San Francisco

Harvey Milk's Mixed Legacy

Assessing the pioneering gay politician.


An Archive of Hope: Harvey Milk's Speeches and Writings, edited by Jason Edward Black and Charles E. Morris III, University of California Press, 280 pages, $34.95.

The gay liberation movement burst into the country's consciousness in 1969, when thousands of gays in Manhattan rioted against endemic police harassment following a raid on a gay bar called the Stonewall Inn. Gays and lesbians began coming out of the closet in droves, and the city of choice for thousands of them was San Francisco, home to a large gay subculture since the end of World War II.

In spite of their large numbers, San Francisco's gay population found the city's conservative Catholic mayor, Joseph Alioto, less than hospitable, and the police force was constantly on the attack. By the early '70s, the city's gay community was ready to claim its full legal and political rights alongside other previously disenfranchised minorities.

In 1973, a Jewish businessman and investment banker from Manhattan named Harvey Milk thrust himself into this increasingly volatile mix. His activism eventually led him to be called the Mayor of Castro Street, the Castro being the mostly gay section of the city. In 1977, he became the first openly gay person elected to public office in the country when he won a seat on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. He fell to an assassin's bullet after serving less than a year in office.

An Archive of Hope is an anthology collecting many of Milk's speeches, newspaper columns, and campaign flyers from his relatively short political career, beginning with his first race for city supervisor in 1973, when he was opposed by most of the gay establishment and lost badly, and ending with several pieces written shortly before his murder on November 27, 1978. Although the book's editors, Jason Edward Black and Charles E. Morris III, frequently lapse into politically correct prose, their introduction and explanatory text accompanying each piece provide a useful and interesting history of the political and sexual culture of San Francisco in the 1970s, though the vocal presence of the city's Libertarian Party and its intersection with the gay rights movement is ignored.

His earliest political beliefs were those of a Goldwater Republican, but Milk the politician came out of a fairly typical progressive mold. While gay rights was his signature issue, he staked out a variety of left-liberal positions—pro-union, anti-corporation, pro–civil rights, anti–police brutality—that often put him at odds with the gay political establishment, which was relatively conservative at the time. Labeled as "gradualist" and "accomodationist" by the book's editors, most gay leaders of the day were content to rely on their straight allies in the Democratic Party establishment to advance their agenda rather than turn to a brash, openly gay candidate many considered a carpetbagger.

Milk took every opportunity to differentiate himself from most in the city's gay establishment, at one point telling the New York Times: "I'm a left-winger, a street person….Most gays are politically conservative, you know, banks, insurance, bureaucrats. So their checkbooks are out of the closet, but they're not…all the gay money is still supporting Republicans except on this gayness thing." His less than engaging attitude toward those who disagreed with him no doubt played a part in his early political defeats. But when the city switched from citywide representation to district elections in 1977, Milk finally won a seat, primarily because he won a majority of the gay vote. (He attracted only 30 percent of the total vote, but in a field of 14 candidates that was enough to win.) He served fewer than 11 months before former supervisor Dan White shot him and Mayor George Moscone.

Unfortunately, Milk's sometimes strident and divisive rhetoric against other gay leaders is still with us today, along with many of the same political divisions in the gay community. Milk used to deride his gay opponents as "Aunt Marys," comparing them to the Uncle Toms in the black community. Rep. Barney Frank, the just-retired gay congressman from Massachusetts, for example, repeatedly derided the Log Cabin Republicans, a gay Republican group, as gay Uncle Toms for supporting Mitt Romney's presidential campaign. In fact, a quarter to a third of gay voters routinely vote Republican, a fact that would no doubt rankle Milk if he were alive today.

Perhaps because of their political biases, the editors of Archive of Hope don't get everything right. They discuss at some length Proposition 6 (the so-called Briggs Initiative), a 1978 California ballot measure promoted by an anti-gay right-wing state senator named John Briggs that would have prohibited any gay person from teaching in the state's public schools. As Briggs argued, "If you let one homosexual teacher stay, soon there'll be two, then four, then 8, then 25—and before long, the entire school will be taught by homosexuals."

Harvey Milk, by this time a city supervisor, understandably spent many days campaigning against Prop. 6, debating with Sen. Briggs and exhorting the gay community to become more active in campaigning against it. The editors credit Milk with its defeat: It began with a big lead but lost on election day by a whopping margin of 58 to 42 percent. Yet far more effective in turning conservative and middle-of-the-road voters against the proposal was former governor Ronald Reagan*, who publicly denounced the measure. The anti-Briggs campaign coalition even produced a flyer highlighting Reagan's opposition to the measure, which was certainly more effective with mainstream voters than anything Harvey Milk could have said.

