THE LEGACY OF HARVEY MILK
– DAVID EQUALITY WATTERS
PART ONE: BIRTH IS THE BEGINNING
Birth is beginning,
Hope is its name-
A child gives meaning to the world.
Shalom (Seymour) Freedman (born June 17, 1942)
The year was 1930, the first year of the great depression; Hoover was President, and the United States population was at 123 million and unemployment at 8.9%.
Once a land of opportunity and optimism, America was awaking from its dream; rubbing sleep from its eyes, to witness a land of quiet desperation. Concepts of capitalism and democracy came into question and, for many, hope seemed lost.
The movie theatres were now more necessity than pleasant pastime, a place to find escape and fantasy, providing a perfect blend of glamour and gaiety; with handsome iconic stars, flawless leading ladies, comedians and character actors, who brought temporary relief from the reality of the world outside their doors.
Ironically, the nation was also alive with music that contrasted to the economic downturn. They were getting happy whilst putting on the Ritz on the sunny side of the street.
When, on 22 May 1930, Harvey Bernard Milk was born to William and Minerva Karns Milk in Woodmere, New York, there could be no speculation that he would leave such a profound imprint on the social consciousness of the world.
There were a number of complex and significant factors which influenced the development of Harvey Milk as a man of social conscience and political importance. In order to contextualise his achievements it is important to understand Harvey’s early influences, his personal relationships, early career and the changing political climate of America, during his brief but incredible life.
His Grandfather, Morris Milk, had emigrated from Lithuania to the United States in 1896 and, two years later, in 1898, founded Milk’s department store. Significantly, he was one of the founders of the Woodmere Congregation, Sons of Israel; the first synagogue in the area.
Harvey Milk, the nice Jewish boy who, as a child, was teased about his physical appearance, graduated from Bay Shore High School in Bay Shore, New York, in 1947. Here, he had played high school football and, although he acknowledged his homosexuality to himself at 14, was perceived very much as a man’s man.
Harvey’s sharp wit and talkative nature made him the class clown who would be remembered, by one of his peers in his high school yearbook as, “Glimpy Milk—and they say WOMEN are never at a loss for words”
1947 TO 1951: HOMOSEXUALS AND OTHER SEX PERVERTS
From High School, Harvey progressed on to study at New York State College for Teachers in Albany. Whilst there, he majored in mathematics, wrote for the college newspaper and, in many respects, he spent his four years at college blending in. This is not to say that Harvey didn’t explore his sexuality but this was a time when open homosexuality was taboo; carrying with it a burden of severe social sanctions and legal ramifications.
After all, this was the era of Joseph McCarthy who, with many other prominent politicians, tactically played upon society’s ignorance and anxiety about sexuality in order to gain public backing for his anti-Communist crusade.
What McCarthy, Senator Kenneth Wherry and others postulated was that there was a connection between masculinity and patriotism and that homosexuals who didn’t meet their definition of masculinity, were subversives who posed a serious threat to the nation.
In 1950 the Senate committee produced a report, Employment of Homosexuals and Other Sex Perverts in Government, which contained the following words:
“As has been previously discussed in this report, the pervert is easy prey to the blackmailer… It is an accepted fact among intelligence agencies that espionage organizations the world over consider sex perverts who are in possession of or have access to confidential material to be prime targets where pressure can be exerted”.
The Lavender Scare, as it became known, ran parallel to the Red Scare and resulted in a claim by John Puerifory, the Undersecretary of state, that there was a “homosexual underground” in the State Department. This, and the claim by McCarthy that 205 communists were also in the State Department, justified the sacking of 91 homosexual employees who were seen as easy targets for blackmail and, as such, a threat to national security.
Like others of his generation, Harvey enlisted in the United States Navy. He served upon the submarine rescue ship, USS Kittiwake (ASR-13) during the Korean War and later transferred to Naval Base San Diego where he served, at the rank of Lieutenant (junior grade), as a diving instructor until 1955.
The newly established George W. Hewlett High School on Long Island was Harvey’s next career stop, where, perhaps, he learned how to hold an audience in the palm of his hand with the charm, wit and wisdom we have ourselves witnessed.
