Today would have been the 98th birthday of Harvey Milk. For the average American, that might not mean anything to you. You may not even know who Harvey Milk was. But to the LGBTQ+ community, Harvey Milk is a hero, an icon, and a martyr for the cause of LGBTQ rights. Harvey Milk was the first openly gay elected official in the United States. He was elected to the San Francisco Board of City Supervisors in 1977. 11 Months after his election, Milk was assassinated by a fellow member of the Board of Supervisors. The Mayor of San Francisco was also assassinated. In the few years before his election and his short time in public office, Milk became the Hero of Hope to the gay community.
I am a history teacher. I am the person who was more excited to register to vote than I was to go buy a pack of cigarettes. I follow politics and current events so much that I can see my family tune out as soon as I open my mouth about politics 97% of the time. You would think I would have learned about Harvey Milk at a young age, but this could not be farther from the truth. I did not learn about Harvey Milk until 2008 as a freshman in college. It wasn’t a history book I have to think for teaching me about Harvey Milk either. History books in this nation leave out the stories and struggles of minority groups far too often. The people I have to thank for acquainting me with Harvey Milk are Dustin Lance Black, Gus Van Sant, and Sean Penn. Yes, you heard me correctly. I said the Academy Award winning actor Sean Penn.
In 2008 Sean Penn won an Oscar for playing Harvey Milk in the film titled Milk. The film was written by Dustin Lance Black (who you might have seen in the news for being the boyfriend and now husband of British diver Tom Daley) and directed by Gus Van Sant. Black and Van Sant are openly gay and both were nominated for their work on Milk. Black won the Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay. His acceptance speech is less than 3 minutes in length and it changed my life.
At the 2009 Academy Awards, Milk was one of the few films that I As I watched the
Gay Super Bowl Oscars that year, Black’s speech left me in disbelief. Yes this is a ceremony filled with people who are stereotypically liberal leaning in their political beliefs. But seldom are people so blatantly plain in their speeches. Here was a rather handsome man telling me that very soon LGBTQ+ people who have equal federal rights across this nation. And wouldn’t you know it – he was right!
Not having seen the movie, I googled the film and was astounded I had never heard of Harvey Milk, his story, or the film before the Oscars that night. A second google let me know I could pay $2 and watch the film at The Astro Theater in Downtown Clemson, SC. The Astro was Clemson’s version of a dollar theater. It typically showed films that had already been out for a month or so. It did not look like much on the inside, but I loved it for the historic charm it had. I skipped a science lab to go the next night. To this day, I don’t regret that decision.
There were 4 other people in the theater that night. All 4 of those people were part of “the family.” We did not sit together and we did not know each other, but I had seen some of them in passing on campus before. I could effuse compliments about Milk until I am purple in the face so I will not go on and on about how much I love it. I will simply say that film changed my life and I will be forever grateful for the real Harvey Milk’s message of Hope and advocacy that are shown in the film. As the lights came on I tried to wipe the tears off my face. I started to get embarrassed until I saw the other 4 people were doing the exact same thing. Although I never became more than Facebook friends with any of the other 4 people, each time we saw each other in passing on campus, we would always nod and smile at each other. We shared a form of ourselves that evening that we had not shared with many people up until that point. The older I get the more I think certain things in this universe are connected. Call it God, or Karma, or my personal favorite juju. There was a shared connection between us and Harvey Milk that night. And it was life changing.
This was the first film I had ever seen that depicted multiple main characters who were LGBTQ in a positive light. It is the first film I had seen that showed the power of my community when we stood up and advocated for ourselves – when we fought back against the people and politicians who sought to silence us and belittle us. The film goes through much of Milk’s adult life. It shows a closeted Milk living in New York City and keeping his sexuality a secret and follows parts of his life up until his assassination. Milk later moves to San Francisco in the 1970s. San Francisco became a haven for gay men in the 60s and 70s and Milk opened Castro Camera on Castro Street in the city. He lost his first election for the Board of Supervisors, but he quickly became a uniting force in “The Castro” – the area of the city made famous by the Castro Theater and the district with the largest concentration of gay people.
