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Archive for December, 2009

Special Tribute

 A Great Gay Rights Champion

Harvey Milk

      One of the greatest pioneers of the civil rights movement during the 20th Century was Gay San Francisco Supervisor and political activist, the late Harvey Milk. When the history books are written about the social and political history of the United States, the name Harvey Milk will be remembered as a champion against hate and bigotry and was a pioneer of leadership to San Francisco’s gay community. But his influence extended way beyond San Francisco and the bay area. In 2009, Milk’s nephew Stuart Milk, accepted the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Barack Obama on behalf of his uncle.    

         People need to be reminded of the importance of gay rights for GLBT people throughout this country and the world. It is a key aspect of the long standing historical fight for civil rights in general. People also need to be reminded that America is a constant work-in-progress, and democracy needs encouragement and nudging all the time. The underlying driving force of social change in a democracy has always been sheer determination and cultural attitudes. Doing what is inclusive and right toward other people always takes courage, and a vision of things not yet realized by the majority of the citizenry.   

 Connections

      When I grew up in Marin County in the 1940s and 50s it was very common to hear all sorts of derogatory comments about a person’s race, nationality, religion, ethnicity, gender, and where one was born. Nevertheless, Marin County back then was still light years ahead of most counties in California.  And being a Californian meant people of the state were usually way ahead of the curve where social change was concerned compared to the rest of the country.   

      But when I left in 1968 to seek employment in Sacramento, Marin County had socially changed a lot. Many of the old ethnic enclaves were now fully assimilated into second-and-third generation communities, and many of the old bigots were deceased. The culture of Marin County was changing. Many in the Beatnik generation and hippies from the 1960s brought forth a new language and a new outlook on life. Old conservative ways of seeing the world hadn’t disappeared but they were losing favor to a younger generation. Vietnam veterans, like myself, were a new breed of cat, and highly independent thinkers. Notions of what was right or wrong were being re-defined. Although there wasn’t always unanimity among counter-culture advocates, their influence was beginning to have an impact on the country. As Bob Dillion said, “The times they were a-changing.” And out of this re-evaluation of who we were as a people, the gay movement was born in New York City with the famous Stonewall riots of 1969. From these riots and protests, the Gay Liberation movement was born. Although I was a devout heterosexual, I began to get angry at the discrimination being perpetrated against gays and lesbians. It reminded me of how angry I felt in 1961 when James Meredith (a black U.S. Air Force military veteran) was initially barred from admission to the University of Mississippi. President Kennedy at that time had to send in federal troops and U.S. Marshals to quell riots in Oxford, Mississippi. 

       As one who wore his peace symbol and visited the Haight-Ashbury in San Francisco in 1967 during the “summer of love,” my attitudes were impacted by all that was going on. I was beginning to discard some of my conservative views on life.  Nevertheless, I walked a tightrope between valuing education, family and career and wanting to change the world. Although a Vietnam navy veteran, I began to oppose further escalation of the war in Vietnam.

      As a strong advocate of human rights, civil rights and personal freedoms I began to become at 23—an ultra liberal. But I still valued getting ahead in life in conventional ways. I soon realized there was no contradiction between conventional career pursuits and my newly-acquired ultra-liberal values. I didn’t have to “tune in and drop out” to effect social change. And I admit it—my personal need to succeed in a career was sometimes much stronger than my need to change the world, the latter need of which sometimes felt so overwhelming.

      It was a strange combination of being totally patriotic as an American, yet beginning to question everything from religion to politics. As an ex-navy combat veteran—I was too conservative to change all my values overnight. But my social and political philosophy did change. While I identified with liberals and with working within the system for social change, I did not identify with radicals. Coming out of the service I felt many in the radical movement were emotionally immature, lacked insight, and at times, were not the brightest of people. But I could see radicalism did serve a useful purpose. Radicals actually achieved moderate liberal goals because conservatives would appease liberals out of fear of radical social change. Moderates could achieve their goals because radicals frightened the conservatives in deference to less radical, yet equally important, social change.   

      At the time Harvey Milk was murdered in 1978, I was living in northern California. When the news hit the airways that Mayor Moscone and Harvey Milk were killed I was really only familiar with the career of Mayor Moscone. Mayor Moscone was a good and decent man, who had his heart set on creating a more inclusive society, and most certainly, a more inclusive society in San Francisco.

