26 November 2008

Harvey Milk (May 22, 1930 – November 27, 1978)

Harvey Milk at the 1978 Gay Freedom Day Parade.
Photograph © Terry Schmitt/ San Francisco Chronicle

Three decades ago tomorrow conservative politician Dan White snuck into San Francisco City Hall where he shot and killed Harvey Milk and George Moscone who, respectively, were a member of the Board of Supervisors and Mayor of the city. Milk commonly is characterized as the first openly gay person elected to public office in the United States. Here are some of the good bits from a 1999 piece in (of all places) TIME Magazine:
"There was a time when it was impossible for people — straight or gay — even to imagine a Harvey Milk. The funny thing about Milk is that he didn't seem to care that he lived in such a time. After he defied the governing class of San Francisco in 1977 to become a member of its board of supervisors, many people — straight and gay — had to adjust to a new reality he embodied: that a gay person could live an honest life and succeed. [. . .]

When he began public life, though, Milk was a preposterous figure — an "avowed homosexual," in the embarrassed language of the time, who was running for office. In the 1970s, many psychiatrists still called homosexuality a mental illness. In one entirely routine case, the Supreme Court refused in 1978 to overturn the prison sentence of a man convicted solely of having sex with another consenting man. A year before, it had let stand the firing of a stellar Tacoma, Wash., teacher who made the mistake of telling the truth when his principal asked if he was homosexual. No real national gay organization existed, and Vice President Walter Mondale haughtily left a 1977 speech after someone asked him when the Carter Administration would speak in favor of gay equality. To be young and realize you were gay in the 1970s was to await an adulthood encumbered with dim career prospects, fake wedding rings and darkened bar windows. [. . .]

Relentless in pursuit of attention, Milk was often dismissed as a publicity whore. "Never take an elevator in city hall," he told his last boyfriend in a typical observation. The marble staircase afforded a grander entrance.

But there was method to the megalomania. Milk knew that the root cause of the gay predicament was invisibility [. . .] That made the election of an openly gay person, not a straight ally, symbolically crucial. "You gotta give them hope," Milk always said. [. . .]

The few gays who had scratched their way into the city's establishment blanched when Milk announced his first run for supervisor in 1973, but Milk had a powerful idea: he would reach downward, not upward, for support. He convinced the growing gay masses of "Sodom by the Sea" that they could have a role in city leadership, and they turned out to form "human billboards" for him along major thoroughfares. In doing so, they outed themselves in a way once unthinkable. It was invigorating."
At a time when virtually all Americans would've cheered dissidents in Eastern Europe who were "living in truth," Milk showed the importance of pursuing that strategy here too. He trafficked in, imagination and visibility and hope. And he did so, as John Cloud, the author of this piece suggests, by reaching downward not upward, that is, by building democracy.
We've had the award winning documentary The Times of Harvey Milk for a while. Now, of course, we have a major motion picture to remind us that imagination and visibility and hope remain very imperfect and precarious achievements. You can read The New York Times review here ... and I'll post more as they appear.

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Blogger Transient Reporter said...

And don't forget the band:


26 November, 2008 20:48  

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