Bringing People Hope: Harvey Milk, a Pioneer for the LGBTQ+ Rights Movemen

Harvey Milk, a politician and gay rights activist, once declared in one of his many impassioned speeches, “It takes no compromise to give people their rights…it takes no money to respect the individual. It takes no political deal to give people freedom. It takes no survey to remove repression.” This idea, equality for all, is the epitome of the values that Milk pursued so fervently for a large portion of his short life. Harvey Milk was a leader for the LGBTQ+ community within America in the truest sense of the word; his breaking down of the sexual orientation barrier in the United States and zealous fight for equality lives on after him as a powerful legacy that has created a new generation of more tolerant Americans and a more equal society.

The lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer and/or questioning (LGBTQ+) community in the United States has an extensive, complicated history of mistreatment and oppression. Before Harvey Milk, there were no prominent politicians that took a strong stance on gay rights, nor were there any openly LGBTQ+ politicians in office. Therefore, under government jurisdiction, the mistreatment of American LGBTQ+ men and women often spiraled out of control. Prior to World War II, LGBTQ+ communities thrived in urban areas such as Greenwich Village and Harlem throughout the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920’s. The call for soldiers, war workers, and other volunteers throughout the entirety of World War II instigated the integration of once formerly secluded communities of LGBTQ+ men and women into American society. Due to the economic downturn during the beginning of the 20th century, many American citizens made the trek to large, urban cities to make a living.

After finding work, the migratory workers were frequently required to live outside of the conventional styles of living that they had become accustomed to for extended periods of time. LGBTQ+ members of urban society, finally comfortable with their sexual identities, were thus freed from the oppression of societal expectations and conformity. The assimilation of gay citizens into United States culture out of isolated clusters of men and women was the spark for action that the gay rights movement in America required to gain recognition, and was the catalyst for LGBTQ+ political advocacy group formation in the United States. In 1950, the long silence of the LGBTQ+ community, and the absence of a strong leader for LGBTQ+ rights, came to an end with the early efforts of The Mattachine Foundation. Harry Hay, the founder of the underground activist group and a member of the Communist Party, had struggled with anti-gay oppression for the entirety of his life. The word homosexual was not present in any American dictionaries until 1938, and up until the 1950’s, American society deemed any mention of sexuality that differentiated from the heteronormativity of the generation taboo; gay citizens often being targeted and harassed as a result.

However, once Hay encountered other homosexual men, he came to the conclusion that he must do something to fight for his own rights; to battle the LGBTQ+ oppression that had been present from the very beginnings of American history. Although The Mattachine Society and gay rights advocacy groups alike provided a safe haven for the LGBTQ+ community and fueled the beginnings of discussion across the United States, LGBTQ+ members of American Society still faced constant oppression and discrimination from their peers. During the 1950’s and 1960’s, LGBTQ+ men and women continued to be threatened with psychiatric lockup, jail, losing child custody, and job discrimination due to the homophobia and distressing lack of understanding and intolerance of the time.

The American Psychiatric Association neglected to remove homosexuality as an “illness” within diagnostic manuals until 1973, which demonstrated the unwillingness of heterosexuals to even attempt to understand the LGBTQ+ community whatsoever. This and specialists refusing to properly identify the LGBTQ+ population, led to the continuation of the mistreatment of gay men and women within the United States government itself and across American cities. The most brutal and disturbing form of discrimination was, and still is, gay bashing, and was often carried out by public officials. Because of the absence of codified rights protecting the LGBTQ+ community, police brutality and harassment were commonplace. Into this homophobic atmosphere, Harvey Milk was born. In a generation of discrimination, bigotry, and misunderstanding, a Jewish, homosexual man with progressive views rose above the tangled, byzantine societal norms of American intolerance; a man who shaped American society for decades to come.