      Just like Marin County, San Francisco was a city light years ahead of its time. Harvey Milk, we all came to realize, was a true visionary. The 1970s were a time of great social change. With courage and determination Harvey Milk took a leadership role in the gay liberation movement. Many people don’t know this but Harvey Milk was, in the 1960s, a U.S. Navy officer (Ltjg). And like all good ex-navy personnel, leadership just comes naturally to them. He knew the meaning underlying the navy lingo, “you have the deck and the con.”  It means you’re not only in charge of the ship while officer of the deck on the Bridge, but also responsible for the ship’s course. Harvey knew he was leadership material but he also knew how to set a course for the gay community in San Francisco, while maintaining a future vision for gay rights worldwide. 

 Early life

      Harvey Milk was born at the beginning of the Depression on May 22, 1930 in Woodmere, New York. He was the younger son of Lithuanian Jewish parents and the grandson of Morris Milk, who owned a department store. As a young boy Harvey was teased for his protruding ears, big nose, and oversized feet, and tended to grab attention as a school clown. He played football in school and developed a passion for opera; in his teens he acknowledged his homosexuality but kept it a guarded secret. In 1951 Harvey graduated from New York State College for teachers (Now known as State University of New York at Albany). Harvey majored in mathematics and had written for the college newspaper, earning a reputation for being gregarious, and friendly. After graduation, he joined the United States Navy during the Korean War. He served aboard the submarine rescue ship U.S.S. Kittiwake (ASR-13) as a diving officer. He later was transferred to San Diego where he served as a diving instructor. He was discharged in 1955 at the rank of lieutenant, junior grade (Ltjg).

     Between 1962 and 1969 Milk remained mostly in New York, where he had a few gay relationships. But in 1969 Milk came to California with his lover, Jack Galen McKinley, who was connected as stage manager with the Broadway touring company of Hair. When McKinley was offered a job to do Jesus Christ Superstar in New York, they broke up. Harvey preferred to stay in San Francisco.    

 Growing Awareness of Problems Facing the Gay Community

      Because of police brutality and targeting the gay community, San Francisco became a place of alienation like many other cities and townships in the United States. But, by 1969, San Francisco had more gay people per capita than anywhere else in the country. Soon politicians, recognizing the growing clout of the gay community in San Francisco began to court their vote.

     Organizations sprang up to counter the criminal behavior of the city’s police department, and because of the widespread anger of the gay community. They responded by supporting politicians favorable to the civil rights of gays and lesbians (People like Congressman Philip Burton, Assemblyman Willie Brown, Diane Feinstein, and Sheriff Richard Hongisto who worked tirelessly to change the anti-gay culture of the San Francisco Police Department).

       Milk, who owned Castro Camera, had his own troubles with a state sales tax bureaucrat. He was concerned when he learned that school equipment in local schools was woefully lacking, and he became frustrated with the “I don’t recall” replies during the Watergate hearings. Based on these concerns and the changing social climate in the Castro District, Harvey Milk made a decision to run for city supervisor.

      Although he wasn’t liked by “establishment gays” because he was an upstart, he soon curried support from some gay bar owners who were mad as hell with police harassment and unhappy with what they perceived as too timid a response by the Alice Club, a group known formally as the Alice B.Toklas Memorial Democratic Club. They decided to endorse Harvey Milk.

 Political Career

       The 1973 election was very telling. Milk garnered 16,900 votes sweeping the Castro District and other liberal neighborhoods. He came in 10th out of a field of 32 political candidates. It was reported that if the elections had been organized to allow districts to elect their own supervisors, he would have won.

      Milk became known as the Mayor of Castro Street, and had a natural ability to build coalitions. He helped the Teamsters organize a strike against the Coors beer distributors in exchange with the hiring of more gay drivers. He also became president of the Castro Village Association that organized gay business owners and he organized the Castro Street Fair of which 5,000 people were in attendance.

      He ran again for supervisor in 1975 with the support of the Teamsters, firefighters, and construction unions. This time he came in 7th place. He later ran in 1976 for State Assembly but was defeated by 4,000 votes. Harvey soon co-founded the San Francisco Gay Democratic Club. By 1976, the New York Times ran a story on the veritable invasion of gay people into San Francisco, estimating that the city’s gay population at between 100,000 and 200,000 out of a total of 750,000.

