From the Darkness
On December 19, 2013, New Mexico became the 17th state to legalize same-sex marriage. This means that lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender couples in these states hold the same legal rights as any heterosexual partnership in a court of law. Of course, this also means there are still 33 states that have yet to legalize gay marriage preventing true marital equality in the America. Clearly, there is still a long way to go, but given the widespread belief in the United States in decades passed that homosexuality was a disease, it’s a striking accomplishment.
During the early years of Harvey Milk, one of the foremost leaders of the gay rights movement in the United States, institutional hostility toward homosexuals was rampant. In the 1940s, most psychiatrists and psychologists classified homosexuality as a mental illness. Though few informed doctors believe this today, it was the accepted thinking of the time. Consequently, many gay men tried to live straight lives, only to be persistently “troubled” by their attraction to men. Doctors tried to “cure” homosexuals through counseling, drugs, and even lobotomies – a crude brain operation that often resulted in severe mental disabilities. In 1953, President Dwight Eisenhower issued Executive Order 10450. The new law stated that federal workers could be dismissed for, among other things, “sexual perversion.” Not only were gay government workers fired, but so were those in the private workforce largely because the government shared its investigative records with private companies. Gay people were systematically shunned by mainstream society. They were told that they were deviants, sick, and unworthy.
Beating Down the Closet Door
Harvey Bernard Milk was born on May 22, 1930 in Woodmere, New York on Long Island. His paternal grandfather, Morris Milch (later changed to Milk), emigrated from Lithuania to the United States in 1882 and went on to own the largest dry goods store on Long Island. Harvey was raised Jewish, attended Hebrew School, and had his Bar Mitzvah, the Jewish coming of age ceremony, at age thirteen. He was very sociable and known for being a bit of a prankster. He played linebacker on the junior varsity football team, played basketball, and even wrestled for a bit. In many sterotypical ways, Milk was a regular, happy, well-adjusted boy.
Harvey Milk also loved the opera. He would ask his mother for change to go to Saturday afternoon performances at the Metropolitan Opera in Manhattan. He loved the music, but he also loved the feeling of belonging as he soon discovered that the Met’s standing section was a gay hangout. He was warned to keep his distance by his mother who “sat him down for a serious talk, [and] told him to stay away from homosexual men, whom, she warned, did unspeakable things with young boys.” Milk was tormented and torn by this. While he respected his family and did not want to upset them, he knew who he was. He knew he was gay. He tried to hide this part of himself, but it became too important, too pressing to keep hidden: “I came out at 14,” Milk admitted in a speech, “Even though I lived at home for several more years it was never ‘home’ again for me…for in that home I was ‘closeted.’ A home is a place to be one’s self, to be free to express the greatest gift that any person has…the gift of loving another human.”
Milk came out to a select few at age fourteen and kept his sexual identity a secret for years. It wasn’t until the 1960s, when he moved to San Francisco, that Milk completely beat down his own closet door. Before moving to California, Milk worked several different jobs. He was a math teacher, worked for an insurance company, on Wall Street, and as a theatrical producer on Broadway. He also voluntarily enlisted in U.S. Navy during Korean War. Of course, he had to remain publicly closeted during his time in the military. Many gay men were not as successful at keeping their secret, and that is partially what spawned San Francisco’s “notorious” gay population:
The U.S. military did not want homosexuals among its ranks, and tens of thousands of gays were discharged – their papers stamped with an H. Most of the ousted soldiers – those who had served in the Pacific – were given their walking papers in San Francisco. Afraid or unwilling to go home, many stayed in the City by the Bay.
Harvey means Hope: The Mayor of Castro Street
Milk did not move to San Francisco with political ambition. Milk’s interests were centered on ownership of a camera store in the Castro, and living upstairs with his partner at the time, Scott Smith. The second wave of gay migration to San Francisco was underway in the early part of the 1970s as news spread of the Castro district’s burgeoning gay community. Tensions were growing not only in San Francisco but also throughout the country as homosexuals began to find a voice and became more outspoken about the injustices that tormented the gay community. Milk witnessed and experienced the movement first hand. Sensing both the tremendous opportunity and the real possibility for freedom, and equality, he found the need to act and entered the political arena. Milk was a sharp and infectiously passionate individual who spoke about gay issues from his gut and his heart in his campaigns and speeches. He cared truly and deeply about not only the struggles of the homosexual community, but extended his concerns to all who faced any kind of societal or political oppression.
