Like every other group, we must he judged by our leaders and by those who are themselves gay, those who are visible. For invisible, we remain in limbo--a myth, a person with no parents, no brothers, no sisters, no friends who are straight, no important positions in employment. A tenth of our nation is supposedly composed of stereotypes and would-be seducers of children. But today, the black community is not judged by its friends, but by its black legislators and leaders. And we must give people the chance to judge us by our leaders and legislators. A gay person in office can set a tone, can command respect not only from the larger community, but from the young people in our own community who need both examples and hope. note 6
Milk's entire political career was dedicated to shattering the silence of homosexual America and exposing the homophobic myths of heterosexual America. When he finally gained office--after three competitive but unsuccessful campaigns--Milk quickly transformed his public image, from "a gay politician" to a politician who "just happened" to be gay. By concentrating on implementing an aggressively populist agenda which encompassed the needs of all of San Francisco's minorities, Milk quickly dispelled the false issue of his sexual orientation. His passionate attention to detail and his dedication to improving the quality of life of all San Franciscans greatly widened his base of support. His adept handling of the media allowed him to transform the popular conception of who and what he was--"all over the country, they're reading about me," he told his aides several months after his election to the City Council, "and the story doesn't center on me being gay--it's just about a gay person who's doing his job." note 7
Milk's populism owed much to the unique composition of San Francisco. San Francisco had achieved its status as the largest Pacific seaport in America as a result of the century of successive waves of immigrants that followed the California gold rush. The city which arose from this constant influx was a crazy-quilt of ethnic neighborhoods--cities within the city. The homogeneous nature of each neighborhood's population served to preserve each particular neighborhood's ethnic identity through successive generations. note 8
The characteristic component of San Francisco's most powerful ethnic neighborhoods was the merchants association. These associations were the source of the neighborhood's power, as they were an embodiment of the area's combined economic clout. Milk's first foray into politics had been to organize the homosexual community's businesses into a merchant's association--the Castro Valley Association (CVA)--the gay community's first truly autonomous source of political power. As president of the CVA, Milk organized boycotts and pickets in support of many of the city's largest unions, gaining the gay community valuable and lasting allies. Much to the surprise of the city's professional politicians, Milk easily won the enthusiastic endorsement and material support of both the Teamsters and the Longshoremen's Unions when he first ran for Supervisor in 1973. note 9 Their support for Milk baffled the city's professional politicians who had traditionally relied upon these unions to muster blue collar vote on their behalf. Milk had simply learned the first rule of realpolitik--concrete results quickly eclipse most philosophical/moral qualms.
Harvey Milk was not a professional politician--he was the quintessential populist maverick. He owed no allegiance to any party or platform, leaving him free to follow the dictates of common sense, not dogma. This independence freed him from the compromising intrigues of inter-party politics, as well, allowing him to be ruled by his conscience rather than the accumulated debt traditional politicians owe special interest groups. Milk's populism stemmed from an absolute faith in the Jeffersonian principles of American democracy as outlined in the Declaration of Independence and in the inviolable sanctity of the Constitution.
The sole safeguard of individual rights, Milk fervently believed, is individual participation in the political process. As an open homosexual, Milk knew all to well that whoever holds the reigns of power, dictates the limits of individual liberty. Milk perceived political parties--which he invariably referred to as "machines"--as the most pernicious threat to democracy. "Machines operate on oil and grease; they're dirty, dehumanizing, and too often unresponsive to any needs but those of the operator." note 10 The professional politician, therefore, was the representative not of the people, but of the special interests to which he had mortgaged his campaign.
During the sixties and seventies, a steadily increasing number of San Francisco's industries fled the city, opting to build new plants in the suburbs, rather than overhaul their aging and antiquated inner-city facilities. This urban flight eroded the city's poorer neighborhoods, whose blue collar residents--mostly blacks and hispanics who had relied on the plants for their livelihood--could not afford to follow their jobs to the suburbs. Instead of offering business incentives to remain in San Francisco, the city's civil administration--whose campaign had been heavily backed by developers, construction unions, and real estate concerns--launched an aggressive "urban renewal" campaign, which led to the razing of large segments of San Francisco's poorer ethnic neighborhoods to make room for office complexes and a mass transit system designed to lure tourists and corporate headquarters to the city. note 11
The fruits of the machine's short-sighted "urban renewal" policy, was a shimmering skyline which was invaded daily by hordes of suburban-dwelling white-collar workers. At night, the skyline lay cold and vacant in the moonlight--its serene sterility obliterating the memory of the once vibrant neighborhood upon which it stood. The sterility of the skyline, however, was deceptive. "The scar that's left isn't just the empty office building or the now-vacant lot," Milk warned, "it's the worker who can no longer provide for his family, the teenager who suddenly awakens from the American Dream to find that all the jobs have gone south for the duration." note 12 The city had been mutilated by the machine; its wounds left to fester, as the inner city neighborhoods crumbled, and the crime rate soared. "You see the empty buildings [where businesses used to be], but you don't see the hopelessness, the loss of pride, the anger," warned Milk. note 13