Chicago 2

The Unforgettable Martyr

San Francisco, known today as a safe haven for homosexuals, has come a long way from its roots. The strong gay rights movement didn’t emerge and transform the city into a “beacon of hope for gay men and lesbians around the world” until  the decades between 1950 and 1980 (California Council for the Humanities 2008). Throughout the 1950s and 60s, the term homosexual had a negative connotation and those who identified as one were considered perverts and lawbreakers (California Council for the Humanities 2008). Even in the early 1970s, psychiatrists referred to homosexuality as a mental illness (Cloud 1999, 183). Being a gay teen during these times “was to await an adulthood encumbered with dim career prospects, fake wedding rings and darkened bar windows” (Cloud 1999, 183). By the late 1970s, however, homosexuals “had become a recognized minority that contributed to the city's culture and that elected officials to the highest public offices” (California Council for the Humanities 2008). Harvey Milk was the driving force behind the civil rights movement even before he became the first openly gay person elected to public office in California. As a member of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, Milk was especially outspoken in his opposition of the Briggs Initiative and fought to preserve the rights of homosexuals across the state. Although Milk was devoted to the LGBT community, he also sought civil rights for minorities and the entire nation too. Even though he knew being on the city council was a risky decision, he took the chance and followed through without a doubt in his mind. According to John F. Kennedy in his book Profiles in Courage, a man of conscience is one who “must judge for himself which path to choose, which step will most help or hinder the ideals to which he is committed” (1956, 12). Milk embodied these characteristics perfectly and was the quintessence of a politically courageous man who had a vision he was determined to see become a reality. With the motivation and drive to succeed regardless of the consequences, Milk did not abandon his personal interests even though he received resentment from conservatives for his actions.
    Milk’s run for office was far from being a first shot victory. According to an article written by Randy Shilts (1978) in The Village Voice, his races for supervisor in 1973 and 1975 proved to be unsuccessful (41). Citizens of San Francisco were shocked that a homosexual could possibly become a member on the Board of Supervisors. They questioned his ability to represent the city based solely on his sexual preference and completely disregarded his actual capabilities. Undeterred by his initial failed attempts and animosity from those against his homosexuality, his determination and perseverance shined through. In 1977, he “gathered strong grass-roots support among unionists and other minority group members to win a landslide victory” (Shilts 1978, 41). He not only defended his cause wholeheartedly and did not conform to society’s ubiquitous ideals, but also rallied support from San Francisco’s residents to lead change. In the Castro district, Milk appropriately became known as “the gay community’s unofficial mayor” for his dedicated involvement in civil issues (Shilts 1978, 41). At the beginning of Milk’s tenure in 1978, he sponsored a civil rights bill that outlawed discrimination based on sexual orientation. This bold proclamation, according to The New York Times (1978), was the “most stringent and encompassing in the nation” and was enthusiastically signed by Mayor George Moscone (Ledbetter, A21). Dan White, a member of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors who made sure he was consistent in his opposal to every single initiative Milk supported, was the only one to vote against it (Hinckle 1985). Milk, being one of the Board’s most liberal members, was seen as conservative White’s political nemesis (Shilts 1978, 41). Despite White’s disapproval, Milk stayed true to his morals and continued to stand up for what he knew was right. Although they had their differences and rarely agreed on any topic, Milk also maintained a mature attitude whenever they exchanged words. However, this incident with White wouldn’t be the last display of his courage.
    The Briggs Initiative, also known as Proposition 6 on the California ballot in 1978, was put forth by Senator John Briggs to prevent gay teachers from teaching in the public school system. Firing gay teachers would be mandatory, along with stripping any public school employees who supported gay rights of their jobs (Nadolski 2012). Early on in his campaign to promote Prop 6, Briggs made it publicly known that he believed homosexuality was a “real threat to the survival of this country” (San Francisco Bay Area Television Archive 2012). Milk, on the other hand, was resolute and knew something had to be done to stop the proposition from passing. Refusing to accept Briggs’s condescending statement about homosexuality, Milk made sure his plan would succeed. Although Briggs had an immense group of loyal followers that supported him in everything he did, Milk had a more organized and coordinated plan to express his disapproval. While Milk had heated debates with Briggs in high school gyms, on the radio, and even on TV, “an army of well-trained volunteers went about ‘canvassing’ door-to-door, speaking with people on the streets and in the shopping centers about the potential consequences of the ‘anti-gay’ Briggs Initiative” (Epstein 2008). Milk passionately believed in his cause, and despite what seemed to be a losing battle against Briggs, he triumphed with the help of his trusted supporters (Axmaker 2012). Seen as unnecessary and a possible violation of constitutional rights, “Proposition 6 went down by a resounding 59 to 42 percent” and Milk’s advocacy had been worth it (Epstein 2008).
    Even before Milk began advocating for gay rights, he knew his position as an openly gay San Francisco Supervisor placed him in danger. Hate mail flooded into his office within days of being elected, but Milk did not lose his faith (KQED 2012). He was aware that he was a controversial figure in politics. 
Although an avid supporter of civil rights, Milk’s goal was not only to defeat the injustices of society for homosexuals, but to promote the public good for the entire nation as well. On November 18, 1977, since Milk was fully aware of the hostility he had been receiving, he made a tape recording with specific instructions to have it be played only in the event of his assassination (KQED 2012). In this tape, he acknowledged that “a person who stands for what I stand for, an activist, a gay activist, becomes the target or the potential target for a person who is insecure, terrified, afraid, of very disturbed with themselves” (Hamlin 2008). In spite of the unfavorable circumstances, Milk endured his term with just as much enthusiasm as before. Unfortunately, a year and nine days later on November 27, 1978, Milk was shot dead by the city’s most anti-gay official (Shilts 1978, 41). Dan White, who had clashed with him over numerous issues, shot both Mayor Moscone and Milk on the same day (KQED 2012).
    Even though Milk only served on San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors for 11 months, “he had already come to represent something far greater than his office” and instilled more pride into his supporters after his death (“The Times of Harvey Milk” 1984). Milk was especially tenacious in his actions, willingly accepted any consequences thrown his way, and moved forward with his cause until the very last moments of his life. He didn’t allow society to improve on its own, but rather lead the change himself. In his opposition to anti-gay initiatives, Milk adamantly defended his beliefs even when others expressed their disapproval. Living up to Kennedy’s definition for politically courageous, Milk sacrificed his honors, prestige and career for the national good (1956, 7-8). A driven activist with a compassionate character, Milk had no trouble winning over his constituents with his energetic charisma (Axmaker 2012). Despite his brief tenure, he recognized the inequity in San Francisco’s gay community, publicized his private life, and sacrificed his reputation to benefit the entire nation. Milk, a proud, openly gay man, was simply a member of the community whose life touched so many others (Axmaker 2012). He may be gone, but he hasn’t disappeared in spirit. To this day, his legacy remains and continues to empower civil rights as the nation progresses. His assassination didn’t mark the end of the gay rights movement, but rather laid a path for new beginnings (Martin 2008). His actions have left an undeniably lasting impact that will live for days to come. Milk was a leader who “talked about hope, struggled for his political successes against all odds, and won” (Shilts 1982, 348).

