LGBTQ icons'When evil descends, you must fight until your dying breath'

How ‘tikkun olam’ inspired world’s first openly gay politician Harvey Milk

Historian and author Lillian Faderman’s new biography offers a glance at the man behind the martyr who fought and died for LGBT rights in the US

Harvey Milk before a meeting of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors in 1978. (Courtesy of Harvey Milk-Scott Smith Collection, San Francisco Public Library)
Harvey Milk before a meeting of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors in 1978. (Courtesy of Harvey Milk-Scott Smith Collection, San Francisco Public Library)

On November 18, 1977, Harvey Milk distributed a secret tape recording to a select network of close friends. “To be played only in the event of my death by assassination,” the audio began, concluding: “If a bullet should enter my brain, let that bullet destroy every closet door.”

Milk made the recordings shortly after becoming the first openly gay man to be elected to public office anywhere when he won a seat on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors.

Just one year later he was murdered by Dan White, a fellow supervisor on San Francisco’s governing body. White killed Milk because, he claimed, the city was being turned into Sodom by men who insisted on flaunting their homosexuality in public.

As historian and scholar of the LGBT movement Lillian Faderman explains in a telephone call from her home in California, Milk’s murder immortalized him forever, igniting a nationwide call to action from the LGBT community to demand equality, free from prejudice.

“What Harvey Milk will be remembered for is not just fighting for the rights of gay men, but for the rights of all minority groups who were discriminated against,” Faderman tells The Times of Israel. “He also kick-started a worldwide movement for gay people to come out [of the closet].”

Faderman has recently published “Harvey Milk,” a biography that is part of Yale University’s Jewish Lives series. Her book claims Milk’s Jewish identity played a vital role in shaping his political convictions.

“Harvey’s Jewish background was very important for him,” says Faderman. “He was in no way a religious Jew, and was brought up in a very secular environment. But he learned from his mother the term “tikkun olam,” the Jewish obligation to help repair the world.”

Harvey Milk, right, aged three, with his brother Robert, in 1933. (Courtesy of Harvey Milk-Scott Smith Collection, San Francisco Public Library)

“This notion was ingrained in him from a very early age,” Faderman says.

Faderman hints throughout the book that the circumstances of Milk’s personal life meant he never felt entirely comfortable in one firmly-rooted set of political ideals. This was essentially because he was living a double life.

Born in 1930 into a Conservative Jewish family in Long Island, New York, Milk never came out to either of his parents. Both died knowing nothing of his sexual identity.

“I think his mother probably knew Harvey was gay, but nothing was ever spoken between them. Harvey’s father was a super macho guy, and so to deceive his father Harvey became a jock, playing every single sport in high school and in college,” says Faderman.

The fact that both Harvey’s parents died without ever knowing his true identity was something Milk always deeply regretted, Faderman stresses.

“Harvey understood that not telling his parents he was gay alienated him from his family,” she says.

Faderman recalls how Milk used to write columns for the San Francisco gay newspapers. In one article he talked about how he discovered he was gay at 14. “Home was never home to me again,” he wrote.

“That was a real tragedy that he couldn’t come out to his own family,” says Faderman. “That’s why ‘coming out’ was such a huge part of Harvey’s message to the gay community, especially for young men. Because he understood what it cost him in his own personal life.”

As both a Jew and homosexual, Faderman believes Milk always saw himself as doubly an outsider, who had to fight for social acceptance. And he often used analogies in his descriptions of how homosexuals were being treated to that of Jews being slaughtered in Nazi Germany.

In college Harvey Milk played football, soccer, volleyball, and basketball; and he competed in wrestling and track. (Courtesy of Harvey Milk-Scott Smith Collection, San Francisco Public Library)

Indeed,the Holocaust remained a pertinent metaphor in Milk’s speeches and editorials. Drawing lessons from European history, Milk claimed that calling any minority group pariahs, criminals, and demons would naturally only end in catastrophe.

