1975 was an impressive year for the gay and lesbian movement. It was a year in which, particularly in the US, both visibility and rights took a decisive step forward. Dave Kopay, former National Football League running back, came out; Air Force technical sergeant Leonard Matlovich launched his campaign to overturn the ban on homosexuals in the military; Minnesota State Senator Allen Spear announced he was gay; Elaine Noble took her seat in the Massachusetts House of Representatives to become the first openly gay legislator; and the US Civil Service Commission overturned its ban on homosexuals in federal employment. It was also the year in which Harvey Milk, a local businessman who owned a camera store in San Francisco’s Castro Street, ran his first organised campaign for a seat on the city council. What Milk achieved between 1975 and his assassination in November 1978 changed the history of the gay rights movement irrevocably.
The identity of San Francisco had changed in the 1960s from a manufacturing town to both a tourist destination and the headquarters for numerous banks & corporations. By 1975 it had become the gay capital of the US, with an estimated fifth of its population as homosexual. Harvey Milk arrived in San Francisco in 1972. He entered into local politics in a haphazard way in 1973, and spent the following two years building alliances. Milk had such a strong showing in the 1975 campaign that the San Francisco Mayor, George Moscone appointed him to the Board of Permit Appeals.
By the time Milk ran for the city council again in 1977 the political makeup of San Francisco had changed and supervisors were elected from their districts rather than the vote being cast citywide. His populist campaign, in which he spoke for the rights of all minorities, resulted in his election. “Gay people have been slandered nationwide,” Milk stated. “It’s not just enough anymore just to have friends represent us, no matter how good that friend may be. A gay official is needed not just for our protection, but to set an example for younger gays that says that the system works.”
By the time Milk was elected there was a sizable backlash against gay rights in the country at large. In January 1977, Miami enacted legal protections to ensure such rights, and this prompted a former Miss Oklahoma, Anita Bryant, to found Save Our Children. She fought to reverse the decision on the grounds that “homosexuals cannot reproduce so they must recruit”. Her divisive fear campaign was so effective that by June the protections had indeed been overturned. The following April, the city of St Paul in Minnesota repealed its protections, and in California Senator John Briggs put forward Proposition 6, a law that would prevent homosexuals from teaching in schools.
Milk organised a campaign against Proposition 6, and spoke against the underhand tactics of Anita Bryant. He stated repeatedly that it was important for all gay people to come out to show that the prejudices voiced by Briggs and Bryant were insupportable. “For invisible, we remain in limbo – a myth, a person with no parents, no brothers, no sisters, no friends who are straight, no important positions in employment. A tenth of our nation is supposedly composed of stereotypes and would-be seducers of children.” If coming out was a political act, it was also one that supported the idea of democracy and community. “A gay person in office can set a tone, can command respect not only from the larger community, but from the young people in our own community who need both examples and hope.” The fight for gay rights, he said to the population at large, is “the fight to preserve your democracy.”
Proposition 6 was defeated, but in San Francisco there was another backlash, led by Dan White, Milk’s fellow supervisor. White represented a conservative, largely Irish Catholic, district. The political success of Harvey Milk, and the continued support for Milk’s initiatives shown by Moscone, irritated White. He became increasingly irrational as a result. After White resigned his seat in a tantrum, he asked Moscone to reappoint him. When Moscone did not, White blamed Milk. On the morning of November 27, 1978, White shot George Moscone and Harvey Milk.
Milk received many death threats throughout his political career, and in 1977 he recorded a message to be played in the event of his assassination. “If a bullet should enter my brain, let that bullet destroy every closet door,” he said. In a phrase, that is the power that Milk holds both as an icon and a martyr, but only if we remember him, and only if we honour him. Today, May 22, is Harvey Milk day. It would have been Milk’s 82nd birthday had Dan White not shot him five times, the fifth bullet piercing Milk’s brain. Harvey Milk did not, would not, back down in the face of opposition, even if that cost him his life. In the end, he gave his life so that we could all live a better one. That is why Harvey Milk Day is important.
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