Milk gathered strong support and was poised to lead the largest movement for gay rights to date. He was in the right place at the right time to churn the social waters, help build the movement’s momentum, and push it toward real sociocultural and legislative change. Despite losing his first election to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors in 1973, Milk became known as the Mayor of Castro Street as his popularity expanded. His camera store became the “political epicenter of Castro’s growing gay community” . Milk established the Castro Village Association comprised of local gay business owners. However, he was not interested in only reaching out to the gay community. Milk wanted all disenfranchised citizens to have a voice in the political process, which brought labor unions in to join forces with him. Most notably the Teamsters, one of the oldest and strongest labor unions in America, asked Milk for his help with a beer boycott against six major brewers because delivery workers weren’t being fairly compensated. Milk rallied his Castro community and the boycott was a huge success. This was a smart political move on Milk’s part because the Teamsters championed Milk in his following campaigns. The boycott also established a healthy alliance between Milk’s gay voter base and a largely heterosexual network. This included the San Francisco Fire Fighters who also backed Milk’s candidacy for municipal election.
Harvey Milk ran for City Supervisor once again in 1975 but lost, again. All the incumbent supervisors were running for reelection and all retained their seats, however Milk received the vast majority of votes in the Castro district. Milk was not discouraged by the overall result of the second campaign because it propelled him further into the political spotlight, and continued the expansion of his political base. Growing support for Gay Rights was clearly demonstrated two years later when the 1977 Gay Freedom Day Parade attracted as many people as the 1963 Civil Rights March on Washington. Nearly 250,000 people flooded the streets to demonstrate their support for Gay Rights.
On his 3rd attempt Milk was elected San Francisco City Supervisor on November 8, 1977. It was the highest public office to date that an openly gay candidate had held in the state of California. Despite public fears that he would only become a sounding board for gay interested in San Francisco, Milk made it clear that he was concerned with the wellbeing of all San Franciscans. He assured his constituency that he was an advocate for all and would advance the issues that locals cared about: vibrant neighborhoods, rent control, limiting high-rise development, public transportation, and the rights of senior citizens. Milk understood the interconnected nature of the needs of all underrepresented groups. He championed these needs, but underlying all his actions was the driving pulse of the gay rights movement.
Two Steps Forward: The Significance of a Gay Public Figure
In 1999, Time Magazine’s Time 100 named Harvey Milk one of the 100 most influential individuals in the world. John Cloud wrote the article on Milk, and aptly identified the underlying strength of Milk’s achievement:
…few powerful figures gave gay individuals the confidence they needed to stop lying, and none understood how his public role could affect private lives better than Milk…. Milk knew that the root cause of the gay predicament was invisibility…. [He] suspected emotional trauma was gays’ worst foe – particularly for those in the closet…. That made the election of an openly gay person, not a straight ally, symbolically crucial.
On March 10, 1978, Milk gave the keynote address at a San Diego dinner of the gay caucus of the California Democratic Council. Milk’s words resonated for many closeted Americans at the time, and the speech was so powerful that its reverberation has far outlived its first utterance. From what was later dubbed “The Hope Speech”:
In 1977, gay people had their rights taken away from them in Miami. But you must remember that in the weeks before Miami and the week after that, the word homosexual or gay appeared in every single newspaper in this nation in articles both pro and con. In every radio station, in every TV station and every household, for the first time in the history of the world, everybody was talking about it, good and bad. Unless you have dialogue, unless you open the walls of dialogue, you can never reach to change people’s opinion…. Once you have dialogue starting, you know you can break down the prejudice.
The only thing [young gay people] 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 the gays, but the blacks, the seniors, the handicapped, the us’es, the us’es will give up. And if you help elect to the central committee and other offices, more gay people, that gives the green light to move forward. It means hope to a nation that has given up, because if a gay person makes it, the doors are open to everyone.
Just ten days after The Hope Speech, Milk’s greatest legislative success came to fruition. On March 20, 1978, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors passed a gay-rights ordinance, the strongest pro-gay legislation in the country, which banned discrimination in housing, employment, and public accommodation. The legislation won by a vote of 10-1. The only dissenting vote was Supervisor Dan White, a foreboding of events to come. Milk explained the significance of the ordinance:
…[T]he gay rights ordinance in San Francisco…is to prevent the people who are already employed who are gay…from being fired. For example, you’ll see in this Gay Day Parade a group of at least thirty gay doctors. That is the tip of the iceberg. In the Bay Area there are hundreds and hundreds of gay doctors…most of whom are closeted because of fear of loss of jobs. In San Francisco they can “come out” and not have to worry about their jobs. And that’s the main focus of our ordinance.
Constitutionalizing Bigotry: Proposition 6
Despite the progress Milk’s ascension into the national dialogue brought, an anti-gay political backlash was soon at hand in California. In 1978, State Senator John Briggs moved forward a state proposition, Prop 6, which if passed, would deny homosexuals their jobs in public schools:
Male school kids, Briggs insisted, risked sexual molestation from gay teachers. The statistics on child abuse did not support the claim. Nevertheless, it looked as though most voters were buying into the myth. That summer, polls showed that two-thirds of Californians were ready to vote for Proposition 6.
