Portrait of a Freedom Fighter: Harvey Milk
by Kyle Katz
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At powerfist.us it is our goal to share stories of courage and great humanity that is why today we choose to explore the life and political career of Harvey Milk. Harvey Milk never saw his dream of equality realized, but now while the supreme court is set to weigh in on prop 8 we chose to enlighten you to one of the freedom fighters that made this momentous case a possibility. Milk served on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors from January to November of 1978. He was the first openly gay individual in the United States to be elected to public office, and fought tirelessly for equality on behalf of homosexuals and other underrepresented minorities. He ultimately died for this cause, as both he and Mayor George Moscone were assassinated by San Francisco Board member Dan White on November 27th, 1978. Though his political career was very brief, Milk’s extraordinary character and ability to reach people have made a lasting imprint on the gay community, politics, and American history.
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The early eighties was a particularly challenging time for the gay community, as the more liberal politics of the Carter administration had given way to the ultra-conservatism of the Reagan era. The AIDS epidemic had also become officially recognized in the United States in 1981, having already taken many lives. Milk migrated to San Francisco with his lover Scott Smith in 1973; the same year that the gay movement made an enormous stride toward social and political equality: “In December 1973, this movement achieved a major victory when pressure groups succeeded in forcing the American Psychiatric Association to remove homosexuality from its list of mental illnesses.”
Milk and Smith opened a camera shop in The Castro District not long after arriving, and soon became staples of The Castro’s sizable homosexual community. Infuriated over such issues as the Watergate Scandal and the growing discrimination against homosexuals and other minorities, Milk soon gravitated toward municipal politics. He became very vocal about the issues most important to him and his community, and began to support the reorganization of supervisor elections from a city-wide ballot to district ballots. The transition from city-wide to district ballots would ultimately help Milk get elected four years later, as it centralized voting power in the individuals who supported him and his ideas. Milk’s political genius also extended to his reaching out to other minorities: “Using the gay community as his base of support, Milk sought to forge a populist coalition with other disenfranchised groups, including several of the city’s diverse ethnic groups.” Milk demonstrated strong support for San Francisco’s Chinese community when he voted against Dianne Feinstein as President of the Board of Supervisors, in favor of Chinese supervisor Gordon Lau. Though this did not prevent Feinstein from becoming president, it went a long way in strengthening Milk’s reputation with Chinese members of his constituency, as well as other cultural and social minorities in general.
Milk’s rise to prominence occurred amidst rampant discrimination and police abuse toward homosexuals in San Francisco and the country at large. Throughout the 1960′s and 70′s in San Francisco, there had been growing protest against the injustices sustained by homosexuals at the hands of the police. Organizations like the Society for Individual Rights and the Daughters of Bilitis, rallied against such police abuse as entrapment, criminalization of sexual activity, and persecution of various gay establishments, including gay and lesbian bars throughout San Francisco. A series of laws that had been in place for many years formed the basis for these abuses: “These laws were called by various names: anti-sodomy, unnatural intercourse, crimes against nature, sexual misconduct, ‘abominable crime of buggery’ laws, etc.”
That sex between two consenting individuals of the same gender was at one time a felony in this country is astounding. While such severe penalties as execution have never been institutional forms of punishment against gays in the United States, there have certainly been many other forms of institutional injustice. One such example is Prop 6. Developed by California legislator John Briggs. Prop 6 aimed to ban homosexuals from teaching in public schools. It was one of several attempts at passing anti-gay legislation in the United States in the late 1970′s, and through the efforts of Harvey Milk, and opposition by both liberal and conservative politicians like Jimmy Carter and Ronald Regan, the initiative was ultimately defeated.
The true absurdity of the proposition and its architect John Briggs, was revealed during a televised debate between Briggs, Milk and his cohort Sally Gearhart. A noticeably nervous Briggs argued the fallacious point that child molestation could be greatly reduced if homosexuals were denied employment in public schools. Briggs contends, “We can not prevent child molestation, so let’s cut our odds down and take out the homosexual group and keep in the heterosexual group.” To this statement Milk and Gearhart share a hearty laugh and go on to cite evidence that the majority of child molestation cases in recent history had been attributed to heterosexual males.
The Briggs Initiative, as well as other measures to repeal gay rights in California, was enacted primarily as a response to the passage of the civil rights bill that Milk sponsored upon his 1977 election to office. The bill outlawed discrimination based on sexual orientation, and was only voted against by one individual: Supervisor Dan White. This would serve as a symbol of White’s growing animosity toward Milk, and an omen of the tragedy yet to come.
On November 10th, 1978, Dan White resigned his seat as supervisor, citing dissatisfaction with what he viewed as “corruption” in San Francisco politics, and monetary problems as the main reasons behind his decision. However, just four days later, he announced that he wanted his job back. At Milk’s urging, Mayor Moscone denied White’s request to have his seat restored to him, despite having initially told him he could have it back. Outraged by Moscone’s decision, as well as Harvey Milk’s involvement with the decision, White entered San Francisco City Hall with a gun on November 27th, and assassinated both Milk and Moscone. White pleaded guilty to the murders, but stated that his judgment had been clouded by a recent onset of depression. His mental state was thus deemed to be one of “diminished capacity”, and his defense team pointed to White’s excessive consumption of junk food as evidence of his depression. This excuse proved reasonable to the jury, and White’s conviction of first degree-murder was consequently dropped to manslaughter. He was sentenced to a total of seven years in prison. Upon the gay community’s awareness of the verdict, mass outrage ensued throughout the country, particularly in San Francisco: “In San Francisco, riots erupted, resulting in hundreds of injuries, a dozen burned police cars, and about $250,000 in property damage.”
As Gene Siskel points out in his 1985 review of The Times of Harvey Milk, “…Harvey Milk died not for his sins but for his good deeds.” Milk was punished for his good deeds, as it was an act of evil that ultimately took him down. In this sense, Milk’s story closely mirrors that of many individuals throughout history who have given their lives in the pursuit of goodness and equality. Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr. and John Kennedy are just a few names in recent history that come to mind. Harvey Milk’s contribution to the human enterprise was no less significant than these men. They all laid themselves on the line to affect change, and bared the brunt of the rage that change so often conjures.
The heterosexism inherent to the mass opposition Milk experienced during his career is still alive and well in the world today. While the United States has made relatively significant progress toward equality for gays and lesbians since the 1970s, there is still devastating consequences for homosexuality throughout the world.
It is a shame that brave social avengers like Harvey Milk are so few and far between. Not that there aren’t still many courageous individuals fighting on behalf of gay rights, but those who appeal to the masses and implement real change seem to only come around once in a blue moon. Milk’s impact will be long felt because he fought not only for the rights of homosexuals, but for the bigger picture of human harmony.