Reference List

Axmaker, Sean. 2012. "The Life and Times of Harvey Milk - Award Winning 1984 Documentary on DVD." Accessed December 15, 2012.

California Council for the Humanities. 2008. "Gays and Lesbians." Accessed December 15, 2012.

Cloud, John. 1999. Harvey Milk. Time, June 14.

Epstein, Rob. 2008. "What Harvey Milk Tells Us About Proposition 8." The Huffington Post, November 21. Accessed December 15, 2012.

Hamlin, Jesse. 2008. "Quotes from Harvey Milk and friends." San Francisco Gate, November 23. Accessed December 15, 2012.

Hinckle, Warren. 1985. Gayslayer! The Story of How Dan White Killed Harvey Milk and George Moscone & Got Away With Murder. Silver Dollar Books.

Kennedy, John F. 1956. Profiles in Courage. New York: Harper.

KQED. 2012. "Resource Guide: Harvey Milk, Hero and Martyr." Accessed December 15, 2012.

Ledbetter, Les. 1978. Bill on Homosexual Rights Advances in San Francisco. The New York Times, March 22.

Martin, Michael. 2008. The Resurrection of Harvey Milk. Advocate, November 18.

Nadolski, Deborah. 2012. "Harvey Milk: a man of LGBT courage and hope." Examiner, November 27. Accessed December 15, 2012.

San Francisco Bay Area Television Archive. 2012. "Harvey Milk Meets John Briggs." Accessed December 15, 2012.

Shilts, Randy. 1978. "Homophobic Homicide." The Village Voice, December 4.

Shilts, Randy. 1982. The Mayor of Castro Street. New York: St. Martin’s Press.

The Times of Harvey Milk. Directed by Rob Epstein. 1984. New York: New Yorker Films. Film.