Faderman claims the fall of the Warsaw Ghetto in 1943 — which happened just six days before Milk’s bar mitzvah — always remained a significant historical event in Milk’s mind, shaping his political conscious from a very early age.

“Harvey always remembered that the adults around him who were discussing [the Warsaw Ghetto] said that of course the people fighting knew that there was no way that they would win, but that sometimes when evil descends on you, you have to fight back til your dying breath,” says Faderman.

“That kind of heroism impressed him and he kept it with him his whole life, whether he was writing columns for gay newspapers, or running for political office,” she says.

Rally for gay rights

At the last Gay Freedom Day rally he attended before his death, Milk proposed that gays across America should gather in the US capital the following year. The dream became a reality. On October 14, 1979, the first March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights had 100,000 people in attendance.

Lillian Faderman, historian and author of ‘Harvey Milk.’ (Donn R. Nottage)

As Faderman notes, support for the LGBT movement grew over time, thanks to Milk. The second March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights in 1987 drew 600,000 people; the third in 1993 attracted close to a million.

As of 2016, 43 states across the US have elected at least one LGBT person to their state legislature, and all 50 have had openly LGBT politicians elected to public office in some capacity. This historic progressive change continued to spread further afield.

“For many years there had been talk about a walk on Washington for lesbian and gay rights — like Martin Luther King’s 1963 march — but nobody did anything,” Faderman says.

“Harvey actually made a public call [in 1978] saying that on July 4, 1979, there should be a march. A week later he was assassinated,” she says.

“Those marches wouldn’t have come about unless the first one was finally done, under Harvey’s name,” Faderman points out. “That was absolutely crucial in making the world aware that there was a gay rights movement.”

From flesh-and-blood man, to martyr

A hopeful, moving, and uplifting read, Faderman’s book tells the story of a man who didn’t fit the typical criteria for a progressive political martyr — primarily because Milk lacked consistency in his political allegiances. He could play the liberal pot-smoking hippie, just as he could champion right wing conservatism when it suited him.

Milk lived much of his life in a peripatetic manner, oscillating between New York, Dallas, and California. He took jobs in teaching, acting, on Wall Street and in the Navy, too, where he briefly served in Korea. But it was in the Castro area of San Francisco where Milk finally laid down roots and began to interact with a burgeoning gay community.

Harvey Milk in a 1976 photo-op with soon to be president Jimmy Carter, who did not know Milk was gay — though Carter’s disapproving staff did. (Courtesy of Harvey Milk-Scott Smith Collection, San Francisco Public Library)

Then in his 40s, Milk, along with his partner Scott Smith, opened Castro Camera — a gay camera photo development shop which also served as a political constituency office, as well as a popular neighborhood gay hangout.

Since the Stonewall Riots in New York’s Greenwich Village in 1969, a large proportion of the gay community across America had become synonymous with radical politics, seeking to overthrow existing social institutions. Milk, however, was no committed leftist. He simply sought for gay people to be accepted into mainstream society as it presently stood.

Faderman continually stresses that Milk was often shunned by certain sections of the gay community in his own lifetime.

“There have always been huge divisions in the gay community in the United States. And Harvey was sort of in the middle. That appealed to many [centrist] voters, that he was neither extremely liberal and radical, or conservative either,” Faderman says.

Faderman is keen to show that Milk was no saint either, and that even martyrs have their flaws. Shortly before his death, the US Attorney General authorized the FBI to look into allegations that Milk had tried to divert funds from the Pride Foundation into his own pocket.

Faderman also draws attention in her book to how Milk’s love life was mired in anguish, abandonment, heartache, and tragedy. One of his long-time partners, Jack Lira, hanged himself in 1977, leaving Milk a rather nasty suicide note.

