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The Forgotten Populist, Harvey Milk (1930 - 1978)

Harvey Bernard Milk was born on May 22, 1930 at Woodmere Hospital in Long Island, New York. His official name, derived from his Lithuanian ancestry, was Glimpy Milch. He graduated from Albany State College in 1951 where he had majored in math and minored in history. Milk entered the Navy shortly after he finished college and advanced to the rank of chief petty officer on the U.S.S. Kittyhawk, only to be dishonorably discharged when his homosexuality was discovered.

His life travels took him to Dallas, Texas and back to New York before he finally ended up in California. Like thousands of other Gay people, Milk migrated to San Francisco in the early 1970's.

Harvey Milk the Organizer
The San Francisco neighborhood and Gay Mecca now simply referred to as "The Castro" was not always a thriving business district. When Milk moved to San Francisco in 1972 it was known as place to find cheap housing, which is why he was drawn there. He opened a camera shop on Castro Street and acted as an advocate for local businesses in dealing with the municipal government. Realizing that the footholds of the San Francisco political establishment were in the merchant organizations in the city's ethnic neighborhood, Milk founded the Castro Valley Association (CVA). Through the CVA, the Gay community became politically organized and gained allies in the labor unions and with some political leaders.

Harvey Milk the "Recruiter"
"My name is Harvey Milk and I'm here to recruit you". This was Milk's standard opening line when he gave a stump speech. After this sarcastic allusion to the notion that homosexuals recruited other people into changing their sexual orientation, he would proceed to recruit support for the populist issues to which he dedicated his life. He fought to secure the place for homosexuals in society as equals, not as people who were just tolerated. He professed the importance of Gay people seeking leadership positions in society and not relying on non-Gay friends of the community to act as the leaders of the movement.

Harvey Milk the Politician
In 1977, Milk became the first openly Gay person to be elected to the Board of Supervisors (City Council) in San Francisco. It was his fourth try at elected office. His election was in stark contrast to the national political scene that was characterized by the movement that was being led by anti-Gay activist Anita Bryant to "Save Our Children". Unfortunately, after years of striving to win an election, he would serve only for eleven months before he was assassinated.

Harvey Milk the Martyr
On November 27, of 1978, Milk was murdered in San Francisco City Hall as was Mayor George Moscone. On that day, former City Supervisor Danny White crawled through a basement window of the building to avoid metal detectors. White had resigned his seat on the Board following the enactment of the Gay Civil Rights bill that he had opposed.

White was convicted of two counts of voluntary manslaughter and sent to prison for seven years and eight months. This stunningly light sentence was granted in response to what is now referred to as the "twinkie defense". White's attorney argued that the defendant could not be held accountable for his actions due to the amount of junk food he had eaten on the day of the crimes. White was paroled after six years in prison and committed suicide shortly thereafter.

The Legacy of Harvey Milk
Although his life was cut short, the impact of Harvey Milk is still being felt. In the year following his death, 100,000 people marched on the nation's capitol in support of Gay civil rights chanting "Harvey Milk Lives". As for the seat on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors that he had worked so hard to win, his openly Gay successor, Harry Britt, was the only incumbent to win in the City election subsequent to the assassinations.

The thought of assassination had haunted Milk during his years in public life. He tape recorded several versions of his political will which he labeled "to be read in the event of my assassination". One of the tapes included the following statement: "If a bullet should enter my brain, let that bullet destroy every closet door."

The Forgotten Populist,
Harvey Milk

Despite the clarity of his populist vision, his piercing assessment of the socio-economic crisis confronting contemporary America, and his eloquent defense of personal liberties, Harvey Milk has been forgotten by the majority of Americans. His is not a household name, invoking only blank stares or the faintest glimmer of recognition. It is tragically ironic that the notorious "twinkie defense" of his assassin is better remembered by Americans than the mercurial Milk himself. Those who do remember Milk remember him only as a "minor" footnote in American history--the first openly homosexual man to be popularly elevated into elective office in the United States. To remember Milk solely for his sexual orientation, however, is not only to misunderstand him, but his concept of gay pride as well. Harvey Milk was one of the most charismatic and pragmatic populists of the past half-century, a man of remarkable organizational talent who never compromised his vision of "a city of neighborhoods" nor sought to hide his homosexuality.

Harvey Milk never intended to enter the political arena until he moved to San Francisco in 1972. Prior to Milk's arrival, San Francisco's burgeoning homosexual population lacked a sense of community, and consequently its political empowerment had been stunted. note 1 The city's homosexual intelligentsia--weary of bearing the brutal brunt of police persecution and public vilification--had organized several "educational" societies--designed to enlighten public opinion on the subject of homosexuality in the early seventies. Since the idea of an openly homosexual running for office in a city which still classified homosexuality as "a crime against nature"--punishable by up to ten years in prison--seemed ludicrous to the homosexual intelligentsia, an integral component of these societies were their political action committees. The homosexual PACs quickly succeeded in drawing sympathetic "liberal friends" from the Democratic party to their convocations, who--in return for their endorsement, promised to shield open homosexuals from officially sanctioned victimization. For the first time in American history, "mainstream" political figures treated their homosexual constituents with dignity and respect, actively courting their support.