Once San Francisco moved away from at-large districts to area based districts Milk easily won in the heavy LGBT Castro District. Harvey Milk was a bridge builder. He united minority communities of all types and advocated for those groups regularly as part of the Board. He was instrumental in helping the city pass a gay rights ordinance at a time when many other cities were passing ordinances and ballot indicatives which were extremely anti-LGBTQ in nature. Milk was passionate in his belief that only by people in the LGBTQ community coming out and acknowleding their sexuality to their friends and family would opinions on LGBTQ people change for the better. Milk said :
Gay people, we will not win our rights by staying quietly in our closets. … We are coming out to fight the lies, the myths, the distortions. We are coming out to tell the truths about gays, for I am tired of the conspiracy of silence, so I’m going to talk about it. And I want you to talk about it. You must come out.
Sadly Harvey Milk would not live to see his beliefs become reality. He was taken by the bullets of an assassin in his office in city hall. In the video below, you will see US Senator Dianne Feinstein announce the deaths of both Moscone and Milk. If it looks like Feinstein is confused she has good reason to be. She just identified the bodies of both Milk and Moscone to police. As she tried to feel a pulse on Harvey Milk’s neck, she stuck her fingers into the hole left by the bullet that hit Milk in the neck.
White was a disgruntled former member of the board who had resigned, but wanted his seat back. both Moscone and Milk opposed putting White back on the board. White snuck into city hall, shot the mayor in his office before walking to Milk’s office and shooting him 4 times. White was arrested later that day. In response to the shooting, thousands of people from across San Francisco rushed and descended upon the Castro that evening. They marched silently with candles in a spontaneous memorial vigil in honor of Milk. To this day, it remains one of the most beautifully eloquent responses to an act of violence that this world has ever seen.
White was convicted months later of voluntary manslaughter for both killings and was sentenced to just 7 years in prison of which he only served 5. After the lenient sentencing was announced, the outrage in the LGBTQ community led to several nights of rioting throughout San Francisco in what have since become known as The White Night Riots. Harvey Milk’s friend and another icon in the gay community, Cleve Jones, led the way from the Castro towards city hall shouting “Out of the bars and into the streets!” By the time they reached city hall a thousand people were ready to riot. This is the impact that Harvey Milk had on the gay community. For a community that so often felt lost, alone, and vilified by the rest of the world, Harvey Milk was and still is a beacon of hope. The harbinger of hope was and still is a martyr for the movement. That movement is ongoing and we won’t stop until we accomplish what Milk set out to accomplish.
I have always felt a connection to Harvey Milk – but in more ways than just the obvious one. Harvey milk taught at one point and while in California he was one of the driving forces behind the defeat of Proposition 6, which was an initiative on the California ballot that would have banned gays and lesbians from teaching in public schools. I have always believed that the LGBTQ community if far too concerned with their “own” letter in the acronym. As long as the L or the G part got their rights then who cares about the T or the Q? Harvey Milk knew that the only way for us to succeed was to help each other – and that included other oppressed minority groups as well. Lastly, and perhaps the most tragically of the connections, I was born on the tenth anniversary of Milk’s assassination. I find it somehow comforting in a weird way that a day that brings pain and anguish for many, brought happiness and joy to my family (or at least I think it brought them happiness and joy).
Hope will never be silent. As long as people have hope, they will always be capable of rising above the circumstances that life throws at them. Where there is hope, there is the undeniable chance that the human spirit will win out over despair. Over fear. Over anger. Over hate. The story of Harvey Milk was a pivotal turning point in my life. It changed a fundamental part of the person that I am today. The story of Harvey Milk saved Dustin Lance Black’s life, and it will continue to save the lives of countless people – but only if it is told. At the conclusion of his Oscar acceptance speech Black ends by thanking God for giving us Harvey Milk. I thank God for giving us people like Black, and Van Sant, and Penn who were brave enough to fight to have the story of Harvey Milk told. And yes after thanking God for them, I too thank God for Harvey Milk. Happy Birthday, Harvey Milk. Thank you for your sacrifice. And Thank you for the gift of hope.
To learn more about Harvey Milk, go to The Harvey Milk Foundation website. The Milk foundation was founded by Milk’s nephew, Stuart Milk, and his former campaign manager, Anne Kronenberg, and it seeks to continue to strive for Milk’s dream of a better tomorrow – a tomorrow in which there is equality for all and a world without hate.