Tuesday, January 9, 2018
January 9, 2018: Gay Rights Histories: Harvey Milk
[On January 9th, 1978 Harvey Milk was inaugurated to a seat on San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors, making him one of America’s first openly gay elected officials. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy Milk and other historical moments and events in the early history of the Gay Rights Movement, leading up to a weekend post on an impressive visual exhibit on the movement at Fitchburg State University.]
On a key detail that complicates the story of a gay rights leader’s tragic murder, and how the overarching history holds in any case.
In November 1977, Harvey Milk, running his third campaign for public office in San Francisco, was elected to a seat as City Supervisor, becoming the first openly gay elected official in California history (and one of the first in American history as well). Milk’s rise paralleled in many ways the emergence of a vibrant and vocal gay and bisexual community in San Francisco’s Castro Street district (an area that came to be known as The Castro), and so as so often this individual leader’s story also helps us understand collective and communal histories and experiences. Yet at the same time, we can’t and shouldn’t discount the impressive individual ambition and courage it took for Milk to run for elected office as an openly gay man in the 1970s. That compelling individual story, along with a charismatic personality and a strong voice, are what made Milk such an iconic figure, and why cultural texts such as Gus Van Sant’s 2008 film Milk (starring Sean Penn) continue to engage with this unique and important American figure and story.
That story ended tragically only 10 months after Milk’s inauguration (30 years ago today) to the Board of Supervisors, with his November 1978 murder by former city supervisor Dan White. Given Milk’s iconic and ground-breaking identity, it would be quite easy, if not inevitable, to imagine that Milk was assassinated due to his identity as a gay man—and indeed, that had always been my assumption about the murder and its motivations. But in looking into Milk for this post, I learned that (at least as far as I can tell, and as always corrections or additions in comments are very welcome!) the murder was something quite different: White had stepped aside from the Board in order to pursue opportunities in business, and when they failed and he attempted to return to the Board, he was denied the ability to do so (on procedural grounds) by Mayor George Moscone; White then snuck a gun into City Hall and killed first Moscone and then Milk, whom he apparently saw as having collaborated with Moscone to keep him off the Board (and maintain a slim progressive majority in the process). Which is to say, the Moscone and Milk assassinations seem to be best explained by a combination of a disgruntled former coworker and political conflicts, none of which lessen the tragedy or horror but both of which are distinct from Milk’s sexual identity and iconic status.
If that is indeed the case with Milk’s murder (and again, please offer any additional or alternative perspectives in comments, since I’m still learning about this topic as I always am here), then it’s important that we remember those details, so as not to misrepresent what took place in this particular historical moment (nor to shoehorn it falsely into a narrative about Milk’s groundbreaking work and life). But at the same time, it’s also important that we not use this tragic end to Milk’s life to read back into or circumscribe that life and career more broadly—that would be true even if he had been killed because of his sexuality, but it’s even more the case if the killing was unrelated to that part of his identity. That is, Milk’s charismatic and groundbreaking voice, his ambition and courage, and the true significance of his electoral victory and year of office-holding are the central elements of an iconic and important American life and story, and remain key focal points on which our collective memories of the man and his moment should focus. Remembering with accuracy and nuance are important goals, but remembering our inspirational and ground-breaking figures and histories are just as crucial, for the early gay rights movement as for every part of American history.
Next history tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other histories or stories you’d highlight?