Briggs received dedicated support from Anita Bryant, singer, former beauty pageant contestant, and spokesperson for Save Our Children, an organization based on the “Christian beliefs regarding the sinfulness of homosexuality and the perceived threat of homosexual recruitment of children and child molestation.” Imbued with bigotry, ignorance, and absurdity, Bryant proclaimed, “As a mother, I know that homosexuals cannot biologically reproduce children; therefore, they must recruit our children…. If gays are granted rights, next we’ll have to give rights to prostitutes and to people who sleep with St. Bernards and to nail biters.” Considering Anita Bryant lived in Florida, Proposition 6 was clearly more than a statewide issue. However, California was the battlefield, and Harvey Milk was ready on the offense.
In a landmark speech during San Francisco’s 7th annual Gay Freedom Day Parade , Milk declared: “My name is Harvey Milk – and I want to recruit you. I want to recruit you for the fight to preserve democracy from the John Briggs and Anita Bryants who are trying to constitutionalize bigotry.”
Milk used several tactics to combat the Briggs initiative: he illustrated time and again the irrationality and incongruity of Briggs’ and Bryant’s argument that gays posed a danger to children, he used the monstrous publicity to call attention to the dire need for gays to come out, and he sought out support from higher leadership, namely the Governor of California and the President of the United States.
Milk’s pleas were successful. Former Governors of California Jerry Brown and Ronald Reagan (who later became a US President), former President Gerald Ford, and then-President Jimmy Carter, all came out against Prop 6. After an arduous summer of constant outcry against Briggs, Bryant, Proposition 6 was soundly defeated. The tide of public sentiment regarding Gay Rights was turning not only in California but also on a national level. As a further blow to the anti-gay backlash the Orange Bowl Parade ended Bryant’s ten-year run as host, and her record company refused to release her upcoming album entitled There’s Nothing Like the Love Between a Man and a Woman.
One Step Back: Assassination
Milk garnered much attention, both positive and negative. As willful and outspoken as he was about his beliefs, so too were his opponents about theirs. Milk knew that his radical public profile threatened his personal security. During the few years that he was an active political leader, he grew accustomed to receiving death threats in the mail. Milk knew that his political successes made him a desirable target to anti-gay extremists. Milk recorded three tapes of his legal will, and gave them to three different friends and associates. The tape that was perhaps the most representative of Milk’s leadership and ideology went to friend and political colleague Walter Caplan:
This is to be played only in the event of my death by assassination. I fully realize that a person who stands for what I stand for, an activist—a gay activist, becomes the target or a potential target for somebody who is insecure, terrified, afraid or very disturbed themselves. Knowing that I could be assassinated at any moment or anytime, I feel it is important that some people know my thoughts…. I stood for more than just a candidate…. I have never considered myself a candidate. I have always considered myself part of a movement, part of a candidacy…. I wish I had time to explain almost everything I did. Almost everything that was done was done with an eye on the gay movement.”
The most famous line from his assassination tapes comes from the tape Milk made for his friend, Frank Robinson. Milk prophetically stated: “If a bullet should enter my brain, let that bullet destroy every closet door.” Two bullets entered Milk’s brain on November 27, 1978. They were fired by former Supervisor Dan White.
White had recently resigned from his position as Supervisor, but received protest from his supporters who valued his conservative voice. After some persuasion, White appealed to Mayor George Moscone for his job back. As Moscone deliberated, Milk strongly argued that White should not be allowed back on the Board of Supervisors. White was already resentful of both the mayor and Milk for their liberal policies and practices. Moscone decided to refuse White’s request and planned to give White his answer on Monday, November 27. Apparently word may have got back to White who in a fit of rage, sneaked into City Hall that Monday morning before they were to meet, charged up to Moscone’s office, and demanded to speak to with the mayor. Moscone obliged despite concerned protests from those with whom he’d been meeting prior to White’s arrival. It didn’t take long before gunshots rang out across the hall. After White shot Moscone, he hurried to Milk’s office and fired five more shots, two of which he aimed right at Milk’s head.
Riots broke out around City Hall but they didn't last long. Though Harvey Milk was determined and at times brazen in his pursuits, but he never advocated violence. His community and supporters seemed to realize this after their initial outrage. On the evening of November 27, from the Castro district to City Hall, the streets flooded with candlelight as people made their way to mourn the loss of two beloved leaders. Sally Gearheart, activist and former speech professor at San Francisco State University who co-chaired the United Fund to Defeat the Briggs Initiative with Harvey, remembered the event:
It was one of the most eloquent expressions of a community’s response to violence that I’ve ever seen. I think we as lesbians and gay men and all the straight people who were marching with us that night – and there were thousands – I think we sent a message to the nation that night…not violence but a certain respect for Harvey and a deep regret and feeling of tragedy about it, because Moscone had been our friend as well.
