These Are Our Gods: Harvey Bernard Milk

These Are Our Gods:…”. A series of influential people who’ve had an impact on (Sub)Culture.

This edition of “These Are Our Gods:…” highlights assassinated San Francisco supervisor and GLBT cultural icon Harvey Milk. Milk was very influential in the legitimization of gay rights and San Francisco’s gay community. I have to admit, I have trouble agreeing with some aspects of homosexuality but after watching the film Milk, I came away with a new understanding for their struggle. I not only sympathized but empathized with their search for respect, justice & equality.

Thier struggle is no different from that of African Americans, Latino Americans, Jews or the lower/middle class members of society.

Milk was born in Woodmere, New York on Long Island on May 22, 1930. He was the younger son of Lithuanian Jewish parents. “As a child, Harvey was teased for his protruding ears, big nose, and oversized feet, and tended to grab attention as a class clown.”

As a teen he acknowledged his homosexuality but of course kept it secret. High school and college friends never suspected that he was gay. They described him as a “man’s man”. Which goes to show that not all gay men are sassy and flamboyant.

After graduating from the State University of New York at Albany, Milk joined the United States Navy during the Korean War. “He served aboard the submarine rescue ship USS Kittiwake (ASR-13) as a diving officer.”

He later moved to New York City and then briefly moved to Dallas, Texas before returning to the city. It was here that he met and courted gay activist Craig Rodwell. This was Milk’s first intimate encounter with gay activism. Unfortunately Rodwell’s habit of agitating the police turned Milk off to their relationship.

However, it was not as if Milk didn’t have a political bone in his body. Now living in San Francisco, Harvey would undergo a series of life altering changes. Human beings are more likely to rectify a dilemma when it affects.   them directly. The case was no different with Milk. “In 1970, increasingly frustrated with the political climate after the U.S. invasion of Cambodia, Milk let his hair grow long.” When told to cut it, he refused and was fired from his place of work.

Rodwell had indeed rubbed of on Milk. Friends recall Milk kicking in the television during a speech that was being given by Attorney General John N. Mitchell. The political climate was changing and the wrongful persecution of homosexuals emerged as one of politics most volatile issues. Harvey had become fed up and knew that there was work to be done:

“I finally reached the point where I knew I had to become involved or shut up.” – Harvey Bernard Milk

Milk knew it was time to for action; he decided to vye for the seat of city supervisor. Which is a decision that I admire greatly because few of us possess the will to put up when it’s time to shut up. We all judge, we all critique, murmur, curl our lips and  twist up our faces but we never do anything about it. Milk inspires all of us to get involve.

Although Milk made the poignant choice to get his hands dirty it wasn’t easy. Ironically, Milk’s first encounter with opposition came in the form of his own peers. “Jim Foster, who had by then been active in gay politics for ten years, resented the newcomer’s asking for his endorsement for a position as prestigious as city supervisor.” Foster, who headed the Alice Club (one San Francisco’s gay activism organizations), snidely told Milk:

“There’s an old saying in the Democratic Party. You don’t get to dance unless you put up the chairs. I’ve never seen you put up the chairs.”

This infuriated Milk but it did not discourage him. Most bar owners in the area, facing frequent harassment by the police, have grown impatient with the Alice Club’s latent approach to squelching the abuse by law enforcement and decided to endorse Milk.

In his first attempt for public office, “he supported the reorganization of supervisor elections from a city-wide ballot to district ballots, which was intended to reduce the influence of money and give neighborhoods more control over their representatives in city government.” He believed in a government for the people by the people. He also supported the legalization of marijuana.

Unfortunately Milk wasn’t elected in his first bid for public office so he decided to adopt a “cleaner” image, he cut his hair and stopped smoking marijuana. This shows that Harvey was willing sacrifice a few battles in order to win the war. Despite numerous campaign failures Milk has forged some powerful alliances and garnered a reputation as “The Mayor of Castro Street”.

Those sacrifices and alliances eventually paid off and Milk was elected to a seat on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors in what would have been his last election. By now Milk had began to receive intense death threats and similar to many great civil rights activist before him, he feared for his life. “Concerned that his raised profile marked him as a target for assassination, he recorded on tape his thoughts, and whom he wanted to succeed him if he were killed.”

