Milk’s Legacy Today
The cumulative effects of Harvey Milk’s breakthroughs remain in the culture and politics of today. The gay rights movement has come a long way, but the pendulum continues to swing.
Some countries (Canada, Spain, Denmark) have legalized same-sex marriages. Some American states like Massachusetts and California have followed suit. But in an election year, much is still to be decided – with people’s lives and loves to be directly affected.
Outgoing U.S. President George W. Bush supported the Federal Marriage Amendment that would have changed the U.S. Constitution to prohibit the legal recognition of same-sex marriages. The proposal did not make it off the Senate floor.
Dan Jinks comments, “You hear about kids who are coming out to their parents in high school, and you hear about out people running for public office. How far we have come in 30 years is largely due to courageous people like Harvey Milk.”
Bruce Cohen remarks, “Harvey Milk’s story shows what one man can accomplish, and also shows how far we still have to go.”
Dustin Lance Black adds, “For me, Harvey’s greatest legacy is that his story of hope has saved, and will continue to save, lives. I consider myself to be one of them. There are still kids out there who are coming out, and who need to know that there are gay heroes and gay icons. It is my hope that Milk further solidifies Harvey Milk’s legacy of saving lives.”
Cleve Jones states, “It is important for us to know our history and, as much as we can, to learn from it. I am sometimes fearful that the new generation is so unaware of how many people had to struggle so long and so hard to have the beginning of freedom that we have now, though our struggle is not complete yet. History is full of examples where people who thought they were free, thought they were prosperous, thought they were secure, found out overnight that they were living in a fool’s paradise. We are winning, yet all this could be taken away in the blink of an eye.”
Memories of Milk
Harvey Milk Speeches:
1977 speech: I was elected to open up a dialogue for the sensitivity of all people, of all the problems. The problems that affect this city affect all of us.
1978 Gay Freedom Day Parade speech: Wake up, America…No more racism, no more sexism, no more ageism, no more hatred…No more will we be harassed, no more will we stay in our closet…No more!
1977 recorded will: I fully realize that a person who stands for what I stand for – an activist, a gay activist – becomes a target or the potential target for somebody who is insecure, terrified, afraid, or very disturbed themselves.
Friends and Colleagues Remember Harvey Milk
Frank Robinson: He considered himself to be in a safe house when he was in City Hall. There were cops all around; who was going to plug him, another supervisor Yeah, you bet your a–, another supervisor.
Cleve Jones: He made that [1977 recorded will] audiotape to be played in the event of his assassination. I teased him for it, but he foresaw clearly what was going to happen.
When I was standing in that lake of candles in Civic Center Plaza the night Harvey was killed, I made a promise to myself that I would do whatever I could for the rest of my life to make sure that his name was remembered.
What I would like people to know is that Harvey was an ordinary man. He was not a saint. He was not a genius. His personal life was often in disarray. He died penniless. And yet, by his example and by his actions, he most certainly changed the world. And again we see that history is full of examples of ordinary men and women who, by speaking the truth, by their own courage, do in fact change the world. At this time in our country’s history, people of all ages, races, and backgrounds need to understand what one person can do.
Gilbert Baker: We all felt that we were going to change the world. Harvey had the ability to inspire you. He gave voice to our rage and to our hopes. [Milk’s murder] was a devastating moment; we had lost a great leader. But in a way it also prepared us for the difficult times to come, where many of us would lose so many friends to AIDS.
Allan Baird: I lived in the Castro District; I was born there. My wife and I were friends with Harvey, my mother-in-law was friends with him. He was the type of person who would walk down Castro Street and talk to everyone. He was not just for the gay people, he was for the so-called straight people. He liked to say to me, “Allan, I’m a queer.” I never liked the word myself, but he was so proud of his being gay, that’s what he expressed himself as.
Frank Robinson: He was probably one of the most charismatic people I’ve ever met. He was very comfortable in his own skin. He saw coming out as a political tool, and used it.
Danny Nicoletta: I was 19 when I moved to the Castro. I was making Super 8 films, so to process the film I popped into Castro Camera. I was very surprised by how friendly the two guys – Harvey Milk and Scott Smith – that ran it were, especially Harvey. At that time, I didn’t quite understand “cruising,” but I appreciated the attention.
We became friends; we would talk about his New York theater days a lot. When I worked on a show called Broken Dishes, doing film and slides behind these two women onstage, Harvey and Scott came to our opening night. Harvey presented me with a little box of broken china – “break a dish,” instead of “break a leg.” He was fond of gift-giving.
Tom Ammiano: One time he came to a gay teachers meeting – he was always supportive – and there was a very handsome guy there from another county. Harvey gave a great speech, and he also went home with that guy. That ticked everybody off, because they wanted that guy.
Jason Daniels [longtime Bay Area resident]: He allowed people to have a sense of freedom; that we could talk more, that we could be more open about things than in the past. After he got elected, everyone felt more free and more powerful and safer. He put across a presence to the entire Bay Area that was quite different. It was not so much that you could be like him, but you could look to him.