Randy Shilts documents in his novel The Mayor of Castro Street: The Life and Times of Harvey Milk, “He (Milk) was an ordinary sort, everybody agrees. Seemed to fit in well enough: an average student, a second-string high school athlete, and a wit that more than compensated for a plain, if not homely face. Still, some noticed something different even then. Not peculiar or odd, just different.”Harvey Milk was born into a small, Jewish family in Woodmere, New York, on May 22, 1930. His family owned a department store named “Milk’s”, and his parents held a significant position in their Jewish community. Milk was an average student, a talented performer, and knew he was gay the moment he discovered the definition of homosexuality. By the age of fourteen, he was an active member of his gay community, despite his mother, Minnie Milk, often lecturing him on the importance of “not becoming tainted by the dirty, perverted homosexuals” that frequented the streets near the opera house in which he spent his early years. Concealing his newly-discovered sexuality became an endless struggle for Milk, which led to a deeply-rooted, internalized self-hatred to grow within his psyche.

In 1947, Milk graduated high school and entered New York State College for Teachers in Albany, New York. While in university, Milk joined a Jewish fraternity, and often entertained his classmates with his comedic antics. Three months after receiving his degree in 1951, Milk enlisted in the Navy, serving as a chief petty officer on a submarine rescue ship during the Korean War. Milk adored the theatricality of his position as a naval officer and the amount of attention he received at dinner parties, however he despised the blatant homophobia and intolerance within the Navy itself that was endorsed by the men in control. After reaching the limit of his frustration in 1955, and accomplishing the rank of junior lieutenant, Milk was honorably discharged.

In 1962, after ending a six year relationship with Joe Campbell , Milk became involved with the inspired, rebellious Craig Rodwell, who was ten years his junior. Rodwell had grown up in an all-male private school, where he viewed his homosexuality as solely an aspect of his existence, not a defining trait. It was not until his exposure to the bigotry and homophobia within public schooling that the intolerance of American society dawned on him. Similar to Milk, the contradictions that coincided with his sexuality bred a sense of infuriation and self-hatred within him. In 1958, at the age of seventeen, Rodwell moved to Greenwich Village in the hopes that he would finally feel accepted by immersing himself into the gay community, and, in 1962, he began his relationship with Milk. Rodwell frequently became frustrated with Milk’s refusal to publically announce his homosexuality, while Milk was uncomfortable with Rodwell’s involvement in the Mattachine Society. Rodwell was arrested for walking in Riis Park and charged with provoking a riot, he spent three days in jail. Soon afterward, Milk ended their romantic relationship.

In 1964, Milk’s mother passed away, and he was devastated, completely cutting ties to the rest of his family. His political inclinations began after the 1969 Stonewall Riots in a New York City bar, which are considered to be the start of the gay rights movement in the United States by many historians. On April 30th, 1970, the United States announced the invasion of Cambodia, which led to protests on college campuses across the country and the tragic shooting of four college students at Kent State University in Ohio . Milk began joining in the anti-war protests at this time, even burning his BankAmericacard publically in order to demonstrate his severance of his ties to financial institutions. By early 1971, Milk was a long-haired, bead-wearing hippie that embraced the ideologies of nonconformity and equality. He met Joseph Scott Smith on his forty-first birthday, and Smith, a twenty-two year old from Jackson, Mississippi, became enamored by him. In 1972, the two spent an entire year traveling across California, living off unemployment checks and income tax refunds, sleeping in tents and enthusiastically solving jigsaw puzzles. According to Bruton, Milk “was happier than at any time I had ever seen him in his entire life.”