1956: JOE CAMPBELL
In 1956 Harvey met Joe Campbell, seven years his junior, at Jacob Riis Park in Queens.
Randy Shilts in, The Mayor of Castro Street, paints perfectly the story of how Harvey and Joe first met:
The hot July sun darted on Joe Campbell’s mischievous dark eyes entrancing Harvey Milk, who lay near Campbell and his friends at the gay section of Riis Park Beach in Queens. With his thick dark hair combed back, except for the waterfall curl on his forehead, the nineteen-year-old Campbell looked a lot like James Dean, only more handsome, and Harvey couldn’t take his eyes off him. Joe had at last found someone to take care of and protect him. Harvey Milk, twenty-six, found someone who needed him. ‘It was a selection basically,’ Joe Campbell said later. ‘Harvey selected me and I was in the market to be selected.’ That was how Joe and Harvey started what would be the longest relationship in either of their lives.
The pair seemed an unlikely match; Harvey, the conservative looking businessman, and Joe, the “Sugar Plum Fairy”, a part of Andy Warhol’s circle, who was immortalised in the Lou Reed song, Walk on the Wild Side.
Joe came and hit the streets, looking for soul food and a place to eat…and, for over a period of almost six years, he found this with Harvey. The couple lived together in New York, briefly in Dallas, Texas and again in New York where Milk found employment as an actuarial statistician at an insurance firm.
On paper, Harvey and Joe seemed at opposite ends of the spectrum but we all know about books and covers and whatever brought and kept them together endured beyond their time as lovers; there was a fond friendship that survived.
1962: CRAIG RODWELL
Harvey had an eye for the younger man and in 1962 became involved with Craig L. Rodwell; ten years his junior.
Rodwell (1940 – 1993) is probably best known as the founder of the first bookstore devoted to gay authors, the Oscar Wilde Memorial Bookstore. Also an activist, Rodwell participated in numerous gay rights protests including the landmark Stonewall Riots in 1969.
It was this activism that discouraged the still closeted Harvey, who disapproved of Rodwell’s involvement with the gay activist organization, the Mattachine Society.
1963: JACK GALEN MCKINLEY
Jack Galen McKinley (1947- 1980) was 16 when he moved into Harvey’s Upper West Side apartment.
McKinley had begun stage managing some experimental projects for Tom O’Horgan, best known as director of both Hair and Jesus Christ, Superstar on Broadway, and Harvey, drawn to this world, moved to Greenwich Village, becoming an unofficial patron of the arts; financially supporting his friend’s artistic endeavours with his income on Wall Street.
The relationship with McKinley was unsettling and perplexing for Harvey; Jack’s manic-depressive behaviour, reportedly worsened through drug and alcohol use, escalated to a string of suicide attempts.
Desperate, Harvey took Jack to visit with Joe Campbell, who himself was recovering from a suicide attempt.
Valentine’s Day 1980, Jack Galen McKinley, aged just thirty-three, committed suicide in New York City. In a symbol of their mutual bond, his ashes were split and scattered in the Hudson River as well as from the Golden Gate Bridge near where he had helped to scatter Harvey’s ashes a year before.
Prompted by McKinley and the theatrical community that he had become involved with, Harvey swapped his conservative appearance for long hair and denims and his outwardly “square” lifestyle for a more honest, politically conscious approach.
In response to Nixon’s bombing of Cambodia, Harvey publicly burned his BankAmericard; Bank America were one of the war’s principal financial backers.
The nice Jewish boy, who had always followed the rules, was fired from his job, but the years of what seem random influences had equipped him with economic savvy, theatrical flair and a quick and ready wit; a Politician was born and Harvey never looked back.
PART TWO: I’M HERE TO RECRUIT YOU
1972: SAN FRANCISCO
For many, the San Francisco of 1972 was a uniquely unconventional and warmly welcoming city. It was unlike any other city; a place of vibrancy and diversity, a haven for the disenfranchised and displaced, just as it had been for the Beatniks and hepcats of the 1940s and 50s respectively, and the numerous dishonourably discharged gay veterans from World War Two and Korea.
Many came, from across America and far beyond, bringing wildly alternative ideas and, in search of liberation, many found validation and a sense of inspiration in the innovative protest culture at this time; having escaped, they could never return to the bigoted, judgemental small towns from which they had come.
