“It takes no compromising to give people their rights. It takes no money to respect the individual. It takes no survey to remove repressions.” Harvey Milk, born on this date in 1930.
Known as the Mayor of Castro Street, Harvey Milk finally succeeded in becoming California’s first (and the nation’s fourth) openly gay non-incumbent candidate to win a political office for two reasons: he refused to hide who he was; and he made it his mission to build alliances with groups that other gay activists thought were impossible to reach. So to those who knew Harvey well weren’t surprised when his 1977 as San Francisco City Supervisor that he was good terms with conservative supervisor Dan White. White, a former cop, was supported by the city’s police union whose leaders were angry over city policies which they considered to be soft on crime and homosexuals. The local media ate it up as the two made joint appearances on local talk shows where they both talked warmly of each other. Harvey began to privately telling friends that he thought White was “educatable,” and that the two might actually be able to work together.
Milk’s short political career changed the face of LGBT politics. Milk served almost 11 months in office and was responsible for passing a stringent gay rights ordinance for the city. During the 1978 campaign against the Briggs Amendment which would have required the firing of gay teachers and any school employee who supported gay rights, Milk insisted on aggressively confronting the anti-gay campaign by raising the visibility of the gay community. The campaign against the Briggs Amendment was also a campaign against the closet. He told a crowd during San Franscisco’s Gay Pride that year:
“On this anniversary of Stonewall, I ask my gay sisters and brothers to make the commitment to fight. 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. Come out to your parents, your relatives.”
Milk wound up voting against White’s proposal to bar a psychiatric treatment center from opening in White’s district. White retaliated by voting against Milk’s gay rights bill (it passed anyway), and for the next several months, White would not speak to Milk or his aides. Other supervisors noticed that White stopped spending as much time at his office in City Hall, and he was sullen during the weekly board meetings. White abruptly resigned on November 10, 1978. When he had a change of heart a few days later, Mayor George Moscone refused to commit to re-appointing him to the board. On November 27, 1978, White snuck into City Hall and confronted Moscone in his office, and shot him twice in the abdomen, then twice more in the head. He then walked down the hall to Milk’s office. After arguing with Milk, White shot him three times in the chest, once in the back and twice in the head.
In 2009, President Barack Obama awarded Harvey Milk with a posthumous Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian medal.
Today would be Milk’s 83rd birthday, and in observance of Harvey Milk Day, there are several events taking place this week throughout the country. In Washinton, the White House will honor ten “LGBT state and local elected and appointed officials who have demonstrated a strong commitment to both equality and public service” as “Harvey Milk Champions of Change.”
In California, Harvey Milk Day is recognized by the state’s government as a day of special significance for public schools. The day was established by Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger in following the success of the award-winning feature film Milk retracing Milk’s life.
If you’re unfamiliar with the life and work of Harvey Milk, we urge you to take some time and get to know this remarkable man. Why? Because much of what he said and predictions he made back in 1978 are coming to fruition today. Which is what makes this ironic quote from Milk so powerful: “If a bullet should enter my brain, let that bullet destroy every closet door.”
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