Gay Rights Pioneer Harvey Milk

Harvey MilkIn late November of 1978, I was at a conference in San Francisco for kids who were interested in politics. I don’t remember much about the conference, although it was probably a very good introduction to local politics and the issues that must be faced. Local politics is really interesting because it is so practical. There is very little ideology. In my father’s neighborhood, there was a zoning ordinance that restricted it to single story houses. Well, my father wanted to build onto his house, so he went door to door in the neighborhood and got everyone to sign a petition asking that the zoning ordinance be changed. He then went to a supervisors’ meeting and it was changed. The government exists to help people. This is a fact that is often lost at the national level—especially on the right. This kind of simple problem solving is what I got from the conference, and it may be why I’m a Democrat today.

But all that was dwarfed by the day that Dan White assassinated San Francisco Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk, who was born on this day in 1930. I knew Moscone, because he was a legend in the Bay Area. Milk was on his way to being a legend, and of course, in San Francisco, he already was. He was the first openly gay elected official in California. It was a big deal. People don’t understand just how terrible life was for gays in the state at that time. In the 1960s, oral sex was still illegal. In 1970 alone, 90 people were arrested for this “crime.” What’s more, Mayor Alioto really went after the gay community, pressuring the police for raids on gay bars, which eventually pushed the gay community to meet in parks. Here’s an amazing statistic: in 1971, 63 people were arrested in New York City for public sex; 2,800 were arrested in San Francisco.

There’s no doubt that Milk was kind of an interloper. He had not really been involved in the politics of the gay community and so a lot of the old timers resented him. But he had a lot of energy, was an excellent speaker, had a great ability to build coalitions. Wikipedia describes a good example of how he worked, “The Teamsters wanted to strike against beer distributors—Coors in particular—who refused to sign the union contract. An organizer asked Milk for assistance with gay bars; in return, Milk asked the union to hire more gay drivers. A few days later, Milk canvassed the gay bars in and surrounding the Castro District, urging them to refuse to sell the beer. With the help of a coalition of Arab and Chinese grocers the Teamsters had also recruited, the boycott was successful.”

But Milk was only able to become a supervisor because of a change in the way that they were elected. They had been city wide, meaning whoever had the most money tended to win. And it certainly limited the appeal of those representing minority groups. But when elections were changed to city districts, Milk won election, representing the Castro. He served for just over ten months. There were various reasons that White murdered Milk and Moscone. In particular, Milk and White did not like each other. White was a Catholic, but he wasn’t virulently anti-gay. The truth was that Milk was a much better politician than White. And let’s not forget: White was unstable. After serving five years of his ridiculously lax seven year sentence for two murders, White killed himself. He was a deeply troubled man and really ought to stand as a symbol for mental health problems and our very poor tools for dealing with it.

Meanwhile, Harvey Milk is a great symbol of gay empowerment. Part of his legacy is what has brought us to our much more liberal climate for gay rights today: he urged all gay people to go public. And that is, in the end, the greatest weapon that the gay rights movement has had. It is hard to hate gays when you sons and daughters and friends and coworkers and church members are gay. Hatred is just a special kind of ignorance.

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About Frank Moraes

Frank Moraes is a freelance writer and editor online and in print. He is educated as a scientist with a PhD in Atmospheric Physics. He has worked in climate science, remote sensing, throughout the computer industry, and as a college physics instructor. Find out more at About Frank Moraes.

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