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Today is Harvey Milk Day in California. I first wrote this diary last summer for the LGBT series in the Readers & Book Lovers group, but since I can't be in California or the city he loved so much to honor a great man, I can try to honor him in 'fly over country' by republishing this diary about Randy Shilts' The Mayor of Castro Street.

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My name is Harvey Milk - and I want to recruit you!
Most people familiar with Harvey Milk's life know this quote - or at least remember Sean Penn's portrayal of Harvey's 1978 Gay Freedom Day Parade speech in Milk. What some might not be so familiar with is the postcard he was given just before he began that speech in front of over a quarter million people. It read simply
You get the first bullet the minute you stand at the microphone.
This threat was not the first death threat he'd ever received, and it would not be the last. When the end did come, it came from a place & person much more close than he could've imagined. However, instead of devoting much if any discussion to the person who murdered 2 people in cold blood, the aftermath of what he did, and hoping he's burning in the hell in which he so vehemently believed, I want to talk about Harvey Milk's life & what he accomplished in such a short time in a life cut short way way too soon.

Shilts in writing The Mayor of Castro Street: The Life & Times of Harvey Milk interviewed many who grew up with, went to school with, and worked with Harvey Milk long before he became the "mayor of Castro Street." Harvey Bernard Milk was born in Woodmere, NY on May 22, 1930, and until he actually moved to the Castro neighborhood in San Francisco in 1972, nearly no one in his "east coast life" knew he was a homosexual because he was good at living the double life in which homosexuals were (and some still are) largely forced to live. He was a high school athlete, a sports reporter & editor of his college's newspaper, an honorably discharged junior grade lieutenant in the US Navy after his tour was up, a Wall Street financial analyst, and even distributed Barry Goldwater campaign literature in 1964!

What turned Harvey from a Goldwater Republican to a "bleeding heart liberal"? It was actually his life - long love of theater, his talent for business, and being at the right place at the right time. A friend of his asked Harvey to be involved on the business side of a little show in which he was involved called Hair. After the show became the success it did, Harvey followed a lover to San Francisco who was the stage director for the production there. After the relationship ended, Harvey moved in with many of the cast members from the show & began to be moved by the political and social consciousness of the actors. After wearing his 3 - piece suit for his "day job" as an analyst in San Francisco's financial district, he'd join his roommates in marches to protest the Vietnam War. Harvey was so enraged at our nation's invasion of Cambodia in April 1970 that he burned his Bank of America card at a huge anti - war rally over his lunch hour. He was fired from his job and never looked back.

San Francisco had long been a haven for the outsiders of "civilized society." However, after massive dishonorable discharges for soldiers ready to fight WWII who were discovered to be homosexual and the homosexual purges in the federal government in the McCarthy era, San Francisco became the place to stay for all of these men who were too afraid or too ashamed to go back to where they came from.

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The increase in the gay population seemingly overnight led to economic clout due to the change in the nature of the job base in the city from blue - collar factory work to a more white - collar leaning job base toward tourism & other jobs that required years in college or a college degree. With economic clout came political clout & the creation by local homosexual men and women of political organizations geared specifically to that community in San Francisco. It was this environment that made the prospect of a homosexual elected to a government office more than just a dream.

A combination of local issues & many "bigger picture" issues that are still at the center of political discourse in this country today brought Harvey Milk into politics. Around a month after opening Castro Camera with his lover, Scott Smith, in the spring of 1973, a local "Chamber of Commerce" - type dropped by to inform Harvey that he could no longer operate his business until he'd paid a $100 deposit against sales taxes. After many irate trips to city hall & negotiating the fee down to $30, one of Harvey's interests became the rights of small business owners against corporate & government interference. Funding for & access to education became an issue when a high school teacher dropped by Castro Camera to see if she could borrow a slide projector for her class. Requisitioning one would take over a month. Harvey was incensed; millions were being poured into massive real estate development & other "downtown" interests while teachers & students were barely getting by. The final issue that brought Harvey to politics was the classic "throw the bums out" mentality. Nearly every day in Castro Camera, a small TV was playing the Watergate hearings, and Harvey was crazy angry at John Mitchell's repeated "I don't recall" answers to the questions posed to him.

