May 22 every year, is celebrated by the LGBTQIA community, the world over, as ‘Milk Day’ in honour of the community’s earliest ‘Out’ elected officials Harvey Milk’s birthday. He embodied the spirit of pride all through his short but colourful and eventful life.
Born in 1930, Harvey grew up to be a man’s man and not until he was in his 30s, did he actually come out openly as being gay. Born to Lithuanian Jewish parents, Harvey grew up in the New York suburb of Woodmere. In his growing years, due to his protruding ears, big nose and oversized feet he was often teased as the class clown. As a teenager, he played football and developed a passion for opera. Those were the years when he discovered his homosexual tendencies. Milk graduated from Bay Shore High School in Bay Shore, New York, in 1947 and attended New York State College for Teachers in Albany (now the State University of New York at Albany) from 1947 to 1951, majoring in mathematics.
During the Korean War, he served aboard USS Kittywake as a diving officer and later was also posted as Diving Instructor at Naval Station, San Diego. In 1955 he was discharged from the navy in the rank of Lieutenant, Junior Grade after which he became a teacher at George W. Hewlett High School in Long Island. He held various other random jobs thereafter. His most famous business venture being Castro Camera in San Francisco.
While there in the 70s, after a series of personal events shook his complete faith in government systems and public policies he decided it was time to enter the arena and have his voice heard. He is famously quoted as saying, “I finally reached the point where I knew I had to become involved or shut up.”
His campaigns were unique and innovative. He ran on a culturally liberal platform advocating legalising of marijuana and opposing government interference in private sexual matters. His fiery, flamboyant speeches earned him tremendous media publicity and made him a darling of the press but failed to translate into votes at the ballot box. Finally, in 1975 he tweaked his strategy, cut off his long tresses, swore off marijuana, promised never to visit gay bath-houses, donned suits and appealed to the electorate once again. This time his efforts yielded results and in 1976 Milk became the united States’ first openly gay man to hold elected office as City Commissioner.
An interesting anecdote in the run up to Milk’s campaign goes thus: Anita Bryant a vitriolic, homophobic activist blamed the gay community in California for the drought that had befallen the state that year. As luck would have it, awarding perfect poetic justice to such unwarranted hate, it poured in California the day after Milk took office. Milk remarked toungue-in-cheek, “On November the 9th, the day after I got elected, it started to rain.”
Milk was known not just for his unabashed flamboyance in dress and manner but also for his passionate and impactful oratory skills. As an elected representative of the people and within a short lived political career he is credited with bringing about multiple changes successfully. Thanks to his efforts the Briggs Initiative, that sought to legalize the termination of gay teachers and teachers who supported gay rights, failed spectacularly. Milk also pioneered what has now come to be known as the Castro Street Fair in defiance to anti-gay tradesmen and businessmen in California who claimed to have lost business thanks to a flourishing gay community. The businesses later relented that they had never done as much business than on the day of the fair itself.
As if foreseeing his death, Harvey is credited to have once passionately remarked, “If a bullet were to enter my head, let that bullet destroy every closet door.” Sadly his prophecy rang true and in a double assassination attempt on 27 Nov 1978, at the age of 48 and just 11 months into office, Milk was shot dead with 5 bullets (02 of which were through his head) at point blank range by an ex-supervisor and friend-turned-foe Dan White with his police service-issue revolver. Also assassinated by White at City Hall just minutes before Milk, was Mayor Moscone who was scheduled to announce White’s successor at a press conference within the next half hour.
Till date Milk is deeply revered by the LGBTQIA community as being the most prolific gay politician to have ever been elected to office in the United States. A validation to his efforts came a little too late, however, when in 2009 he was posthomously awarded the country’s highest civilian honour the President’s Medal of Freedom by then President Barrack Obama.
A great man with a massive legacy who lives on through his work and The Harvey Milk Foundation. His assassination may have silenced his voice but in his words, “Hope will never be silent.”
-Written by Delshad Master