Frank Robinson: I had been involved in gay liberation and politics in Chicago, but when I came to Frisco I didn’t know anybody. I was working on The Glass Inferno up on Red Rock Way, and I used to walk down to the Castro for breakfast. Harvey’s dog Kid would hump everything that passed by, and Harvey came out of his shop and I started talking to him. He asked me what I did, and I asked him what he did; “I’m a writer,” I told him. Harvey said, “I’m running for public office; how would you like to write for me It’ll really stir some s—t and it’ll be a hoot.” All I can say is, we stirred some s—t and it took 35 years for it to become a hoot.
Gilbert Baker: [The Rainbow Flag came about when Harvey] called me up and said, “Gilbert, we need a logo.” This was when everybody had graphics, like AT & T. It was after the Bicentennial, and I had begun to notice the American flag in a way I hadn’t before. As a drag queen scene master, I thought, “We should have a flag. We’re a global tribe, and flags are torn from the soul of the people.”
Harvey loved art and creativity, which is why so many of his friends were photographers and artists. I hit on the rainbow; Harvey thought it was genius. The first day that we raised the flag, he said to me, “This will be the most important thing that you ever do in your life.” People look at that flag now, and feel ownership of it.
Anne Kronenberg: I had lived in the Castro for years but put Harvey on a pedestal, so I didn’t really know him. When I went to work with Harvey, the first thing he said to me was, “I yell a lot, I’m very vocal. You have to learn how to yell back,” because I was pretty quiet. He said, “You have to yell back at me and you can’t take anything I say personally, because it’s just the way I express myself.” So we would have some good shouting matches. Harvey was not a swearer at all, I’ve always had a pretty foul mouth. Everyone at Castro Camera liked that I could dish it right back when they dished it out to me. We became a family, and I had to keep the boys in line and on schedule. In the shop, at campaign headquarters, we had kids, seniors, straights, gays – it was marvelous.
Harvey was his own campaign manager, not me. He understood that, if he was going to win the campaign for supervisor, he needed to have women by his side. But long before I met him, Harvey was speaking out for women’s rights, for the Equal Rights Amendment. Everything that I ever learned about politics I learned from Harvey. He was brilliant, and had the best sense of humor.
Michael Wong: Harvey had a great sense of humor, and I think it covered up a lot of sadness in his life. When Jack Lira died, I called him. It was the first time that he and I had ever spoken intimately about personal things. I realized that he was not a very happy person. I think that’s why politics were so important to him; it gave him a venue to be happy and to do things that he wanted to be able to do to help others.
Danny Nicoletta: There was a community forum called Together, over at Collingwood Hall, in response to the police arresting guys for loitering on Castro Street after the bars closed. Harvey and Scott spoke, and the veins were popping out of their necks. That was my first exposure to Harvey’s oratory capabilities. Over the years, I saw him hone it to a fine art.
Carol Ruth Silver: He was very articulate, but he had a New York accent that he never tried to soften. He was a little bit choppier in his way of speaking than somebody who was perhaps more professionally trained in public speaking. But he would always punctuate his speeches with hand motions, which made him a very effective speaker.
Frank Robinson: There were two kinds of speeches that Harvey would deliver; one, more stiff and formal, before a commercial group, a meeting of shopkeepers or something like that; and a second, when addressing a crowd. For those, he would go through what I’d written and cut down the length of the sentences. He picked up on what African-American preachers would do; repetition, short sentences, pumping the air. Then the crowd would pick it up as a chant, which is of course what they’re supposed to do. Before a crowd, there was no one better; he would tailor a speech depending on who he was speaking to.
When he came to town, there were a lot of gays living in town, but there was not a gay community per se. Gays in town would elect “friends of the community” who would be your friends until you came to a rock and a hard place, and then they didn’t know you. Harvey’s idea was that you had to elect a gay man because you knew he wouldn’t change, and that he would be there. He would go the gay bars while campaigning because that’s where the people were, and he would urge them to come to the camera store and register to vote. A few years later, when AIDS hit, there was no support from the government or the state; there was support from the city and from the gay organizations that had grown up when Harvey was running and then finally became supervisor.
Tom Ammiano: You felt that you could have representation through this guy. One of the big issues then was the cops at Mission Station. Harvey recognized that there was a connection between what they were doing to do gay people and what they were doing to black people. I loved seeing him on the corner of Castro and 18th; the bars would have closed, and there would be all these queens around him and two cops, and he would be talking to the cops; “Why are you here We’re not a violent crowd.” Because the cops would sometimes wait outside of gay bars until everyone was out around 2 or 3 AM and shake them down. Things have much improved since then.
Danny Nicoletta: After Harvey won, same-sex lovers were able to walk down the street hand in hand and not be harassed. That’s why so many people came, and come, to San Francisco.
