California’s First Harvey Milk Day Gives Us Hope

Harvey Milk was the first openly gay city official in California, elected by San Francisco citizens as a Supervisor (Councilman) for District 8. Milk ran on a platform of fairness, equality, and justice for all. In 1978, along with Mayor George Moscone, a liberal supporter of gay rights, he was assassinated by Supervisor Dan White. Harvey had received death threats and said:

If a bullet should enter my brain, let that bullet destroy every closet door.

Milk’s death shocked gay and non-gay San Franciscans alike. White’s subsequent trial resulted in a miscarriage of justice with an all-white, mostly Catholic jury that actively excluded gays and ethnic minorities. This jury rendered a verdict of manslaughter, rather than murder, despite clear evidence that White premeditated the cold-blooded murders, including bringing a loaded gun into City Hall. An enormous backlash arose in San Francisco’s gay community, with historic large and sometimes violent street protests. This astonishing lack of basic fairness in the justice system brought about lasting changes in  San Francisco’s political system and in the state of California’s legal system. Shockwaves from both Harvey’s life, death, and failures in the justice system still reverberate through America.

This month, Harvey would have turned 80 years old. Both his life, brutal assassination, and subsequent legend have been portrayed by Randy Shilts’s biography in The Mayor of Castro Street and the movie based on the book, The Times of Harvey Milk, and in Gus Van Sant’s movie, Milk, filmed in San Francisco and written by Dustin Lance Black. California has created a state holiday to honor Harvey Milk, with the first celebration on 22 May 2010. In Harvey’s Castro neighborhood, and throughout California, there are numerous events planned to honor him, including the dedication of a  plaque on the sidewalk outside his camera store.

Milk’s vision was for lesbians, gays, bisexuals, and transgenders to come out into mainstream society and thereby socially progress both civil society and the cause of full liberation and human rights for GLBTs. His murder brought many people out of the closet of shame and denial and out in the open, just like he declared.

Milk fought and died for the rights of gay people to live openly, freely, and in celebration of who we are, and both the vibrant LGBT and larger society rightly are celebrating this courageous man’s legacy.

Harvey Milk

Happy Birthday, Harvey, and thank you for your bravery and vision. We have hope!


2 Responses to California’s First Harvey Milk Day Gives Us Hope

  1. Stephen Dufrechou May 24, 2010 at 11:42 am

    Great article, James! … I was very late in becoming aware of the late-Harvey Milk. Like many others–I’m sure–it was Sean Penn’s brilliant portrayal of him that made me aware of his career and his crucial role in history. I’ve been fascinated by Harvey Milk’s lifework ever since. Thanks for this report.

    • James May 25, 2010 at 7:04 pm

      You are too kind, Stephen, and you are welcome. Harvey’s visibility was one of a handful of highly visible gay human rights leaders from the 1970s. It is an honor to talk with those acquaintances of mine in San Francisco who knew Harvey. State Assemblyman Tom Ammiano, a former teacher and an AWESOME stand up comedian, knew Harvey and spoke during the Milk Day festivities. He said not to consider Milk a saint and that Harvey would have been very bothered by the attempts to portray him as anything other than a dedicated gay activist. So, he was human and worked to liberate gays from the toxic legacy of the closet. There are other Harvey Milks in the gay community and someday non-gays will also embrace these visionary people.

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