In this year, Harvey Milk and Scott Smith, who was to become Harvey’s long-term lover, settled in San Francisco and, like so many before them and since, they found the city to be a refuge from what Gore Vidal famously called “the entire heterosexual dictatorship of America”.
San Francisco was ripe for change but with resistance to the already sizable gay community from the Catholic Church and the, predominantly Irish, San Francisco Police Department, there would be many battles before the hope of real progress towards social equality could be attained.
The SFPD were known to use entrapment techniques and to target the gay community with the full backing of Democratic mayor, Joseph Alioto; homosexuals, at this time, could legally be evicted from rented accommodation and those convicted under the sodomy laws were registered as sex offenders for life. It wasn’t until 1974 that future mayor, George Moscone, significantly helped to overthrow California’s anachronistic sodomy laws.
As 1972 drew to an end, and with their income tax refunds almost gone, Harvey and Scott needed to come up with a plan of action. They needed somewhere affordable to live and they needed to start making some money so, in his typical style, Harvey utilised his lateral thinking skills and came up with a solution; having moved to an apartment over on Castro Street, Harvey announced that they were going to open a camera shop.
Harvey had long been a keen amateur photographer; he had purchased a 35mm Nikon rangefinder whist in the Navy and was somewhat of a documentarian.
His passion for observing and recording his world intensified in line with his deep desire and love for Scott, who often endured Harvey’s fussing when, at times, he would be directed to pose as Harvey captured every aspect of their lives together. These intimate portraits tell a truth beyond words; that desire, domesticity, intimacy and love make no gender distinction.
Harvey, who had lost faith in the local pharmacy after they destroyed an entire roll of his film, knew that he could do a better job so, on March 3, 1973, Castro Camera, 575 Castro Street, opened for business.
His first signs of political involvement came in response to an extortionate tax assessment on his business, which he disputed and won; Milk was convinced that local businesses were being treated unfairly in relation to the big multi-nationals with whom Mayor Alioto had cultivated links.
Harvey also soon encountered organisations which, in his past he may have shunned, such as The Society for Individual Rights (a local arm of the LA based Mattachine Society; the first openly gay political organisation in the US) and the Daughters of Bilitis.
A NEW & VITAL COMMUNITY
With a steady flow of incomers, a new and vital gay community was taking up residence around the Castro; known then as Eureka Valley.
A conservative estimate at the time was that the gay community comprised 20% of the voting population and this is something which didn’t go unnoticed by the new breed of forward thinking politicians including future mayors Diane Feinstein and Willie Brown. Milk himself saw, with such a strong gay vote, that there was potential for real political progress and he began his political career.
At first, the longhaired Harvey was not taken seriously, even by the gay political establishment; he looked wrong and although his campaigns were enthusiastic they were poorly organised from the chaotic back room of his Castro Camera store.
It took some time for Harvey to find his feet in the political arena, in all he would run three times before being elected supervisor, but with each campaign he learned new lessons and developed his skills.
In his 1973 concession speech, Harvey demonstrated great dignity, determination and tenacity, “I have tasted freedom. I will not give up that which I have tasted. I have a lot more to drink. For that reason, the political numbers game will be played. I know the rules of their game now and how to play it.”
Harvey was determined to succeed and was indeed willing to play the political game; a haircut, a shave, a rejection of bathhouses and pot and an old but respectable suit were the first steps toward an outwardly respectable and more serious proposition as candidate for political office.
COMMON CAUSES & CONNECTING COMMUNITIES
Beyond his physical transformation, it was Harvey’s ability to connect with other marginalised communities which transformed his fortunes.
He was acutely aware that there were common causes which connected these diverse communities and that together they would no longer be an ineffective minority but instead a powerful voice to affect change in San Francisco.
It was his unapologetic, straight talking and spirited approach which won over both the black and Chinese community leaders, the small business owners and the union leaders.
Union boss George Evankovich, persuading colleagues to support Harvey Milk for supervisor in 1975, as quoted in Randy Shilts’ book The Mayor of Castro Street told them, “I know the guy’s a fruit, but he shoots straight with us. Let’s support him.”