Like Martin Luther King Jr. was to the Civil Rights Movement, it is nearly impossible to fathom the Gay Rights Movement without Harvey Milk. Most saw Milk’s contribution in this light. As a reflection of this, Joan Baez, whose famous voice for justice united and impassioned activists at the Civil Rights’ March on Washington, joined the marchers and led them in peaceful anthems.
Dan White, on the other hand, was spared both the death penalty and life in prison. Defense lawyers were able to get his sentence reduced from murder to voluntary manslaughter by arguing that his actions were not premeditated and he was under the influence of junk food, causing his mental state to be one of “diminished capacity.” The so-called “Twinkie defense” was later banned. White was sentenced to seven years and eight months in prison, but could be released in five years with good behavior. After five and a half years in prison, and no psychiatric treatment, White was released in January 1984. Not much more than a year later, in October of 1985, his brother found him dead in his own garage. White had rigged a garden hose from the exhaust pipe to his car’s interior and took his own life.
Remembering Harvey Milk
More than three decades after Milk’s death, there are Americans who continue to fight in opposition to Gay Civil Rights. Given the tremendous support received from conservative groups like the National Organization for Marriage (NOM) for the 2008 California Proposition 8 which threatened to revoke gays’ right to marry, it is evident that the Gay Rights Movement still has a struggle to wage. Organizations like the Human Rights Campaign continue to fighting back. Milk knew the fight for human rights must continue, and one of the most inspiring refrains on his tape for Caplan speaks to this. It contains Harvey Milk’s wish for the Gay Rights Movement: “It’s not about personal gain, not about ego, not about power. It’s about giving those young people out there...hope. You got to give them hope.”
Milk did not live to see the effects of his hopeful sentiments. In the 1980s, a thirteen-year-old boy named Dustin Lance Black moved with his family from a conservative Mormon home in San Antonio, Texas, to California, where he first heard the recordings of Harvey Milk. Black later commented, “I was listening to one of his speeches right after he was elected to public office…and he says something like, ‘There’s a kid out there, maybe in San Antonio, who’s going to hear my story…and it’s going to give him hope.’ And I just lost it because that’s exactly what it did for me.” Approximately two decades later, Dustin Lance Black accepted the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay for his famed 2008 feature film Milk following upon Rob Epstein’s documentary The Times of Harvey Milk which won the 1985 Oscar for Best Documentary Film.
Milk received due recognition for his contribution to the human rights movement as he was the first openly gay Civil Rights leader to receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom awarded to him posthumously by President Barack Obama in August 2009. The statement released by the Associated Press proclaimed:
Harvey Bernard Milk dedicated his life to shattering boundaries and challenging assumptions. As one of the first openly gay elected officials in this country, he changed the landscape of opportunity for the nation's gay community. Throughout his life, he fought discrimination with visionary courage and conviction. Before his tragic death in 1978, he wisely noted, “Hope will never be silent,” and called upon Americans to stay true to the guiding principles of equality and justice for all. Harvey Milk's voice will forever echo in the hearts of all those who carry forward his timeless message.
A few months after Obama awarded Milk the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the California State Legislature passed, and former California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger signed into law, legislative bill SB 572 proclaiming every May 22 “Harvey Milk Day.” The Harvey Milk Foundation, created by Harvey’s openly gay nephew, Stuart Milk, and Anne Kronenberg, has made Harvey Milk Day a global event every year since.
Dianne Feinstein, a long-time California democratic leader, who served as City Supervisor with Milk and took over as Mayor after Milk and Moscone’s murders, said of Milk: “His homosexuality gave him an insight into the scars which all oppressed people wear. He believed that no sacrifice was too great a price to pay for the cause of human rights.” Schools in San Francisco and New York City dedicated to the values of equality and social justice were established, bearing the great leader’s name. In San Francisco, Milk’s store and campaign headquarters, Castro Camera, was designated a historic building, Harvey Milk Plaza at Market and Castro Streets was created, and a bust of Milk was placed inside City Hall.
David Aretha, No Compromise: The Story of Harvey Milk (Greensboro: Morgan Reynolds Publishing, 2010) 22.
Harvey Milk, “Castro Street- - - Home” speech, Undated, San Francisco Public Library, Gay and Lesbian Center, Harvey Milk Archives – Scott Smith Collection (GLC 35)
Randy Shilts, The Mayor of Castro Street: The Life and Times of Harvey Milk (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1982) 360.
See “That’s What America Is” speech.
“White House comments on Medal of Freedom winners”, Associated Press, 12 Aug. 2009.