In honor of Harvey Milk Day – May 22nd
Harvey Milk and the San Francisco mayor, George Moscone, were shot and killed by Dan White, a disgruntled former supervisor, at city hall in November 1978.
signed a law setting aside May 22nd as Harvey Milk day in California. May 22nd coincided with Milk’s birthday. Milk is only the second Californian, after naturalist John Muir, to receive the honor.
While it will not be a state holiday, schools will be encouraged to hold lessons “remembering the life of Harvey Milk, recognizing his accomplishments and familiarizing pupils with the contributions he made to this state”.
The Forgotten Populist, Harvey Milk
Excerpted from an essay by Gregory J. Rosmaita
Despite the clarity of his populist vision, his piercing assessment of the socio-economic crisis confronting contemporary America, and his eloquent defense of personal liberties, Harvey Milk has been forgotten by the majority of Americans. His is not a household name, invoking only blank stares or the faintest glimmer of recognition. It is tragically ironic that the notorious “twinkie defense” of his assassin is better remembered by Americans than the mercurial Milk himself. Those who do remember Milk remember him only as a “minor” footnote in American history–the first openly homosexual man to be popularly elevated into elective office in the United States. To remember Milk solely for his sexual orientation, however, is not only to misunderstand him, but his concept of gay pride as well. Harvey Milk was one of the most charismatic and pragmatic populists of the past half-century, a man of remarkable organizational talent who never compromised his vision of “a city of neighborhoods” nor sought to hide his homosexuality.
Harvey Milk never intended to enter the political arena until he moved to San Francisco in 1972. Prior to Milk’s arrival, San Francisco’s burgeoning homosexual population lacked a sense of community, and consequently its political empowerment had been stunted.
The city’s homosexual intelligentsia–weary of bearing the brutal brunt of police persecution and public vilification–had organized several “educational” societies–designed to enlighten public opinion on the subject of homosexuality in the early seventies. Since the idea of an openly homosexual running for office in a city which still classified homosexuality as “a crime against nature”–punishable by up to ten years in prison–seemed ludicrous to the homosexual intelligentsia, an integral component of these societies were their political action committees. The homosexual PACs
quickly succeeded in drawing sympathetic “liberal friends” from the Democratic party to their convocations, who–in return for their endorsement, promised to shield open homosexuals from officially sanctioned victimization. For the first time in American history, “mainstream” political figures treated their homosexual constituents with dignity and respect, actively courting their support.
The success of homosexual PACs
was due in no small part to the fact that, “in this city of fewer than 700,000 people, approximately one out of every five adults and perhaps one out of every three or four voters was gay.” At least half of the total homosexual population–like Milk himself–had moved to San Francisco between 1969 and 1977, bringing with them a bold assertiveness which had been sparked by the Stonewall riots of 1969 in New York City. Milk recognized the parallels between the growing gay enclaves and the traditional ethnic neighborhoods that made up the crazy-quilt fabric of San Francisco. Many of these ethnic enclaves–such as the Irish and Italian sections of the city–had long since turned what had initially been a liability–their insularity–into a source of municipal power. It seemed only logical to Milk that the gay neighborhoods follow suit. If the homosexual vote was significant enough for “respectable” politicians to run the risk of alienating San Francisco’s conservative voters by openly courting gay support, Milk reasoned, the homosexuals of San Francisco no longer needed to rely on “friends” for protection, but could rely on themselves
You see there is a major difference–and it remains a vital difference–between a friend and a gay person, a friend in office and a gay person in office. Gay people have been slandered nationwide… it’s not just enough anymore just to have friends represent us, no matter how good that friend may be… A gay official is needed not just for our protection, but to set an example for younger gays that says that the system works.