When the Coors family, who were notoriously rightwing, reneged on signing a contract with the truckers’ union it was Harvey who convinced the gay bars to stop selling Coors beer. The Coors coup won him unlikely allies in the Teamster Union who learned from Harvey that their preconceptions and prejudices were based on a limited notion of the gay community and agreed to hire more gay drivers; Harvey told Allan Baird, Teamsters Union representative and director of the Coors Beer boycott in California, “You’ve got to promise me one thing. You’ve got to help bring gays into the Teamsters Union. We buy a lot of beer that the union delivers. It’s only fair that we get a share of the jobs.”
SAVE OUR CHILDREN
Another significant factor in Milk’s election was a provocatively named campaign, Save Our Children, funded by the religious right and fervently promoted by born-again Christian singer, Anita Bryant, which aimed to repeal a Dade County, Florida (now Miami-Dade County) ordinance that prohibited discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.
During the campaign, Anita Bryant was reported to have said, “As a mother, I know that homosexuals cannot biologically reproduce children; therefore, they must recruit our children” and “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.”
Not satisfied with just Florida, Bryant made clear her intention to take her crusade nationwide, “All America and all the world will hear what the people have said, and with God’s continued help we will prevail in our fight to repeal similar laws throughout the nation.”
On the night that the ordinance was repealed, Harvey Milk led 3,000 gay and lesbian demonstrators through San Francisco. Emotions were high but the community were galvanised; “This is the power of the gay community,” he said to the crowd. “Anita’s gonna create a national gay force.”
All that Harvey had worked towards might still have led to a third defeat had it not been for reforms in the city charter which ensured that candidates who ran for the Board of Supervisors, in the city elections of 1977, were required to run from their own neighbourhoods rather than on a citywide basis.
Harvey’s victory as the first openly gay non-incumbent man in the United States to win an election for public office was mirrored by other firsts for the city; sworn in with Milk were also a single mother (Carol Ruth Silver), a Chinese American (Gordon Lau), and an African American woman (Ella Hill Hutch) alongside the more conventional political type, former police officer and fire-fighter and a first time supervisor, Dan White.
Harvey was fully aware of the debt owed to his many supporters and after winning his seat on the Board of Supervisors said, “It’s not my victory, it’s yours and yours and yours. If a gay can win, it means there is hope that the system can work for all minorities if we fight. We’ve given them hope.”
In the run up to his election as supervisor, Harvey was no longer in a relationship with Scott Smith and was instead involved with Jack Lira.
The pair had moved into an apartment on Henry Street, following a rent increase on the Castro Camera store and the apartment above, and Lira was by Harvey’s side as he led the procession from Castro Street to City Hall on the day of his swearing-in ceremony.
There is no doubt Harvey cared for Jack; in a love note to him in 1977, Harvey wrote, “Last night as I carried you to my bed I saw the day over and over – I needed no camera yesterday to capture glorious pictures – they are forever burnt into my heart,” but the alcoholic Lira was becoming an embarrassment and a liability. Harvey had come a long way and knew that he had to break off the relationship with Jack.
Tragically, a few weeks later, Harvey returned home to find that Lira, unable to cope, had hung himself on the back porch of their Henry Street apartment.
In office, however, Harvey thrived and demonstrated that he truly was a born politician who could demystify seemingly complex issues, put them into clear and simple terms and persuasively argue his point.
PROPOSITION 6: THE BRIGGS INITIATIVE
Spurred on by the success of Anita Bryant’s Save Our Children crusade, the ambitious conservative Californian politician, John Briggs, launched an attack of his own upon the gay community.
The initiative, Proposition 6 but commonly known as the Briggs Initiative, demonstrated outright and unashamed homophobia, calling for the mandatory firing of all gay teachers and those who supported them.
Yet again, the gay community were to be scapegoats for the religious right; labelled as predatory and pederasts who preyed upon children to “recruit” them to the gay lifestyle.
Harvey knew that although society may have moved forwards to some extent, in California at least, support for such an unconstitutional law may still exist; after all, the effects of the Dade County ruling still rippled across the nation.
He was not alone in his concerns, so with a coalition of activists which included Gwen Craig, Bill Krause, Tom Ammiano and Hank Wilson he took direct action; they went door to door, in what was the No on 6 Campaign, talking to their communities. They encouraged lesbians and gay men to come out and be visible, using the slogan, “Come out! Come out! Wherever you are!”