Finally Milk had realized a dream. Now in a position of power, homosexuals had a voice in their government. They were no longer subjected to “harassation” without representation. Harvey was one of them, he knew their struggle and felt their pain; and each one of us who’ve endured oppression should seek to do the same. He was willing to fight for them, even if it should cost him his life.

“The Castro District was not the only neighborhood to promote someone new to city politics. Sworn in with Milk were also a single mother (Carol Ruth Silver), a Chinese American (Gordon Lau), and an African American woman (Ella Hill Hutch)—all firsts for the city. Daniel White, a former police officer and firefighter, was also a first-time supervisor, and he spoke of how proud he was that his grandmother was able to see him sworn in.”

Once in office Milk made his presence felt. He also sponsored and helped passed a civil rights bill that prohibited companies and employers from discriminated against an individual based on his or her sexual orientation.

“The biggest targets of Milk’s ire were large corporations and real estate developers. He fumed when a parking garage was slated to take the place of homes near the downtown area, and tried to pass a commuter tax so office workers who lived outside the city and drove into work would have to pay for city services they used.”

Harvey didn’t just represent the gays. He presented the middle and lower class who were victims of careless greed and prejudice. He represented us all.

“In one controversy early in his term, Milk agreed with fellow Supervisor Dan White, whose district was located two miles south of the Castro, that a mental health facility for troubled adolescents should not be placed there. After Milk learned more about the facility, he decided to switch his vote, ensuring White’s loss on the issue—a particularly poignant cause that White championed while campaigning. White did not forget it. He opposed every initiative and issue Milk supported.”

Milk had made an enemy. White had a vendetta, he also seemed to have a hard time as supervisor. He was out of touch; a white knight of the old regime. He represent citizens who seemed unaccepting of and uneasy about the changing of the times. A supervisor’s annual salary of $9,600 didn’t help either; White complained that his family was struggling and resigned from his position.

He requested to be reinstated a few days afterward to which Mayor Moscone initially agreed but fellows supervisors, including Milk, expressed that “someone more in line with the growing ethnic diversity of White’s district and the liberal leanings of the Board of Supervisors.” Mayor Moscone had also came to this conclusion after further consideration of White’s reinstatement.

This enraged Dan White.

On November 27th, 1978 Dan White avoided City Hall’s metal detectors by slipping through one of its basement windows. He headed straight for Mayor Moscone’s office where the two engaged in a shouting match just before White brandished his police-issue revolver. Witness are said to have heard loud arguing and then gunshots. “White shot the mayor in the shoulder and chest, then twice in the head after Moscone had fallen on the floor”

He quickly walked into the direction of his former office and on his way he intercepted Milk. He asked Milk to step inside for moment. Dianne Feinstein rushed into the office to find Milk lying face down. He had been shot five times, two of the gunshot wounds were in Milk’s head.

White turned himself in the same day. While being held in his cell, he and other officers told Harvey Milk jokes. A few days after the murder, policemen wore “Free Dan White” t-shirts. A undersheriff for San Francisco later stated:

“The more I observed what went on at the jail, the more I began to stop seeing what Dan White did as the act of an individual and began to see it as a political act in a political movement.”

Gay and minorities were excluded from the jury pool. Instead, the jury consisted of mainly white Catholics. The trial spawned the infamous “Twinkie defense” in which White’s attorney claimed that “White’s mental deterioration was demonstrated and exacerbated by his junk food binge the night before the murders, since he was usually known to have been health-food conscious.”

“White was sentenced to serve seven and two-thirds years. With the sentence reduced for time served and good behavior, he would be released in five.” The law is blind but those who enforce it are more than capable of poor sight. White had gotten away with murder.

On October 21, 1985, a year and a half after his release from prison, White was found dead in a running car in his ex-wife’s garage… Maybe even White had realized and regretted what he had done.

The death of Harvey Milk devastated the gay community. Their hero was taken from them. Their savior was struck down before his deed was done. If Harvey had lived, the provocative issue of gay marriage would be a mole hill compared to the mountain of civil issues this country has to overcome.

Harvey has taught the true meaning of empathy and understanding; the true meaning of identifying with another human being’s struggle. He taught me that it’s never too late to make a difference. It’s not about skin color, gender, sexual orientation or creed. It’s about freedom, tolerance, fellowship and equality. We are all brothers and sisters in struggle.