Milk’s goal in asserting gay pride through political empowerment, was not to force mainstream America to accept homosexuality, but to respect the homosexual’s right to be homosexual, without governmental interference or hinderance. Milk fought not for the universal acceptance of homosexuality as “an alternate life-style”, but for a universal acceptance of homosexuals as human beings, endowed by their creator with the same unalienable rights as their heterosexual counterparts. Whether his audience was sympathetic or hostile, Milk always depicted the struggle for gay rights as “the fight to preserve your democracy.”
Like the black civil rights leaders of the fiftiess and sixtiess, whose example Milk exhorted gays nationwide to follow, Milk viewed his
struggle to assert the “unalienable Rights” of homosexuals as the penultimate expression of the most cherished of American values: “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” These basic American values were systematically denied homosexuals on the grounds of the Judeo-Christian abhorrence of homosexuality. Therefore, reason dictates that individual state and municipal governments had violated the Constitution’s separation of church and state, when they codified homosexuality as “a crime against nature”–a naked assertion of a religious proscription over individual liberty.
The issue of sexuality, however, is seldom discussed on a rational plane, especially when the debate revolves around same-sex relations. As a result, hundreds of thousands of Americans were classified as “deviants” who, solely by virtue of their sexuality, were guilty of a felony which–according to the whims of local or state authorities–could lead to their prosecution, often resulting in public humiliation, institutionalization, and/or imprisonment. Such anti-gay statutes, many of which were relics either of the colonial or Victorian eras, were based upon the homophobic myths which form the basis of mainstream America’s perception of homosexuality and homosexuals.
The blacks did not win their rights by sitting quietly in the back of the bus. They got off! Gay people, we will not win our rights by staying quietly in our closets… We are coming out! We are coming out to fight the lies, the myths, the distortions! We are coming out to tell the truth about gays! [ellipse extant in text]
Milk firmly believed that the only way for homosexuals to break down homophobia–“the last major dam of prejudice in this country”–was for homosexuals to make themselves visible: to step out of the closet, and into the consciousness of the nation. Whilst the images of the “drag queen” and “butch dyke” are firmly ensconced in the popular imagination, there are no “defining” homosexual traits; most homosexuals–male and female alike–are indistinguishable from heterosexuals. Unless an individual makes the conscious decision to overtly express his or her homosexuality, that individual remains a member of an invisible minority. This invisibility is magnified by the fact that the majority of homosexuals do not live openly in Greenwich Village or the Castro district of San Francisco, but instead live lives of silent suburban exile in a society that–despite the rhetoric of diversity–still dictates conformity. Thus, the majority of American homosexuals remain trapped behind walls of fear–the proverbial “closet”–rendering them utterly invisible to mainstream America. Milk argued that this invisibility only fosters homophobic stereotypes:
Like every other group, we must he judged by our leaders and by those who are themselves gay, those who are visible. For invisible, we remain in limbo–a myth, a person with no parents, no brothers, no sisters, no friends who are straight, no important positions in employment. A tenth of our nation is supposedly composed of stereotypes and would-be seducers of children. But today, the black community is not judged by its friends, but by its black legislators and leaders. And we must give people the chance to judge us by our leaders and legislators. A gay person in office can set a tone, can command respect not only from the larger community, but from the young people in our own community who need both examples and hope.
Milk’s entire political career was dedicated to shattering the silence of homosexual America and exposing the homophobic myths of heterosexual America. When he finally gained office–after three competitive but unsuccessful campaigns–Milk quickly transformed his public image, from “a gay politician” to a politician who “just happened” to be gay. By concentrating on implementing an aggressively populist agenda which encompassed the needs of all of San Francisco’s minorities, Milk quickly dispelled the false issue of his sexual orientation. His passionate attention to detail and his dedication to improving the quality of life of all San Franciscans greatly widened his base of support. His adept handling of the media allowed him to transform the popular conception of who and what he was–“all over the country, they’re reading about me,” he told his aides several months after his election to the City Council, “and the story doesn’t center on me being gay–it’s just about a gay person who’s doing his job.”