This handed responsibility to each individual to take action, to educate and to enlighten those closest to them who saw homosexuality as a part of other families but not of their own.
In his “That’s What America Is” speech,
given on Gay Freedom Day, June 25, 1978 in San Francisco, at San Francisco Civic Center, Harvey told a crowd of 375,000 people: “…Gay brothers and sisters,..You must come out. Come out…to your parents…I know that it is hard and will hurt them but think about how they will hurt you in the voting booth! Come out to your relatives…come out to your friends…if indeed they are your friends. Come out to your neighbors…to your fellow workers…to the people who work where you eat and shop…come out only to the people you know, and who know you. Not to anyone else. But once and for all, break down the myths, destroy the lies and distortions. For your sake. For their sake. For the sake of the youngsters who are becoming scared by the votes from Dade to Eugene.”
Using his position as a platform to seek greater publicity to affect public support, Harvey made the most of any opportunity to utilise the power of the media, and in more than one interview tactically stated with humour and bluntness, “If it were true that children imitated their teachers, you’d sure have a hell of a lot more nuns running around!”
Thanks to Harvey’s media savvy and straight talking and to the courage, eloquence and persuasiveness of his associates, many major politicians including President Carter, former President Gerald Ford and future President Ronald Reagan disassociated themselves from the Briggs plan.
Reagan’s stance, at this time, is both remarkable and admirable since he was preparing to run for President and, regardless of the need to garner the support of conservatives and moderates, he stood by his convictions; in a statement he said, “Whatever else it is, homosexuality is not a contagious disease like the measles. Prevailing scientific opinion is that an individual’s sexuality is determined at a very early age and that a child’s teachers do not really influence this.”
Polls initially showed support for the initiative and in fact lead by a sizable margin, but on November 7, 1978, the initiative suffered a landslide defeat; with some direct action and public education this blatant appeal to unconcealed homophobia ran, not just out of steam but off the tracks.
Supervisor Dan White never seemed to fully adjust to his political role and, unlike Harvey, the challenges and responsibilities were not easy to assimilate; he floundered where Harvey thrived. Initially, White demonstrated support for his colleagues at City Hall and sympathetically backed Harvey’s desire to defeat the Briggs Initiative.
Conflict arose, however, when Harvey refused to support Dan White’s opposition to a mental health facility in White’s neighbourhood. In response, White made it clear that he would never back Milk again; a promise illustrated when he chose to vote against the gay civil rights law, the only supervisor to do so.
Prior to his foray into politics, White had been employed as both a police officer and a fire-fighter and although he had voted against a pay increase for supervisors, he found it difficult to support his family on his meagre salary; White resigned, giving this as his reason.
NOVEMBER 27, 1978
Supporters encouraged White to reconsider, promising financial support, but there were others who lobbied the Mayor to dismiss thoughts of reappointment; notably Carol Ruth Silver, Willie Brown and Harvey Milk.
White was angry that the Mayor had refused to re-appoint him to his seat on the Board of Supervisors and he knew that Milk had lobbied against his reappointment.
On the day that Mayor Moscone was set to formally appoint White’s successor, Don Horanzy, Dan White packed his loaded service revolver and ten extra rounds of ammunition into his jacket pocket.
He then had a friend drive him to City Hall where, avoiding the metal detectors, White climbed in through an open first floor window.
He headed firstly to the mayor’s office, where George Moscone was meeting with Willie Brown. Brown left and the mayor met with White in the outer office but, when he refused to reconsider the decision to re-appoint White, the conversation became heated.
To avoid a scene, Moscone led White to the private lounge attached to his office. He had lit a cigarette and was pouring them both a drink when White produced his revolver, fired two shots to the Mayor’s shoulder and chest, then two more shots, at close range into his head.
As he left the Mayor’s office, Diane Feinstein, unaware of what had just occurred, called out to him.
“I have something to do first”, White responded, then headed in the direction of his former office. Just outside, he ran into Harvey who agreed to join him in his office; perhaps in the hope of offering an explanation, perhaps to state his perspective on why he felt White should not be reinstated, no-one can know.