The success of homosexual PACs was due in no small part to the fact that, "in this city of fewer than 700,000 people, approximately one out of every five adults and perhaps one out of every three or four voters was gay." note 2 At least half of the total homosexual population--like Milk himself--had moved to San Francisco between 1969 and 1977, bringing with them a bold assertiveness which had been sparked by the Stonewall riots of 1969 in New York City. Milk recognized the parallels between the growing gay enclaves and the traditional ethnic neighborhoods that made up the crazy-quilt fabric of San Francisco. Many of these ethnic enclaves--such as the Irish and Italian sections of the city--had long since turned what had initially been a liability--their insularity--into a source of municipal power. It seemed only logical to Milk that the gay neighborhoods follow suit. If the homosexual vote was significant enough for "respectable" politicians to run the risk of alienating San Francisco's conservative voters by openly courting gay support, Milk reasoned, the homosexuals of San Francisco no longer needed to rely on "friends" for protection, but could rely on themselves.

You see there is a major difference--and it remains a vital difference--between a friend and a gay person, a friend in office and a gay person in office. Gay people have been slandered nationwide... it's not just enough anymore just to have friends represent us, no matter how good that friend may be... A gay official is needed not just for our protection, but to set an example for younger gays that says that the system works. note 3

Milk's goal in asserting gay pride through political empowerment, was not to force mainstream America to accept homosexuality, but to respect the homosexual's right to be homosexual, without governmental interference or hinderance. Milk fought not for the universal acceptance of homosexuality as "an alternate life-style", but for a universal acceptance of homosexuals as human beings, endowed by their creator with the same unalienable rights as their heterosexual counterparts. Whether his audience was sympathetic or hostile, Milk always depicted the struggle for gay rights as "the fight to preserve your democracy." note 4

Like the black civil rights leaders of the fiftiess and sixtiess, whose example Milk exhorted gays nationwide to follow, Milk viewed his struggle to assert the "unalienable Rights" of homosexuals as the penultimate expression of the most cherished of American values: "Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness." These basic American values were systematically denied homosexuals on the grounds of the Judeo-Christian abhorrence of homosexuality. Therefore, reason dictates that individual state and municipal governments had violated the Constitution's separation of church and state, when they codified homosexuality as "a crime against nature"--a naked assertion of a religious proscription over individual liberty.

The issue of sexuality, however, is seldom discussed on a rational plane, especially when the debate revolves around same-sex relations. As a result, hundreds of thousands of Americans were classified as "deviants" who, solely by virtue of their sexuality, were guilty of a felony which--according to the whims of local or state authorities--could lead to their prosecution, often resulting in public humiliation, institutionalization, and/or imprisonment. Such anti-gay statutes, many of which were relics either of the colonial or Victorian eras, were based upon the homophobic myths which form the basis of mainstream America's perception of homosexuality and homosexuals.

The blacks did not win their rights by sitting quietly in the back of the bus. They got off! Gay people, we will not win our rights by staying quietly in our closets... We are coming out! We are coming out to fight the lies, the myths, the distortions! We are coming out to tell the truth about gays! [ellipse extant in text] note 5

Milk firmly believed that the only way for homosexuals to break down homophobia--"the last major dam of prejudice in this country"--was for homosexuals to make themselves visible: to step out of the closet, and into the consciousness of the nation. Whilst the images of the "drag queen" and "butch dyke" are firmly ensconced in the popular imagination, there are no "defining" homosexual traits; most homosexuals--male and female alike--are indistinguishable from heterosexuals. Unless an individual makes the conscious decision to overtly express his or her homosexuality, that individual remains a member of an invisible minority. This invisibility is magnified by the fact that the majority of homosexuals do not live openly in Greenwich Village or the Castro district of San Francisco, but instead live lives of silent suburban exile in a society that--despite the rhetoric of diversity--still dictates conformity. Thus, the majority of American homosexuals remain trapped behind walls of fear--the proverbial "closet"--rendering them utterly invisible to mainstream America. Milk argued that this invisibility only fosters homophobic stereotypes:

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

Milk passionately believed that the "true function of politics is not just to pass laws, but to give hope." note 14 If the problems of the cities are not addressed, he warned, America's cities will plunge headlong into "the real abyss that lies not too far ahead, when a disappointed people lose their hope forever. When that happens, everything we cherish will be lost." note 15 The machine had betrayed the inner-city, selling it out to "carpet-baggers who have fled to the suburbs," leaving behind omnipresent "fire hazards" in every inner city neighboorhood irregardless of ethnicity. Milk viewed American cities as smoldering tinderboxes, which--unless defused, from the inside out--would continue to violently erupt, until the entire urban infrastructure of America was consumed by flames of rage.