      The Castro Valley Association had grown to 90 businesses and the observation was made that the broader national historical forces going on with gay rights was fueling Harvey Milk’s campaign to become supervisor. Harvey Milk was not a one-issue candidate. He also was promoting larger and less expensive child care facilities, free public transportation, and the development of a board of civilians to oversee the police. As it turned out Milk won election as supervisor by 30% against a field of sixteen other candidates. At Milk’s swearing in ceremony (which made national headlines) he became the first openly gay non-incumbent man in the United States to win an election for public office.

      Since his race for California State Assembly, Milk had been receiving increasingly violent death threats. His demise would soon come about—but in a way that no one could have ever predicted.

 Harvey’s National Fight against Bigotry and Hatred

       Harvey Milk would continue to fight bigotry and hatred when religion raised its ugly face opposing gay rights. Christian fundamentalist Anita Bryant became the spokesperson in a campaign in 1977 to overturn a gay-sponsored civil-rights ordinance that made discrimination based on sexual orientation illegal in Dade County, Florida. But voters bought into the nonsense of Bryant’s Save-Our-Children campaign and voted 70% to repeal the law.

      In response, over 3,000 Castro residents formed a protest the night of the Dade County ordinance vote. Milk led marchers that night on a five-mile course. Unfortunately, during 1977 and into 1978 other civil rights ordinances were overturned in places like Saint Paul, Minnesota, Wichita, Kansas and Eugene, Oregon. California wasn’t able to escape the hatred and bigotry either. This occurred when California State Senator John Briggs capitalized on Anita Bryant’s success by introducing Proposition 6 known as the Briggs Amendment. The proposed law would have made firing gay teachers—and any school employees who supported gay rights—mandatory. Harvey Milk and John Briggs subsequently debated the Proposition 6 issue up and down the state of California.

        It is perhaps ironic looking back now but opponents of gay rights like evangelical Anita Bryant and John Briggs were responsible for the most unexpected unintended consequence of their public campaigns and anti-gay messages. During this time in the summer of 1978 attendance at Gay Pride marches began to swell in Los Angeles and San Francisco. An estimated 250,000 to 375,000 attended the San Francisco’s Gay Freedom Day Parade. That consequence was to enlighten and educate the public, and bring national attention to the issue of gay rights as an important civil rights issue in America. Ronald Reagan, a staunch conservative but a strong believer in individual rights, came out against Proposition 6, as did Governor Jerry Brown and President Jimmy Carter. On November 7, 1978 Proposition 6 lost by more than a million votes, astounding gay activists on election night. In San Francisco, 75 percent voted against it.   

The Supreme Sacrifice

       Ten months after being sworn in Supervisor Dan White resigned his position complaining that his salary as a supervisor wasn’t enough to support his family. Within days White requested Mayor Moscone to re-appoint him to the position, which he initially agreed to do. However, other supervisors talked Moscone out of reappointing White.       

       Days later on November 27th Mayor Moscone was going to publicly announce Dan White’s replacement at a press conference. Dan White entered through a basement window to avoid metal detectors and made his way to Moscone’s office. After some shouting Dan White murdered the mayor by pumping two bullets into his shoulder and chest. With the mayor lying on his office floor, Dan White then fired two additional shots into Moscone’s head.  White then went to his office where he re-loaded his police-issue revolver with hollow-point bullets. He soon intercepted Harvey Milk. White asked Milk to come into his office where he shot Harvey five times. Of the five shots, two were fired at close range into the head of Harvey Milk. Dan White, at his wife’s urging, later turned himself in. Milk was 48 years old and Moscone 49 years old at the time of their murders.

 A Legacy of Tributes, Awards and Honors

      In 2009, Gay rights advocate Harvey Milk was inducted to The California Museum’s California Hall of Fame. Governor Schwarzenegger also designated May 22nd as Harvey Milk Day in California. As mentioned earlier, Harvey also received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Barack Obama in 2009. Milk was named by Time Magazine in their list of 100 Heroes and Icons of the 20th Century.

      Local honors have also been bestowed on Harvey Milk as well. The City of San Francisco paid tribute to Milk by naming several locations after him including where Castro and Market streets intersect. An enormous Gay Pride flag flies in Harvey Milk Plaza. And, The San Francisco Gay Democratic Club changed its name to the Harvey Milk Memorial Democratic Club in 1978. It is now known as the Harvey Milk Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender Democratic Club.

      Perhaps the greatest legacy a person can have is to have demonstrated during his life what he stood for. Harvey Milk was a caring individual who stood for making government responsive to the individual, gay liberation, and the importance of neighborhoods in the city.

 [Most of the facts on Harvey Milk presented in this Blog were obtained from Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia.]

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