Tactically positioned between Harvey and the doorway, Dan White pulled out his gun and fired. It would appear that Harvey had reacted quickly as it was his right wrist that White first shot, his arm raised, one may imagine, protecting himself.
The next shots were fired rapidly with two to Harvey’s chest and the fourth to Harvey’s head. Not satisfied or fully avenged, White then, at close range, fired one fifth and final bullet into Harvey’s skull.
As he fled, Diane Feinstein approached and entered the office where Harvey’s lifeless body lay.
Checking for a pulse, Feinstein reached for Harvey’s wrist; one can only imagine her horror.
Courageously, Diane Feinstein, looking tearful and visibly shaken from the trauma, announced to an incredulous public that, “As President of the Board of Supervisors, it’s my duty to make this announcement. Both Mayor Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk have been shot and killed. The suspect is Supervisor Dan White.”
Dan White fled unchallenged from City Hall, eventually handing himself in to his former precinct and to former colleague, Frank Falzon.
In his recorded confession, the broken and defeated former police officer sobbed his admission to the murders but denied that his actions were premeditated.
That night, one of the most emotive and inspiring acts of mass mourning, an impromptu candlelight march, starting in the Castro and leading to the steps of City Hall, took place. There were tens of thousands, who chose to mark their respect for George Moscone and Harvey Milk, with dignity and in solidarity.
American folk singer and activist, Joan Baez, sang the entirely appropriate, “Amazing Grace” and, fittingly, the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus, though many were undoubtedly distressed, performed a solemn hymn by Mendelssohn.
In a statement after the City Hall killings, President Carter described Harvey as, “A hardworking and dedicated supervisor, a leader of San Francisco’s gay community, who kept his promise to represent all constituencies.”
Honoured by the city, Milk and Moscone both lay in state at City Hall.
Moscone was buried at Holy Cross cemetery in Colma, following his funeral at St. Mary’s Cathedral.
Milk was cremated and his ashes, wrapped in a Doonesbury and Peanuts comic-strips and with R.I.P spelled out in rhinestones, were scattered at sea by his closest friends; Scott Smith, Galen McKinley, Joe Campbell, Billy Wiegardt and Daniel Nicoletta.
White was convicted, not of first degree murder but of voluntary manslaughter, and was given a sentence of seven years. The verdict and lenient sentence were insulting and provoked anger throughout the shocked and bewildered city.
THE WHITE NIGHT RIOTS
That night, May 21, 1979, the eve of what would have been Harvey’s 49th birthday, the day of sentencing for his murderer, Dan White, a second impromptu vigil began.
As the crowds gathers outside City Hall, news came through of White’s sentence.
The outraged crowd cracked and the now famous “White Night Riots”, began; with much of the anger aimed at the San Francisco Police Department.
Police cars were set on fire, windows at City Hall and nearby buildings were shattered in outrage by the incensed, incredulous crowd; they had been failed by the legal system and this further evidenced a disregard for the gay community and their supporters.
In retaliation to the riots, armed police raided the popular Gay bar, Elephant Walk (later renamed Harvey’s) on the corner of Castro and 18th, destroying the interior and viciously beating its patrons. In what mirrored the Stonewall Riots of 1969, the clientele fought back with many others, who arrived en masse to say, enough is enough.
PART THREE: HOPE WILL NEVER BE SILENT
THE LEGACY OF HARVEY MILK
Harvey Milk was a man like any other; he was complex, he was flawed but Harvey was also a man of high integrity whose social conscience and sensitivity to injustice shaped his desire to affect real and lasting social change.
Stuart Milk says of his uncle, “My uncle was not the first openly LGBT person elected to public office in the US but he was the first to a substantial office and the first to actively proclaim his sexuality and not back up from it. I am very proud of my Uncle both as a dear Uncle whom I lost as a teenager and as a worldwide civil rights visionary!”
His story is powerful because it reminds us all that bigotry and social hostility should never define us or limit us from fulfilling our full potential. The opinions of others are just that, opinions. Their beliefs are merely perceptions based on their own set of unique social influences.
Harvey was a gay man, Harvey was a Jewish man and Harvey was also a moral, freethinking and innovative man who, having self-repressed for much of his life, decided to live with authenticity; at which point his choices became focussed and his life took a clearer and more purposeful direction.