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So, Harvey, still with his mustache, long hair, and pony tail, decided to run for a seat on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors in 1973. He also found, for the first time in his life, a "safe" place for homosexuals, so the double life he had lived for his whole life up to that point was over, and he was very open & ready to talk about his sexual orientation & the growing power that came with it. The "gay establishment" in San Francisco wasn't ready for this brash "carpet bagger" from the East Coast & thought he should keep quiet, pay his dues (so to speak) locally, then, some day, he'd be ready for local politics. Despite this resistance, Harvey came in 10th out of 32 spots & garnered 17,000 votes because of good 'ol fashioned American politicking that he stuck with for the rest of his career; he knocked on doors, he went to neighborhood meetings, he went to coffee shops, he & others stood on street corners to hand out campaign fliers, and he shook any hand that was nearby. Two weeks after that defeat, Harvey cut his hair, shaved his mustache, bought some suits, and immediately began to get ready for the next election cycle in 1975.

By the time of the November 1975 municipal elections, Harvey had the support of the Teamsters & other unions because of his help in boycotting Coors beer from gay bars in the Castro district, he became the president of the Castro Village Association that solidified the economic power of the neighborhood, and he'd become increasingly angry at the corporate - friendly atmosphere of the government "downtown" at the expense of neighborhoods that were suffering.

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All six incumbent city supervisors won re - election that year, but Harvey came in 7th. His time was coming, and the election of George Moscone as mayor promised a more receptive ear to the concerns of & the power of the gay community in city hall.

In November 1976, the way city supervisors were elected changed from a city - wide race to individual districts within the city. The neighborhood around the Castro district became District 5 (the exact areas he'd won by wide margins in previous elections), and on Election Day in November 1977, Harvey Milk became this country's first open homosexual elected to public office. His victory made national & international news.

Nearly everyone Randy Shilts interviewed for the book spoke of Harvey's humor, playfulness, his love of practical jokes, his charisma, etc.; however, they also spoke of another quality of Harvey's that was deemed rather unnerving - his fatalism. When early friends of his suggested that he set aside some money for after his retirement, he'd reply nonchalantly that he'd die before he ever became a senior citizen. Before the 1973 election, when asked how a very underfunded Harvey could possibly compete with incumbents, he had the following reply according to Shilts' book:

'Well,' Harvey quickly replied, 'I figured that since I am openly gay, some father who is nuts and upset over the Texas homosexual killings will come out and shoot me.' Milk paused briefly, as if he had calculated this possible denouement on an actuarial table. 'I figure that I'll be lucky and survive and I'll get a lot of sympathy votes, as well as the liberal and gay votes.'
As Harvey's fame grew, so did the threats of violence & the death threats. One week after his victory in 1977, he recorded 3 tapes that became known as his "political will." In those tapes were also the names of those he did not wish to succeed him on the Board of Supervisors plus those who met with his approval. This YouTube video is part of one of those tapes; the voice you'll hear is Harvey's.

During Harvey's 11 month tenure on the Board of Supervisors, he continued to campaign & legislate at a manic pace staying up all hours studying proposals and not being willing to put off anything until "tomorrow" because Harvey sincerely felt there would be no "tomorrow" for him. We all sadly now know that he was gunned down in the mid - morning hours of November 27, 1978 less than an hour after the assassination of Mayor George Moscone.

Harvey Milk was 48 years old when he was murdered. However, remembering that he spent the vast majority of his life as a closeted gay man & was no sort of political activist whatsoever, much of what he accomplished, much of what for which he's remembered, and the better (but not perfect) acceptance of homosexuals & their rights today because of his efforts was done in just over 5 years...5 YEARS. If Harvey was with us today, I'd wager he'd have a field day with "Corporations are people, my friend," and the odious effects of the Citizens United ruling that made our current elections the play things of the super - rich only. He'd be absolutely thrilled at the number of states where marriage equality thrives (including his birth state!) but horribly saddened & angered at marriage equality picture in his "adopted" home state. However, that sadness & anger would lead him to action. As Harvey said many times in his now - famous "stump speech,"

And the young people in the Altoona, Pennsylvanias and the Richmond, Minnesotas who are come out and hear Anita Bryant on television and her story. The only thing they have to look forward to is hope. And you have to give them hope. Hope for a better world, hope for a better tomorrow, hope for a better place to come to if the pressures at home are too great. Hope that all will be all right.

