“The fact of his homosexuality gave Harvey 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.”
Shortly before he was assassinated on November 27, 1978, San Francisco City Supervisor Harvey Milk stated that, “If a bullet should enter my brain, let that bullet destroy every closet door.” Harvey Milk was the first openly gay political candidate to win an election at a time homosexuality was misunderstood by the general public and fear still kept many gays and lesbians in the closet. Writing in Time magazine over a decade later, John Cloud observed that, “…he had to adjust to a new reality he embodied: that a gay person could live an honest life and succeed.”
Harvey Milk’s Early Life and Influence
There was no “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy when Milk served in the navy. Being gay in the 1950’s simply meant that you didn’t tell. In high school, Harvey Milk was on the junior varsity basketball team. After his years in the navy, he worked as a Math and history teacher and later campaigned for Senator Barry Goldwater. But Milk didn’t hide from being gay, championing gay rights as he became politically involved after moving to San Francisco with his lover.
Harvey Milk built a political club that enabled his election victory but also demonstrated that the gay vote was important. After his death, politicians took a more proactive stance in courting this voting group. Normalization in terms of heterosexual perceptions years after Milk’s assassination played a large part in the legalization of same-sex marriages and the general acceptance of so-called civil unions. Milk’s election as an openly-gay man and his subsequent murder forced observers to react, and in doing so brought issues into the public sphere that had never been openly discussed.
After his death, San Francisco Mayor Dianne Feinstein observed that, “The fact of his homosexuality gave Harvey 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.” (Quoted in New York Times, December 3, 1978) Over three decades after Milk and Mayor George Moscone were shot by Dan White, same-sex marriages are allowed in several states and homosexuality is no longer viewed as a mental disorder or perversion.
The Fight for Civil Rights
Although there were many heroes within the gay community in the latter decades of the twentieth-century, especially during the first years of the AIDS crisis, Harvey Milk established a precedent and became a political role model. In his biographical account, The Mayor of Castro Street, Randy Shilts observes that Harvey Milk “…remains frozen in time, a symbol of what gays can accomplish and the dangers they face in doing so.”
During his brief tenure as a Supervisor, Milk shepherded a Gay Rights ordinance toward passage that protected gays from being fired from their jobs because of sexual orientation. Had his life not ended prematurely, Milk might have brought the leadership and energy needed in the early years of the AIDS epidemic to confront the disease much sooner than it was, saving lives and promoting awareness. Milk fought for civil rights for all groups, including senior citizens.
Harvey Milk’s Battle Continues
Harvey Milk has been referred to as an “unlikely populist.” KQED/PBS correctly assessed that, “…If a gay man can win, it proves that there is hope for all minorities who are willing to fight.” Thirty-five years after Milk was gunned down in his City Hall office, homosexuality is still a moral issue and part of political debate. GOP candidate Herman Cain believes that homosexuality is a sin (Jonathan Capehart, Washington Post, October 20, 2011). Michele Bachmann, during a Meet the Press interview with David Gregory (August 14, 2011) dodged any direct questions put to her about homosexuality, although her husband runs a clinic that “cures” gays.
Discrimination and gay-bashing continues. On October 12, 1998, Matthew Shepard was murdered in Colorado. The horrific crime highlighted on-going persecution of gays in American society. Shepard was tortured and left to die in what has come to epitomize a hate crime. Contemporary concerns regarding bullying in the nation’s schools has also focused on the plight of gay teens. In mid-October 2011, a male cheerleader at Alice High School in Texas was kicked off the varsity team after a school surveillance camera recorded him kissing another male student.
Harvey Milk directed critics to see gays as people that deserve full equality with every other American. Keeping differences a secret, as Shilts notes in his biography of Milk, was learned early in life as a survival mechanism. Harvey Milk, however, soon determined that the fullness of acknowledging one’s humanity is determined by self-honesty. For Milk, that meant embracing who he was.
- John Cloud, “The Pioneer HARVEY MILK,” Time, June 14, 1999
- John M. Crewdson, “Harvey Milk, Led Coast Homosexual-Rights Fight,” New York Times, November 28, 1978
- Larry Kramer, “Gay ‘Power’ Here,” New York Times, December 3, 1978
- Randy Shilts, And The Band Played On: Politics, People, And The AIDS Epidemic (St. Martin’s Press, 1987)
- Randy Shilts, The Mayor of Castro Street: The Life and Times of Harvey Milk (St. Martin’s Griffin, 1988)
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