His sexuality was a part of who he was but it was not all that he was. What his sexuality did inform, however, was his understanding of oppression and his sense of social justice.
He was an eloquent, witty and informed speaker who cut through confused closed minded conservative thinking using tactics like reversal and humour to make his point. He was a firm believer in and builder of communities, where common causes and shared goals could bring positive outcomes for all.
In a 1973 speech during his first unsuccessful run for supervisor, Harvey succinctly simplified this philosophy, “It takes no compromising to give people their rights. It takes no money to respect the individual. It takes no survey to remove repressions.”
Cleve Jones, human rights activist, author, lecturer and Milk protégé attributes much of Harvey’s impact on society more to his assassination than his life: “His murder and the response to it made permanent and unquestionable the full participation of gay and lesbian people in the political process.”
Jean O’Leary, who was director of the National Gay Rights Advocates, remarked, in 1989, that, “Every movement needs its hero, and, by his death, Harvey became a symbol, a rallying cry of never, never again.”
Harvey Milk, the self proclaimed Mayor of Castro Street, was a hero, a martyr and a role model who empowered and galvanised a community, giving hope to the disenfranchised and inspiring others to “Burst down those closet doors once and for all, and stand up and start to fight.”
His legacy lives on in the friends and colleagues whose lives he influenced and the countless individuals who lived through the turbulent early days of gay liberation.
Harvey has been immortalised in print and in song, in sculpture and in fine art, theatre and in film.
When she heard news of the Milk/ Moscone murders, singer/songwriter Holly Near immediately composed “Singing for Our Lives”, also known as “Song for Harvey Milk”.
There are, in San Francisco and across America, streets, buildings, festivals and memorial days dedicated to him and, in these modern times, numerous websites, fan pages and academic citations to be easily found online; Google his name and you’ll find around 1.5 million results in under 30 seconds! There’s even a band called Harvey Milk.
Most recently, of course, is the multi award winning movie, MILK, directed by Gus Van Sant and featuring Sean Penn as Harvey Milk.
Dustin Lance Black, on receipt of his Oscar for Best Screenplay, emotionally, his voice shaking, gave thanks to Harvey Milk, “When I was 13 years old, my beautiful mother and my father moved me from a conservative Mormon home in San Antonio, Texas, to California, and I heard the story of Harvey Milk. And it gave me hope. It gave me the hope to live my life; it gave me the hope that one day I could live my life openly as who I am and that maybe even I could fall in love and one day get married. Most of all, if Harvey had not been taken from us 30 years ago, I think he’d want me to say to all of the gay and lesbian kids out there tonight who have been told they are less than by their churches, or by the government, or by their families, that you are beautiful, wonderful creatures of value. And that no matter what everyone tells you, God does love you, and that very soon, I promise you, you will have equal rights federally across this great nation of ours.”
Sean Penn, who also received an Oscar that evening, either still in character or channelling Harvey, used his acceptance speech to urge opponents of same-sex marriage to rethink their positions, “…for those who saw the signs of hatred as our cars drove in tonight, I think that it is a good time for those who voted for the ban against gay marriage to sit and reflect and anticipate their great shame and the shame in their grandchildren’s eyes if they continue that way of support. We’ve got to have equal rights for everyone.”
MILK was preceded by an Academy Award winning documentary, The Times of Harvey Milk, directed by Rob Epstein and based on the Randy Shilts book, The Mayor of Castro Street; which is widely regarded as the definitive biography of Harvey Milk.
Other significant books include, The Harvey Milk Story by Kari Krakow, A Letter to Harvey Milk: Short Stories by Lesléa Newman and most recently, No Compromise: The Story of Harvey Milk by David Aretha, Double Play: The Hidden Passions Behind the Double Assassination of George Moscone and Harvey Milk, Mike Weiss and The Harvey Milk Interviews: In His Own Words edited by Vince Emery
In 1991, there came a musical theatre production entitled The Harvey Milk Show (Book & Lyrics by Dan Pruitt, Music by Patrick Hutchison) and, in 1996, Harvey Milk, an opera, written by Stewart Wallace and described as, “exploring Milk’s character as a complex interplay between his dual heritage: part gay, part Jewish”.
