National Commentary

Nicholas F. Benton: The Harvey Milk I Knew

On the 30th anniversary of his assassination, a true American civil rights hero has finally been introduced to a wide national audience with the release of the outstanding, Oscar-worthy film, “Milk,” in theatres this week.

The film is a gripping docudrama about the intense, six-year political rise of the passionate and charismatic homosexual-rights advocate Harvey Milk in San Francisco, until his life was taken in a dual assassination of him and the city’s mayor at City Hall on November 27, 1978. By getting elected to the city’s Board of Supervisors the year before, Milk became the first-ever openly gay person ever elected to public office in the U.S.

I knew Harvey Milk personally, especially in the 1972 and 1973 earliest years of his community organizing, and was on the same citywide ballot with him when he lost an earlier campaign for San Francisco supervisor in 1975. It was in that race that Mayor George Moscone was elected mayor, beating out, among others, current U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein, who came in third.

It was the tall, wavy-haired Moscone who was gunned down with Milk in 1978 by a disgruntled elected official, Supervisor Dan White, who had resigned his seat then became enraged when he changed his mind, asked for his job back, and Moscone denied him.

Moscone could very well have been the mayor of San Francisco to this day had he not been shot dead. Harvey Milk could have been in the U.S. Congress almost as long.

Milk’s effectiveness as a naturally-gifted leader was demonstrated only weeks before his killing in the defeat of a mean-spirited, California statewide anti-gay referendum pushed by well-financed religious rightwing elements.

Ironically, in terms of results, he and his cohorts did better spearheading the defeat of the referendum to root out homosexual teachers in public schools in 1978 than did the effort to defeat the regrettable Proposition 8, reversing a state court ruling favoring gay marriage, in California just last month. And that’s in the context of a far greater acceptance of gays and lesbians now, compared to then.

Perhaps the key difference: Milk was a natural movement leader, and uncompromising when insisting the issue was not about vague platitudes concerning human rights or fairness, but was about the lives of real, flesh and blood people.

His political rallying cry in the gay rights movement from his earliest activist days was that any gay person’s most radical political act is “coming out of the closet,” usually requiring, especially in those days, enormous courage.

By thousands “coming out,” as he was forever repeating, the public becomes aware of what the issues are really about. If voters know someone who is gay, they’re far less likely to vote to deny gay rights. Moreover, by “coming out,” there is the unexpected, even more salutary personal benefit: the almost magical way it imbues an individual with a liberating sense of integrity.

Strong resistance to Milk’s infectious enthusiasm for pushing the cause openly came from existing leaders of the closeted gay community, fearful that by being open and bold, the hatred of mainstream society would intensify against them. In fact, the opposite proved to be the case.

I had philosophical differences with Milk, but the importance of being “out and proud” was definitely not among them.

In those times of social and cultural ferment, some Berkeley-based colleagues and I founded our own gay faction called the “Effeminists,” who saw in “gay liberation” the call for total social transformation, in alliance with strident feminism. At its core, gay identity fundamentally challenges and transforms the deepest emotional and cultural root of society’s prevailing definition of what it means to be male and female.

For us, it went beyond gay rights to this deeper level. When I encountered Harvey Milk, I always made it a point to contrast my worldview to his focus on equal rights. He would smile and insist that achieving rights had to come first. Thirty years later, society reflects, to an extent at least, the positive impact of both our emphases.

Had Dan White murdered only Moscone, he would have gone to the electric chair. But because he also killed a homosexual, the jury gave him seven years in prison.

Harvey Milk was a true civil rights hero, and the film in theatres now is a monumental, and amazingly “spot on” tribute to his life.