Carol Ruth Silver: By the time the San Francisco gay rights ordinance legislation came before the Board of Supervisors, Harvey and I had left nothing to chance; we had talked to every member of the board and knew what everybody was going to vote. When we walked into the chamber that day, we knew we had the votes and that something historic was going to happen.
Frank Robinson: Probably the single most important thing for any political leader is personal courage. When he debated John Briggs going up and down the state – that was personal courage to the ‘nads. He was afraid he would get shot, because there was enough emotion out there. To the best of my knowledge, he was the only politician in the entire state who was willing to take on Briggs one-on-one.
Tom Ammiano: Once you’re self-affirmed, which Harvey was, it was mutual; crowds would feed off of him and he would feed off of them. The Chinese supported him. He was very accessible to the African-American community. You would walk down Castro Street and see Harvey meandering up and down, talking to people. You had a sense that he was comfortable in his own skin and with other people, and we needed that at the time. He also had that New York élan which people responded to; always a little bit bemused and extremely empathetic.
Frank Robinson: He was the last of the storefront politicians, the last guy to run for public office out of a little store that he owned and managed on a public street, and with no money. He loved being on the campaign trail. We would be in the middle of a campaign, scrambling to get money and stuffing envelopes. He would come in from the campaign trail would tell us about two little old ladies that he’d met and that were going to vote for him. He could have his depressed moods, but not on the campaign trail.
Allan Baird: In 1973, I went in and met with Harvey, and explained to him who I was directing the Coors boycott. I told him that I needed the support from the gay community, and this beer taken out of all gay establishments. He was easy to talk to; no bulls—t, straightforward in everything.
He said, “Okay, Allan, I’ll do it but I need one thing from you.” I said, “What do you need” He said, “I want you to start dispatching open gays into Teamsters Union driving jobs. Do you agree” And I shook hands with him and said, “Yes, I do agree. And we will do it.” He jumped up out of his lounge chair and started yelling at everyone in his store – there were people hanging around all the time; “Look, get Coors Beer out of every gay and straight establishment. Not only gay, gay and straight; I want it removed immediately.”
The next day, three guys showed up and said they were gay and that Harvey Milk sent them to be Teamsters Union drivers. I dispatched them in, one by one. The first person that was hired was a man by the name of Howard Wallace, who is very active now in the San Francisco gay community. I believe we were the first union in the United States to endorse an openly gay person, Harvey, for public office.
Cleve Jones: Today, hundreds of openly gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people serve in elected offices across the country, in almost every state. They bring real leadership, not just for the gay community but for entire communities. Harvey paved the way for that. He showed us what was possible. By his example, other people saw that by being fearless and crossing all of these boundaries that divide us, amazing things can be achieved.
Danny Nicoletta: Cleve and I have both been able to evolve with our natural propensities; mine being creative work and his being politics – which is not to say politics is not creative, or vice versa. In fact, that was one of the great lessons of Harvey’s; those two worlds can and should work together.
Tom Ammiano: I said to Harvey once, “Why the hell do you want to run for office We accomplish so much through civil disobedience and picketing.” He said, “You know, I like both things.” That was a lesson for me later when I ran for office; his message was, remain an activist and still be an elected official. He brought heart to politics, but was smart and could be calculating.
Anne Kronenberg: His timing was so good. He knew how to, and when he had to, get his point across with the media; he knew where the hook was. He always could figure that out in a way that I don’t think many people have the talent to.
Charles Leavitt [former SF resident]: He showed a lot of people that he was a gay man who did not fit the stereotype. You think of Harvey as a rebel, but he was really someone who believed in the system. He was a politician who played the game. Tragically, what he could have done was cut short.
Michael Wong: The turning point in Harvey’s political life was the State Assembly election in 1976. It was him versus the machine; [winning candidate] Art Agnos had the support of Governor Jerry Brown, the labor unions, and the entire Democratic establishment. He realized that if he was going to win, it would not be with the backing of powerful politicians. After he won, he reconciled with all of them and they became powerful allies.
So there are the lessons; first, never give up. Second, don’t be a spoiled winner; when you win, reach out to the people that didn’t support you. The other lesson is, he wanted young people to not to despair.
Danny Nicoletta: Harvey very much spoke to youth culture and really wanted them to be engaged, not despondent and apathetic. At the very least, vote, please vote. It doesn’t matter what side of the fence you fall on. In fact, just tear the fence down; we all live in the same world.
Cleve Jones: I’ve worked with a lot of political leaders in my life, but I’ve never met anyone who had as much genuine empathy as Harvey Milk. He was able to connect with anybody, really – homeless people, rich people, firefighters, left-wingers…The basis of his strength and the source of his power was that when you spoke with Harvey, you knew he wasn’t putting on the right facial expression or making the necessary eye contact, he was getting it.
Here was a man who came from the really bad old days; he formed his sexual and political identity during the height of the Holocaust. He moved past despair and cynicism and reached out with courage.
Please read review and commentary of Gus Van Sant's Milk