‘Harvey Milk’ by Lillian Faderman. (Donn R. Nottage)

“Harvey had a very difficult relationship with his father,” Faderman says, “And so he was involved with a number of much younger men, and always trying to play the father figure. And yet, he couldn’t keep it up indefinitely.”

Faderman claims Scott Smith really was the love of Milk’s life. But then political ambition took over for Milk and the relationship consequently fell apart.

“Scott felt that was not what he signed up for. And finally after five years he left Harvey,” says Faderman.

“With Jack Lira, it was the same pattern,” Faderman continues. “I found such beautiful letters that he wrote to Jack at the beginning. He wanted that relationship with Jack to work. But not as much as he wanted to serve the city as a member on the Board of Supervisors.”

“And so Jack, who was very unstable to begin with, got angrier and more and more unstable, and felt neglected and furious,” Faderman adds. “Sadly, he eventually committed suicide.”

Faderman’s narrative mixes the personal and the political with great skill, subtly displaying how at a fundamental level, fighting for collective political rights is really just a human yearning for personal happiness, which usually has its roots in compassion.

Gays are people, too

Above all, Milk wanted to show that gay people could be just as competent in any job as straight people were, especially when it came to public life. That might appear anachronistic now, but in the 1970s this was a radical idea, the historian points out.

“Harvey wanted to show that a gay person could be elected to a significant public office and do a good job of it,” says Faderman.

The historian and scholar says that Milk always knew his life was in danger as soon as he got elected to public office in November 1977.

Harvey Milk working on Wall Street, circa 1964. (Courtesy of Harvey Milk-Scott Smith Collection, San Francisco Public Library)

“Harvey made a political will, in which he talked about in the event of him being assassinated,” Faderman says. “He knew there was target on his back because he was the most prominent gay [person] in the United States at the time.”

The death threats were as revolting as they were outrageous, Faderman says.

“There was one death threat that talked about how they would chop Harvey to pieces, dismember his genitals, and throw him into the San Fransisco Bay,” she says.

“These notes would always begin with disgusting phrases like ‘You faggot,’ or ‘Hello, Ms. Milk,’” Faderman adds. “So Harvey knew that he had put himself in a dangerous position.”

Faderman points to the groundbreaking campaigns that Milk helped fight before he died. This included the gay rights ordinance bill in March 1978, which protected homosexuals from discrimination in employment, housing and public accommodations based on sexual orientation.

Harvey Milk before a meeting of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors in 1978. (Courtesy of Harvey Milk-Scott Smith Collection, San Francisco Public Library)

Milk was also a leading figure in helping to quash police brutality against homosexuals across America.

“The police in the United States during this time had just taken it for granted that they could come in to gay bars and beat men up,” says Faderman.

“Milk encouraged gay men to sue the police department for discrimination, which they did. This resulted in the police department in San Fransisco agreeing to have proper training to ensure that they would be less brutal to the gay community,” she says.

“Harvey was also able to form a board that helped to educate and sensitize the police about the gay community in San Fransisco,” Faderman says.

Faderman claims Milk’s love of the limelight also played a huge role in his enthusiasm for political activism. But his global fame would mostly arrive posthumously.

In 1999 Time Magazine had a list of the 100 most influential people of the 20th century. Harvey Milk was the only openly gay person on that list, in a section called “Heroes and Icons” which also included figures such as Anne Frank, Che Guevara, and Mother Teresa.

Other posthumous accolades include president Barack Obama in 2009 giving Milk the medal of freedom, the highest honor that a non-military person can receive in America. Five years later a stamp with Milk’s image on it appeared in the United States, while two years ago it was announced that a US Navy ship is set to be named after the gay icon.

But Faderman stresses that Milk wasn’t just fighting for gay people throughout his career as an activist and politician.

“Harvey helped senior citizens, others with rent control, and also made coalitions with ethnic minorities,” she says.

“Harvey’s memory really has shone brightly, “ Faderman concludes. “And his legacy has really made a different worldwide.”

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