Still, Milk rightfully shares some of the credit for the Proposition 6's defeat, which was widely considered the greatest victory to date for the American gay rights movement. His efforts certainly boosted Milk's reputation.

One can only speculate about whether Milk, had he lived, would have widened his base of support and gone on to higher office. In 1999, more than 20 years after his death, Time magazine named him as one of the 100 most influential figures of the 20th century. Not a bad legacy for a political career that spanned barely five years.

* This article originally identified Ronald Reagan as the governor during the debate over the Briggs Initiative. He was no longer in office at the time.

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  1. Tits!!

    (Thinking about Milk)

    1. my classmate’s sister makes $63/hr on the internet. She has been without work for seven months but last month her payment was $13662 just working on the internet for a few hours. Go to this web site and read more…

      1. I hovered over your link. You know that shit never works, right?

        1. Don’t knock it until you try it. I made $450,000 a couple of years ago doing one of those “work from home” things, but then went back to my old job, because, you know, there’s more to life than money.

  2. Don’t forget to add Tim Cavanaugh’s remarks from a book review last year:

    “But nobody’s involvement with Jim Jones was less excusable than Harvey Milk’s. The gay political icon was a regular congregant at the Peoples Temple even while warning his own staffers about the bizarre cult. The gold-tongued Willie Brown merely praised Jones as “a combination of Martin King, Angela Davis, Albert Einstein [and] Chairman Mao,” but Milk leaned on the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare to forward Social Security checks to the Temple’s “beautiful retirement community in Guyana, the type of which people of means would pay thousands of dollars to patronize.” When a couple of high-level Temple defectors tried to get their 6-year-old son out of Jones’ custody in Guyana, Milk wrote to President Jimmy Carter, urging him not to support the parents and claiming that the child had “loving protective parents in Rev. and Mrs. Jones.” The child ended up among the 909 dead at Jonestown.

    “In 128 minutes of screen time, Gus Van Sant’s Sean Penn vehicle Milk, for which Dustin Lance Black won a Best Screenplay Oscar, finds no room for any of this. But Talbot [in the book *Season of the Witch*] barrels through it with evil glee, and his stubborn support for the New Left revolution sharpens rather than dulls his attack.”…..kest-hours

    1. I didn’t know about that. You’re forgetting the number one rule of liberalism though: If someone does one thing you like, every bad thing he does is irrelevant.

      1. Not just irrelevant, but a candidate for the Memory Hole.

        1. To this day, libs will deny or ignore the fact that Jim Jones was a far left preacher. Scour reports or references to the Guyana massacre, and you simply won’t see it mentioned. It’s relevant because if he was a rightwing preacher, it would get mention, and furthermore, his politics were part of his message, part of what attracted people to his church in the first place.

          It was a message that resonated with the leftist hoi polloi in the San Francisco power structure.

  3. This makes my comment above almost trivial.

    1. Tits are never trivial.

      1. What about moobs?

        1. Gross /= trivial.

  4. “Timemagazine named him as one of the 100 most influential figures of the 20th century.”

    Because he was a gay martyr?

    1. Bart Simpson made the list. So did Eleanor Roosevelt, the Kennedy Family and Bruce Lee.

      All important? Yes. Top 100 most important people of the 20th century? Nope.

      1. “Bart Simpson made the list. So did Eleanor Roosevelt, the Kennedy Family and Bruce Lee.”

        I guess that really says it all. And while I think Bruce Lee is teh awesome, top 100 most important people just doesn’t seem to resinate.

        1. Isn’t that “resignate”???

          1. Actually I meant to type resonate

    2. I guess. I’m not sure why.

    3. He wasn’t even a gay martyr — his assassination had nothing to do with his sexual orientation.

  5. The human animal is, if nothing else, a storytelling one.

    1. Are you saying Jones wasn’t a lefty? Or that Milk wasn’t a follower.

      1. I think it’s just spouting platitudes found inside fortune cookies, desperately hoping to be mistaken for someone with something intelligent to contribute.

        1. I was just trying to say that our personal narratives rarely match reality. People can do great thing and terrible things. That Mr. Milk had some questionable associates says nothing about gay rights.

  6. So, who comes up with all that crazy stuff man? Wow.

    1. Don’t look at me, Jang. I thought you were the one coming up with all this crazy stuff.

  7. Ronald Reagan wasn’t governor in 1978, our current governor sat in that seat.

  8. So Reason is all about group rights?

  9. “A group, as such, has no rights. A man can neither acquire new rights by joining a group nor lose the rights which he does possess. The principle of individual rights is the only moral base of all groups or associations.

    Any group that does not recognize this principle is not an association, but a gang or a mob” – Ayn Rand.

  10. Sounds like a pretty solid plan to me man. WOw.

  11. Milk also attended Jim Jones’ church in San Francisco. He apparently was a consummate politician.

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