In his campaign speeches of 1973-1977, Milk outlined his plans to bridge the deepening divide between the haves and the have-nots which "machines" across the country were creating. The core of Milk's populism was the simple belief that "the American Dream starts with the neighborhoods--if we wish to rebuild our cities, we must first rebuild our neighborhoods." note 16 The city could only be saved by the industry of its residents, Milk maintained, not "governmental charity." Rather than "face the problems it's created," and taking "responsibility for the problems it's ignored," the machine sought to bribe the urban poor with welfare programs. note 17 Instead of empowering the urban poor, these programs had actually trapped them in "concrete jungles," caged within a vicious cycle of dependence. In order to break this dependence, Milk maintained, the neighborhoods must firmly grasp the reigns of power, in order to lead the city "down the route no major city has ever tried:

that is the route that has little room for political payoffs and deals; that is the route that leaves little in the way of power politics; that is the route of making a city an exciting place for all to live: not just an exciting place for a few to live! A place for the individual and individual rights. There is no political gain in this nonmonied route and, thus you do not find people with high political ambitions leading this way. There are no statistics to quote--no miles of highways built to brag about, no statistics of giant buildings built under your administration. What you have instead is a city that breathes, one that is alive, where the people are more important than highways. note 18

By reprioritizing government spending, Milk believed, the neighborhoods could begin the process of rebuilding the city from within, by utilizing the resources which the machine had squandered. Simply by mandating that all city employees must be residents of the city, the neighborhoods would have taken a giant step forward, Milk argued. From a fiscal standpoint, it made no sense to do otherwise, since city employees are paid with the tax revenues the city has raised from its residents. If the employee lives in the city, the money he is paid does not leave the city, but is recycled within the neighborhoods. Furthermore, exclusively employing residents of the city would ensure each distinct neighborhood that its policemen, firemen, ambulance drivers, etc., spoke the same language as it did, shared its values, understood the subtle nuances of its culture, and respected its way of life.

The city could not afford to do otherwise, Milk warned:

Unfortunately for those who would like to flee them, the problems of the cities don't stop at the city limits. There are no moats around our cities that keep the problems in. What happens in New York or San Francisco will eventually happen in San Jose. It's just a matter of time. And like the flu, it usually gets worse the further it travels. Our cities must not be abandoned. They're worth fighting for, not just by those who live in them, but by industry, commerce, unions, everyone. Not alone because they represent the past, but because they also represent the future. Your children will live there and hopefully, so will your grand-children. note 19

"You can't run a city by people who don't live there," Milk warned America, "any more than you can have an effective police force made up of people who don't live there. In either case, what you've got is an occupying army." note 20

Harvey Milk lent the power of his eloquent voice not only to the voiceless invisible minority, but to all minorities, whose voices are often lost in the gale winds of conformity that sweep the American cultural landscape. Milk often said that all he ever sought was "to open up a dialogue that involves all of us." note 21 Tragically, his assassin's bullet not only quelled his voice, but his populist vision as well. The machines ground on and the apocalyptic cycle of inner city despair against which he battled has repeated itself in Homedale and South Central Los Angeles.

Industry and business has made our country the greatest military and economic power in the world. Now I think it's time to look at our future with a realistic eye. I don't think the American Dream necessarily includes two cars in every garage and a disposal in every kitchen. What it does need is an educational system with incentives. To spend twelve years at school--almost a fifth of your life without a job at the other end is meaningless. Every ghetto child has the right to ask: Education for what? note 22

Until his voice is ressussitated, his piercing question will remain unanswered.


1. FitzGerald, Frances. "The Castro, Part I." The New Yorker, June 21, p. 34
2. ibid, p. 34.
3. "The Hope Speech", reprinted in Shilts, Randy. The Mayor of Castro Street. New York: St Martin's Press, 1982, p. 362.
4. "That's What America Is!", reprinted in Shilts, p. 364.
5. "That's What America Is!" reprinted in Shilts, p. 365.
6. "The Hope Speech", reprinted in Shilts, p. 362.
7. quoted in Shilts, pp. 203-204.
8. FitzGerald, pp. 52-53.
9. Shilts, pp. 82-84.
10. quoted in Shilts, p. 134.
11. Shilts, pp. 61-64.
12. "A City of Neighborhoods", reprinted in Shilts, p. 356.
13. "A City of Neighborhoods", reprinted in Shilts, p. 356.
14. quoted in Shilts, p. 190.
15. quoted in Shilts, p. 191.
16. "A Populist Looks at the City", reprinted in Shilts, p. 353.
17. "A Populist Looks at the City", reprinted in Shilts, p. 350.
18. "A Populist Looks at the City", reprinted in Shilts, p. 349-350.
19. "A City of Neighborhoods", reprinted in Shilts, p. 355.
20. "A City of Neighborhoods", reprinted in Shilts, p. 357.
21. "A City of Neighborhoods", reprinted in Shilts, p. 357.
22. "A City of Neighborhoods", reprinted in Shilts, p. 356.

FitzGerald, Frances. "The Castro, Part One." The New Yorker, July 21, 1986. -
FitzGerald, Frances. "The Castro, Part Two." The New Yorker, July 28, 1986. -

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