• U.S.


7 minute read
John Cloud

After Harvey Milk became the first openly gay man elected to any substantial political office in the history of the planet, thousands of astounded people wrote to him. “I thank God,” wrote a 68-year-old lesbian, “I have lived long enough to see my kind emerge from the shadows and join the human race.” Sputtered another writer: “Maybe, just maybe, some of the more hostile in the district may take some potshots at you–we hope!!!”

There was a time when it was impossible for people–straight or gay–even to imagine a Harvey Milk. The funny thing about Milk is that he didn’t seem to care that he lived in such a time. After he defied the governing class of San Francisco in 1977 to become a member of its board of supervisors, many people–straight and gay–had to adjust to a new reality he embodied: that a gay person could live an honest life and succeed. That laborious adjustment plods on–now forward, now backward–though with every gay character to emerge on TV and with every presidential speech to a gay group, its eventual outcome favoring equality seems clear.

When he began public life, though, Milk was a preposterous figure–an “avowed homosexual,” in the embarrassed language of the time, who was running for office. In the 1970s, many psychiatrists still called homosexuality a mental illness. In one entirely routine case, the Supreme Court refused in 1978 to overturn the prison sentence of a man convicted solely of having sex with another consenting man. A year before, it had let stand the firing of a stellar Tacoma, Wash., teacher who made the mistake of telling the truth when his principal asked if he was homosexual. No real national gay organization existed, and Vice President Walter Mondale haughtily left a 1977 speech after someone asked him when the Carter Administration would speak in favor of gay equality. To be young and realize you were gay in the 1970s was to await an adulthood encumbered with dim career prospects, fake wedding rings and darkened bar windows.

No one person could change all that, and not all the changes are complete. But a few powerful figures gave gay individuals the confidence they needed to stop lying, and none understood how his public role could affect private lives better than Milk. Relentless in pursuit of attention, Milk was often dismissed as a publicity whore. “Never take an elevator in city hall,” he told his last boyfriend in a typical observation. The marble staircase afforded a grander entrance.

But there was method to the megalomania. Milk knew that the root cause of the gay predicament was invisibility. Other gay leaders of the day–obedient folks who toiled quietly for a hostile Democratic Party–thought it more important to work with straight allies who could, it was thought, more effectively push for political rights. Milk suspected emotional trauma was gays’ worst foe–particularly for those in the closet, who probably still constitute a majority of the gay world. That made the election of an openly gay person, not a straight ally, symbolically crucial. “You gotta give them hope,” Milk always said.

As supervisor, Milk sponsored only two laws–predictably, one barring anti-gay discrimination, and, less so, a law forcing dog owners to clean pets’ messes from sidewalks. He lobbied for the latter with a staged amble through a park that ended with his stepping in it. Editors loved the little item, as Milk knew they would, and he explained the stunt this way: “All over the country, they’re reading about me, and the story doesn’t center on me being gay. It’s just about a gay person who is doing his job.”

Realizing one is gay is usually cause for terror, or at least mortification, but Milk felt too great a sense of entitlement to let either emotion prevail. Born to a successful retail-clothing family on New York’s Long Island, Milk was a popular high school athlete and jokester. According to the biography The Mayor of Castro Street by Randy Shilts, Milk had no trouble recognizing his desires; as a boy he would venture to a gay section of Central Park, where in 1947 he was arrested for doffing his shirt (he was 17). The experience didn’t radicalize him, though. Milk served in the Korean War and returned to Manhattan to become a Wall Street investment banker.

But banking bored him, and the gay Greenwich Village milieu that he slipped into was full of scruffy radicals, drug-addled theater queens and goofy twentysomethings fleeing Midwest bigotry. Milk befriended or had sex with many of them (including Craig Rodwell, who would help lead the 1969 riots outside the Stonewall bar that launched the gay movement). By the early 1970s, Milk had moved to San Francisco, enraptured by its flourishing hippie sensibilities.

The few gays who had scratched their way into the city’s establishment blanched when Milk announced his first run for supervisor in 1973, but Milk had a powerful idea: he would reach downward, not upward, for support. He convinced the growing gay masses of “Sodom by the Sea” that they could have a role in city leadership, and they turned out to form “human billboards” for him along major thoroughfares. In doing so, they outed themselves in a way once unthinkable. It was invigorating.

While his first three tries for office failed, they lent Milk the credibility and positive media focus that probably no openly gay person ever had. Not everyone cheered, of course, and death threats multiplied. Milk spoke often of his ineluctable assassination, even recording a will naming acceptable successors to his seat and containing the famous line: “If a bullet should enter my brain, let that bullet destroy every closet door.”

Two bullets actually entered his brain. It was Nov. 27, 1978, in city hall, and Mayor George Moscone was also killed. Fellow supervisor Daniel White, a troubled anti-gay conservative, had left the board, and he became unhinged when Moscone denied his request to return. White admitted the murders within hours.

A jury gave him just five years with parole. Defense lawyers had barred anyone remotely pro-gay from the jury and brought a psychologist to testify that junk food had exacerbated White’s depression. (The so-called Twinkie defense was later banned.) Milk’s words had averted gay riots before, but after the verdict, the city erupted. More than 160 people ended up in the hospital.

Milk’s killing probably awakened as many gay people as his election had. His death inspired many associates–most notably Cleve Jones, who later envisioned the greatest work of American folk art, the AIDS quilt. But while assassination offered Milk something then rare for openly gay men–mainstream empathy–it would have been thrilling to see how far he could have gone as a leader. He had sworn off gay bathhouses when he entered public life, and he may have eluded the virus that killed so many of his contemporaries. He could have guided gay America through the confused start of the AIDS horror. Instead, he remains frozen in time, a symbol of what gays can accomplish and the dangers they face in doing so.

John Cloud is a staff writer for TIME magazine and covers politics, crime and other social issues [BOX]

BORN May 22, 1930, in Woodmere, N.Y. 1951 Enlists in the Navy 1964 Campaigns for Barry Goldwater 1972 Moves to San Francisco with lover Scott Smith. They open a camera shop in the Castro, the emerging gay enclave 1973 Makes first run for city board of supervisors 1977 Wins seat, becoming the first openly gay elected official of any large city ASSASSINATED Nov. 27, 1978, by conservative former board member Dan White, whose light sentence sparks riots

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com