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Harvey Milk: Spilt Milk

Published: 11/27/2011


33 years after Harvey Milk's death, his fight for gay rights is still topical. In November 2008, Jeff Weinstein reflected on Milk's legacy. Originally published on

It was almost midnight, and in the middle of cordoned-off Hollywood Boulevard, a few hundred men and women held hand-painted signs that read: “No More Mr. Nice Gay,” “Why Do You Get More Rights Than Me?” and “Gay Is the New Black.” When they spied two much larger groups marching to join them, a cheer went up, and the noisy little crowd soon became a formidable demonstration. Squads of Los Angeles police officers with grim faces stood shoulder to shoulder as knots of tourists, bathed in Tinseltown’s billboard glow, strolled and watched.

That was about two weeks ago, a few days after the election. The half-dozen visiting journalists with me (none of us on assignment) decided to edge around the cops and join the demonstrators, who were furious that California’s Proposition 8 had passed. Prop 8 rescinded the court’s recent affirmation that same-sex partners may wed, leaving the 18,000 or so couples who had tied the knot during the few months their marriage was allowed -- and their children -- in legal and emotional limbo. Waiting decades for rights you know should be yours is hard enough, one of the older demonstrators told me, but seeing them taken away in one day was a sharp slap in the face.

And then we heard a shout: “Where’s Harvey Milk, now that we need him?”

Harvey Milk (Wikimedia Commons/Daniel Nicoletta)

Harvey Milk (Wikimedia Commons/Daniel Nicoletta)



Born on May 22, 1930, in Woodmere, Long Island, Harvey Bernard Milk, a proudly out member of San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors and the first openly gay person elected to public office in California, was shot to death on Nov. 27, 1978, by fellow supervisor Dan White. On that day, White first killed Mayor George Moscone, then put five bullets into Milk.

The moment he began to campaign for public office Milk knew he was at risk and so had tape-recorded an “If I am assassinated” set of instructions. Do gay-friendly readers weaned on Will & Grace think he was a bit paranoid? “Paranoia is heightened awareness,” reads a counterculture button from that feisty time -- and sadly enough, Milk was right on the money.

You may recall the story of the assassin’s “Twinkie defense” (junk food impaired his judgment); White’s insultingly light sentence (seven years) and the resulting gay riots at City Hall; and his 1985 suicide after he was released from prison. But Harvey Milk’s significance as a symbolic or even iconic personality, in which deeply unpopular gay activism merged with populist progressive politics, is poised to be recognized in a much wider way with the release of Milk, a straightforward wet-hankie biopic directed by the chameleonic and assertively gay Gus Van Sant. The attention-loving, self-dramatizing hero is brilliantly underplayed by an equally shape-shifting Sean Penn. Where is Milk, now that we need him? At a theater near you.

Milk is not the first effort to bring this story to the screen. The Times of Harvey Milk, which won the 1985 Academy Award for best documentary feature, tells almost the exact same tale about as effectively with narration, interviews, and news footage. These and the biography The Mayor of Castro Street by reporter Randy Shilts give us a palpable sense of the charismatic Milk, who owned a camera store in San Francisco’s Castro District and preened and mugged whenever he saw a lens pointed at him. Friends and allies who loved Milk also called him vain and tending toward tantrums.

Milk’s life has resonance and pertinence for two reasons. First, he knew how to knit together small and politically frail groups -- the elderly, disabled, Asian Americans, blacks -- by appealing to common needs. And he was out, out, out. In such dangerous honesty, he believed, lies great strength: “If a bullet should enter my brain, let that bullet destroy every closet door.”

His happiest victory was in shepherding the passage of a San Francisco gay rights bill; among city supervisors, only Dan White voted against it. The test of Milk’s mettle, however, was 1978’s Proposition 6, the so-called Briggs Initiative, which would have banned gay men and lesbians, as well as those who supported gay rights, from teaching in state public schools. Milk used his intelligence and rhetorical flourish to challenge state legislator John Briggs directly (“If teachers were such a big influence then, no offense intended, but there would be a lot more nuns in the world"). He helped to mobilize a national network of support, because the initiative -- a local manifestation of the coast-to-coast campaign of hatred waged by singer Anita Bryant -- was properly perceived as a watershed for any kind of gay progress.






Too bad that Milk the movie illustrates grassroots networking with a typical Van Sant use of multiplying split-screens, reminding this giggling viewer and others of the “Telephone Song” in Bye Bye Birdie. In fact, both Milk films risk inaccuracy by downplaying the bottom-up, multi-voiced nature of ’60s and ’70s activist politics -- which is probably necessary if you’re going to emphasize a movement hero who straddles outsider and insider affiliation with aplomb.

Briggs himself minced no words, calling gay men and lesbians “moral garbage bags of the nation.” Milk, smiling, shook Briggs’ reluctant hand: in front of a news camera, to get coverage and make his point. Toward the end of the Briggs campaign, President Jimmy Carter and even former California Gov. Ronald Reagan rejected the initiative, and with the work Milk spurred across the state, especially in L.A., Briggs went down.

Thirty years later, a gay teacher may marry a lesbian teacher in California, but both are forbidden to go to City Hall and wed the one they love.

Although same-sex marriage is not every gay-supporter’s preferred issue, the success of Proposition 8 is a classic wake-up call. Is a new Harvey Milk necessary to provide a political focus for energy, inspiration?

At the Hollywood demonstration, a smart, patriotic citizen of another country asked me if I thought these demonstrations were legal, were right, considering that a vote had been taken.

Legal? U.S. citizens have the right and the responsibility to object to laws we reject. I reminded him of India’s history, of our own Civil War. If all civil rights were subject to referenda, I asked him, how many states would choose again to sit this one or that one at the back of the bus? Not until 1967 did the U.S. Supreme Court establish the right of blacks and whites to marry; a Virginia judge had ruled not long before that that whites, yellows, reds, and blacks came from different continents and should stay that way.

Harvey Milk was an optimist. He believed that equality was inevitable, and all he wanted to do was “turn the pages of history a little faster.” That’s why his life was crucial, and why I, for one, will never hesitate to join my droll and boisterous compadres in the streets.



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