Harvey was listed as one of “Time 100 Heroes and Icons of the 20th Century” and The Advocate listed Milk third in their “40 Heroes of the 20th century” issue, in which Dianne Feinstein states: “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.”
Honouring Harvey Milk, as one of 16 recipients of the 2009 Presidential Medal of Freedom, President Barak Obama said, “These outstanding men and women represent an incredible diversity of backgrounds. Their tremendous accomplishments span fields from science to sports, from fine arts to foreign affairs. Yet they share one overarching trait: Each has been an agent of change. Each saw an imperfect world and set about improving it, often overcoming great obstacles along the way.
“Their relentless devotion to breaking down barriers and lifting up their fellow citizens sets a standard to which we all should strive. It is my great honor to award them the Medal of Freedom.”
“His name was Harvey Milk and he was here to recruit us, all of us, to join a movement and change a nation. For much of his early life, he had silenced himself. In the prime of his life, he was silenced by the act of another, but in the brief time in which he spoke and ran and led, his voice stirred the aspirations of millions of people. He would become, after several attempts, one of the first openly gay Americans elected to public office. In his message of hope, hope unashamed, hope unafraid, could not ever be silenced. It was Harvey who said it best, “You gotta give ‘em hope”
Harvey’s nephew, Stuart Milk, accepted the Presidential Medal of Freedom on his behalf.
Later in 2009, California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger declared May 22, Harvey’s birthday, as “Harvey Milk Day”, and inducted Milk into the California Hall of Fame.
It was Harvey’s brother Robert who, quoted in The Mayor of Castro Street, best expressed what his legacy could be, “Harvey was a pioneer of the 20th century. His struggle and his deeds will prove to history that there’s no such thing as a gay way, there is only one way. … The citizens of San Francisco can make Harvey live forever by continuing to do things his way, in the deeds and in the accomplishments of their daily efforts to make their great city live.”
Harvey Bernard Milk was a pioneer, a visionary, a tenacious, tireless and determined advocate for social equality but he was also a man who only found his calling when he found himself. His journey towards self-efficacy is what makes Harvey interesting and to know that he struggled before finding his authentic core demystifies the man and gives hope to us all that somehow in some way we too may be capable of great things.
National Diversity Award Winner, David E. Watters, is a teacher, motivational speaker and writer; a passionate equality advocate, committed to enhancing the lives of young people and adults who may feel marginalised or limited by labels.
As a teacher, he is committed to developing the whole person through creatively challenging students to embrace their unique value, and that of others, to encourage them to fulfill their full potential. He was nominated for an Excellence in Diversity Award 2015, for his contribution to enhancing the diversity agenda within education and for two European Diversity Awards because of his work with the Give ’em Hope Campaign.
Since graduating from The Institute of Education, University of London, David has gone on to train as a mediator, and is a qualified facilitator for The Pacific Institute.
As Director of NBI Associates, David devises and delivers engaging, enjoyable and interactive Diversity and Cultural Enhancement workshops utilizing Cognitive Behavioural and Performing Arts strategies for individual, corporate and academic clients.
Watters is also the founder and coordinator of the inclusive, inspirational and international Give ‘em Hope Campaign; an online initiative which utilises all available social networks to encourage and uplift those who doubt their validity, feel isolated or limited by labels, through the sharing of written and video testimonies. The campaign was honoured at the National Diversity Awards 2014 when it won the Community Organisation Award (Multi-Strand).
Watters was a key player in the Equal Love Campaign UK; taking the British Government to the European Court of Human Rights in 2010 and successfully achieving Marriage Equality for same-sex couples in the United Kingdom.
His passion and expertise has brought many opportunities to write and speak on social change and his book, NEVER BLEND IN, brings together this wealth of experience and the voices of those whom he has met along the way.
TWITTER: @NEVER_BLEND_IN (FOR NEWS ABOUT THE BOOK AND THE GIVE ‘EM HOPE CAMPAIGN)
BOOK WEBPAGE: https://www.facebook.com/groups/106980051654/
GIVE ‘EM HOPE CAMPAIGN PLAYLIST: https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PL2D507F373FE6BC7D