Harvey Milk is a complex subject. After his shocking assassination with San Francisco Mayor George Mascone on Nov. 27, 1978, Harvey was lionized as a martyr for the gay community. But his life was far more complex.
San Francisco Supervisor Harvey Milk, at the time of his death, had been in office for less than one year. In contrast, John Heilman has been in office for 34 years. So other than his famous “dog poop” law, Harvey is not really remembered for his legislative accomplishments, though he passed the nation’s first anti-discrimination ordinance.
Instead, he is remembered for the movement that took a quantum leap forward with the grief over his assassination and the deep injustice reflected in the White Night riots rage over the “manslaughter” verdict given his killer, Supervisor Dan White. Every LGBT person felt there was NO justice for LGBT people.
Harvey Milk lived as an openly gay man for only the last 8 years of his life, from 1970-1978.
San Francisco had activists who had been out of the closet fighting for justice much longer, such as performer/activist Jose Sarria, Daughters of Bilitis founders Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon or gay Democrat Jim Foster.
Harvey was uncomfortable with the Mattachine Society public efforts advocating for homosexuals and he wasn’t active with SIR (Society for Individual Rights) during the 1960’s when they took on police who used lewd conduct laws to persecute gay men, often through bar raids at “safe” gathering places like the Black Cat Tavern in Silver Lake or the Stonewall Inn in New York.
Harvey was a Navy veteran who fought in the Korean War and worked on Republican Barry Goldwater’s conservative Presidential campaign in 1964. He had more of a conservative libertarian political philosophy.
In fact, it wasn’t LGBT rights that forced Harvey into activism – it was his anger over a $100 deposit for a state sales tax against his Castro Camera store! But his political philosophy changed as the Vietnam War intensified and President Nixon ordered secret bombings in Cambodia. He let his hair grow long and became one of San Francisco’s “flower children.”
With his eyes opened to the injustice facing many communities, Harvey became a “chamber of commerce” activist as the President of the Castro Village Association promoting gay businesses and organizing the Castro Street Fair to attract more customers into the Castro. He also became quite a coalition builder, working with the Teamsters on the Coors boycott by pouring out Coors beer in the streets of the Castro. When he decided to become a serious candidate for public office, he cut off his long hair, stopped smoking weed and swore he wouldn’t go to the bathhouses any longer! The self-styled “Mayor of Castro Street” ran unsuccessfully several times and finally won in 1977.
I don’t think people remember that Harvey’s push for people to “come out” went so far that he pushed Bill Sipple out of the closet in the San Francisco Chronicle. Sipple, a former Marine, was the bystander who grabbed Sara Jane Moore’s arm during her attempted assassination of President Gerald Ford in San Francisco. Harvey thought it was important for the American people to see that this hero also happened to be gay. But Sipple wasn’t out to his family, didn’t consent to Harvey’s actions and sued the Chronicle for invading his privacy.
Harvey had a reputation for being hyperactive, prone to angry outbursts and being somewhat of a “media hog.” And, like many political people, he was often defined by his enemies, including anti-LGBT legends Anita Bryant and California State Sen. John Briggs. Anita and Christian fundamentalists led by Rev. Jerry Falwell overturned gay rights ordinances in Dade County, St. Paul, Wichita and Eugene in 1978 and California’s anti-gay Prop 6 campaign became the testing ground for Falwell’s “Moral Majority.” We did defeat Prop. 6 and Harvey was a big part of that. But to be fair and accurate— so were David Mixner and Diane Abbitt at MECLA (Metropolitan Elections Committee of Los Angeles). MECLA gets the credit for convincing former Gov. Ronald Reagan to oppose Prop 6—not Harvey Milk!
I remember Harvey as a visionary, a complicated activist with both liberal and libertarian opinions and the first openly gay elected official in California. But historically, Harvey is a touchstone for a time/place where LGBT activism moved out of the shadows and “into the streets” protesting the craven cruelty of American injustice and neglect. Thousands carried the heavy lift after his death—AIDS, LGBTs in the military, marriage equality, and the battle over the LGBT soul.
Had Harvey Milk lived, I am sure he would have been in the center of all these fights. But with his temper, manic personality and attention- seeking before the cameras, I am sure he would have made friends and been on several “enemies” lists because that is what happens to people who are in leadership for decades in any community of interest.
In truth, I like remembering Harvey as a real, complex political figure rather than historically as the gay martyr who died too soon.