tone eerily reminiscent to grassroots gay activists and their allies who have been protesting the passage of Proposition 8, the constitutional amendment that bans gay marriage in California, since the day after Election Day.

Back then, in 1978, it was Proposition 6 – also known as the Briggs Initiative – a ballot measure backed by singer Anita Bryant that sought to expel gay and lesbian teachers from California schools. Milk played a key role in defeating the measure by more than a million votes.

But Proposition 6 died at the polls, while Proposition 8 passed by a slim majority.

(In another similarity, then-Governor Ronald Reagan, a Republican, stood against the measure, saying he opposed taking away rights. And Republican Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger took a similar stand against Proposition 8.)

Harvey Milk was an awkward man who refused to hide the fact that he was gay. He won a long-fought election to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors in 1977 on his third attempt. But it was a short-lived victory. The next year Dan White (played in the film by Josh Brolin), another supervisor, assassinated Milk along with Mayor George Moscone at San Francisco City Hall because he disagreed with the gay rights initiatives Milk championed. Milk was 48 at the time of his death.

“Harvey was a lightning rod for the gay-rights movement in that he encouraged lesbians and gays to work with the current political processes and he demanded acknowledgment and respect,” California State Senator Carole Migden, a lesbian and former member of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, told AFP.

“His election was a huge step forward. He showed that gays deserved a place in the political process, and that if they worked hard for it, they would have it,” she said.

Legislation that would have set aside May 22nd as “Harvey Milk Day” in California was recently vetoed by California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger. “I believe his contributions should continue to be recognized at the local level by those who were most impacted by his contributions,” the governor said.

But Harvey Milk's legacy is clearly not confined to the streets of San Francisco. Milk's ascension shook up the establishment because he proved that the gay rights movement was a very real phenomenon, not just chasing rainbows. He delivered bodies to rallies, voters on Election Day, passion to gay politics, and hope where there was little – he delivered a place at the political table for gays and lesbians.

And thirty years later he's doing it all again.