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Harvey Milk: Political Figure of Great Courage 

Georgia Riggs

    Courage is what has shaped this nation into what it is and is becoming. Without acts of courage by countless individuals, this country would be a completely different place. Humans are naturally bold creatures, dominating and unafraid. However, not everyone needs to show the ferocity of a lion to display courage. Courage can be shown in many ways. For example, courage can be displayed through standing up for something one believes in, or going against the current, or simply through not giving up. Political figures oftentimes play it safe, not usually taking "risks to their careers" (Kennedy, 1956, p.1). However, this does not apply to one politician. Harvey Milk risked his life and his career for what he believed, and that is what made him a great man and human being. The first openly gay elected official in the U.S. (Foss, 1994, p.7), Harvey Milk stood on the forefront for gay and minority rights. Milk was a strong and unrelenting character, who showed kindness to everyone and always hoped for the best. Harvey Milk "showed us all what one person, standing up... against a fierce societal fear and prejudice can accomplish" ("HMF," 2012). Harvey Milk never gave up, and his efforts in the gay community still resonate today. As Harvey said, "If we learn from history that the struggle goes on, eventually we will win" ("Times of Harvey," 1984).

    Harvey Milk was a proud individual. He embraced his sexuality and gave others the confidence to do the same. Milk began his political career shortly after he moved to San Francisco in 1973. He found a home with his partner, Scott Smith, in the well known Castro neighborhood, home to many of the gays and lesbians of San Francisco (Foss, 1994, p.8). When Milk and his partner opened a small camera shop in the neighborhood, they became exposed to San Franciscan politics due to the fact that their small business interests were being overlooked (Siskel, 1985). This led Harvey Milk to immerse himself in local politics, and he soon "became known as the gay community's unofficial mayor" (Shilts "Homophobic Homicide", 1978). Knowing firsthand the struggles of the gay community, Milk soon came to represent all minorities of San Francisco, including but not limited to gays and lesbians, young people, old people, and every minority imaginable. "Milk envisioned an America where everyone received some dignity, respect, rights, and protections" (Rafter, 2012). As Harvey remarked, "The problems that affect this city affect all of us" ("Times of Harvey," 1984). Due to the support he received, and with a promising and optimistic future, Harvey Milk decided to try and make himself official by running for San Francisco's Board of Supervisors in 1973 ("Times of Harvey," 1984). This was extremely courageous of Milk, because he must have known he did not have much of a chance at winning. Though he had the support of the gay community, "to many Harvey Milk seemed more like a joke than a candidate" ("Times of Harvey," 1984). All of San Francisco was stunned that a homosexual man was running for city council, and many were appalled at the thought of having a gay represent them. This had no effect on Harvey, however, who persevered regardless.

    Harvey Milk was completely unknown in the political world until his first campaign for San Francisco's Board of Supervisors in 1973 (Shilts, 1982, p.70). He was defeated, but his efforts put him on the political map, which was a great advantage for Harvey who immediately decided to run again. Milk had other advantages as well. He was "seen as friendly, charming, intense and instinctively political" (Maslin, 1984). This combination of characteristics gained Harvey Milk great popularity, and in the years 1973 to 1976, Harvey Milk ran for office three times and lost each time ("Times of Harvey," 1984). However, each time he ran he gained more supporters and became well known for his dedication to politics. Harvey was exceptionally tenacious in his actions. He never lost hope and he continued to persevere, despite failing so many times. If that is not courage, what is? Harvey Milk never gave up, and he believed in doing what was right and just, which is why he desired a spot in the Board of Supervisors. Harvey's time came in 1975 when he found great support from the mayor of San Francisco, George Mascone ("Times of Harvey," 1984). Mascone's support gave Harvey Milk the boost he needed. In 1977, along with the support of practically every minority in San Francisco, Harvey Milk, at the age of 47, on his fourth try for public office, was elected to San Francisco's Board of Supervisors. 

To the gay community, Harvey Milk represented the arrival of something new. When Milk was elected to office, “It was more than just a candidate winning. It was the fact that all of these lesbians and gay men throughout San Francisco who had felt like they had no voice before, now had someone who represented them” ("Times of Harvey," 1984). Harvey Milk got right to work after being elected. In 1978, when state legislature John Briggs sponsored Proposition 6 to ban gays and lesbians from working and teaching in California’s public schools (Kronenberg, 2012), Harvey immediately stepped up and opposed the so-called ‘Briggs Initiative.’ Milk publicly opposed Proposition 6, participating in multiple debates with Briggs and rallying protest from the gay community. San Francisco boomed with gay pride marches and it was all due to the Briggs Initiative ("Times of Harvey," 1984). Harvey Milk’s dedication to gay rights is extremely inspiring. He carried the flag for minorities and was a symbol for hope and the future to come. Proposition 6 lost with 59% of California in opposition. This marked the height of Harvey Milk’s political career, which soon ended tragically in 1978 when Harvey Milk and mayor George Mascone were murdered in cold blood (Foss, 1994, p.8).

Harvey Milk stood for something more than just gay rights. "Harvey Milk’s dream [was] for a better tomorrow filled with the hope for equality and a world without hate" ("HMF," 2012). He represented hope for the future; he gave people the courage to stand up for who they are and what they believe in. That is one of Harvey’s most incredible feats; being brave enough to pass courage onto others who need it to be themselves. Harvey Milk was part of a movement that gave people the courage to come out of their shells. 

Reference List

Epstein, R. (director) (1984). The times of harvey milk. [Documentary] United States: New Yorker Films.

Foss, K. (1994). Queer words, queer images: Communication and the construction of homosexuality. New York: New York University Press.

HMF. (2012). Harvey Milk Foundation. Milkfoundation.org, Retrieved 18 December 2012 from http://milkfoundation.org/ .

Kennedy, J. (1956). Profiles in courage. New York: HarperCollins Publishers.

Kronenberg, A. (2012, May 22). Harvey milk’s legacy is progress. San Francisco Chronicle.

Maslin, J. (1984, October 7). 'Harvey milk’ relives coast slaying. The New York Times.

Rafter, D. (2012, May 22). Remembering Harvey Milk. Human Rights Campaign Blog, Retreieved 18 October 2012 from http://www.hrc.org/blog/entry/remembering-harvey-milk .

Shilts, R. (1978, December 4). Homophobic homicide. The Village Voice.

Shilts, R. (1982). The Mayor of Castro Street: The Life and Times of Harvey Milk. New York: St. Martin's Press.

Siskel, G. (1985 February 22). Harvey milk’s story is a sad civics lesson. Chicago Tribune.