Still, by the end of 1972, the men came to the conclusion that they had become serious about their relationship. They moved to Castro Street, San Francisco, and purchased a small apartment together. One day, Milk became captivated by the idea of owning a camera shop, and, on March 3, 1973, his dream was realized and his shop was open to the public. Tom O’Horgan observed years later, “Harvey spent most of his life looking for a stage. On Castro Street, he finally found it.” As spring turned to summer, Milk’s frustration with capitalist American society with its corruption and intolerance steadily intensified. As a result, Harvey Milk stood on a soap box one day and theatrically declared to a crowd of onlookers that he was going to run for San Francisco supervisor.In the beginning, Milk struggled in receiving support and endorsement due to his “newcomer” status within the LGBTQ+ community. However, few candidates in the race could compete with Milk’s articulate speeches ; unfortunately, voter turnout was low and during Milk’s first attempt at city supervisor, he came in tenth out of thirty-one candidates, gaining 17,000 votes, an unprecedented amount considering the fact that he only spent 4,500 dollars during the entirety of his campaign.

The incessant police brutality directed towards the LGBTQ+ served as an impetus for Milk’s decision to run for supervisor for a second time. He campaigned flamboyantly through theatrical speeches, tales, and jokes that earned him the media’s approval. Despite his surge in popularity, he lost the race again, finishing in seventh place. In July of 1975, Harvey Milk was fully determined to become city supervisor by 1977. Finally, Milk won the polls by an overwhelming majority, and for the first time in history, the United States had elected an openly gay public official into office. After being elected, Milk was generally accepted by his fellow politicians in City Hall. He put forth anti-discriminatory legislation, followed through on the majority of the campaign promises he made to the citizens of San Francisco, and often kept his fellow politicians in good spirits by offering them jelly beans and an outrageous joke to lift the mood. It was quite a shock to the state of California when, on November 27, 1978, Harvey Milk was found shot dead in his office, lying in a pool of blood.

“Society, that was the problem,” Milk proclaimed. “Someone has to change society; I’ll be the one to do it.” Harvey Milk had known that he was going to die before he could reach the age of fifty. He viewed his death as an inevitable fact of life, only hoping that it would cause widespread outrage; that his murder would incite the rage of the LGBTQ+ community, eventually calling for the acceptance and tolerance of minorities within American society. When Harvey Milk and Mayor Moscone were shot dead by Dan White on November 27, 1978, the indignation of not only the LGBTQ+ community, but also the condemnation of the entire nation erupted the country into protest. Marches were held, the LGBTQ+ community mourned, and a sense of defiant indignation settled over those enraged by his murder. Many were in a state of disbelief. 40,000 eerily quiet men and women were present at Harvey Milk’s funeral, holding candles that represented the bravery Harvey Milk embodied during his short life.

During Dan White’s trial, White was characterized as family man who could do no wrong. One of the defenses of his actions stated that he had consumed Twinkies the night before the murders, and since he was normally a healthy man, the sudden sugar rush from the junk food caused him to experience mental instability. When White was only charged with two counts of voluntary manslaughter, sentencing him to only seven years in jail, he had gotten away with murder- twice. The men and women of Castro Street began protesting against the injustice and blatant homophobia present in the case. The riots after the verdict were the most violent in the history of the city since the racial protests of 1966.Harvey Milk had thus become a martyr for LGBTQ+ rights in America.

Harvey Milk’s search for hope and tolerance in generation full of hatred and bigotry was a valiant effort that furthered American society for decades to come. At a time when acceptance was unpopular, and the majority of the LGBTQ+ community resorted to suicide, drugs, and alcohol due to the societal pressures placed upon them, men like Harry Hay, Allen Ginsberg , and Harvey Milk preached love and understanding. Although Milk’s hard work would eventually cost him his life at the age of forty-eight, his legacy lives on, and serves to accelerate the dissipation of homophobia and bigotry in American politics. Sixty-seven years after his death, thirty-six of the fifty states have legalized same-sex marriage.Workplace discrimination due to sexual orientation is illegal. Many states offer same-sex couples the same legal benefits that heterosexual couples are offered. The majority of Americans are becoming more tolerant of members of the LGBTQ+ community, with LGBTQ+ representation in many television shows, films, and novels. Harvey Milk set in place the foundation for LGBTQ+ rights integrating themselves into American politics, and the country is a considerably better place because of his advocacy.

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