Originally posted to CityLightsLover on Wed May 22, 2013 at 08:02 AM PDT.

Also republished by Indianapolis Kossacks, Electronic America: Progressives Film, music & Arts Group, Friends of Keith Olbermann and Rachel Maddow, Pink Clubhouse, Milk Men And Women, and Readers and Book Lovers.

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Comment Preferences

  •  Happy Birthday Harvey Milk! (30+ / 0-)

    Another 1 of Harvey's finest hours was the defeat of a law that would've made homosexuality in the teaching profession a fire - able offense. This scene is from Milk, but the dialogue is taken from actual transcripts of the debates that were held.

    "HERPES was more popular than Dick Cheney when he left office!" Rachel Maddow 5/23/12

    by CityLightsLover on Wed May 22, 2013 at 08:01:47 AM PDT

  •  Thank you for republishing this (12+ / 0-)

    and I'm happy and proud that we gave you the opportunity to write the original diary. It's still as good as it was the first time you published it.

    -7.75, -8.10; . . . Columbine, Tucson, Aurora, Sandy Hook, Boston (h/t Charles Pierce)

    by Dave in Northridge on Wed May 22, 2013 at 08:24:08 AM PDT

  •  Thank you for this, CityLightsLover - He was a (9+ / 0-)

    great man that sacrificed his life for the rights we are slowly and surely experiencing today. A long way still to go, yes... and

    Thank you Harvey Milk

    "In this world, hate has never yet dispelled hate. Only love can dispel hate." ~ Buddha

    by Leslie Salzillo on Wed May 22, 2013 at 08:24:27 AM PDT

  •  His grassroots door-to-door politicking was superb (7+ / 0-)

    So many good lessons in his political approach. Wellstone's energy and campaigning seemed reminiscent of what worked for Harvey Milk. Of course, both were charismatic energizer bunnies, which certainly helps.

    Gathering support for the Coors boycott in Castro bars in solidarity with the Teamsters was also a thing of beauty.

    So much accomplished in just 5 years. That is staggering.

    Gone too soon.

  •  Thanks for the diary. (4+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    CityLightsLover, JBL55, JeffW, 3rock

    Recently re-watched "The Times Of Harvey Milk" on hulu and I wad struck at how many left-leaning politicians die prematurely. Such a loss, but what road he built for those who came after him.

    SOS - Save Our Sigs!

    by blueoregon on Wed May 22, 2013 at 09:26:43 AM PDT

  •  Off to a Brain - Killing Soul - Killing Meeting (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    JBL55, JeffW, 3rock

    I hope to be back in around 90 minutes or so. Spread the word about this diary, please!

    "HERPES was more popular than Dick Cheney when he left office!" Rachel Maddow 5/23/12

    by CityLightsLover on Wed May 22, 2013 at 09:44:52 AM PDT

  •  Five years. (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    JeffW, 3rock, CityLightsLover

    Wow.  I never thought about Harvey Milk in that way.  Five years.  And what a five years it was.  

    Would that it had been longer.  What an inspiration.

    Thank you so much for this diary.

    "War is not the answer, for only love can conquer hate." ~ Al Cleveland & Marvin Gaye (1970)

    by JBL55 on Wed May 22, 2013 at 10:05:24 AM PDT

  •  The POWER of a Play (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    Thank You for this post.
    I'm 62, Gay.
    Out & moved to Ca. in 76'
    In '69 there were casts of HAIR in some of the major cities. A friend made the cast, by then it was just if you had a voice.
    I was a sosh (popular, made good grades) Sometimes I'd wear cowboy boots with my sosh clothes.
    Started hanging out with the cast of HAIR. Learned among a hundred thousand other things, NOT to accept being drafted. I was simply LUCKY. I would have been pushed into the service and dead, most likely.
    It's so astonishing how the dots connect over time. Until this post I hadn't realized that HAIR had been the vehicle for Harvey also. How I missed that I do not ditzily know…
    How a simple play, played. Astonishing. It was a different time. [The powers do not forget.] Plays nowadays make one cringe, "Mormon something in the eff" Gays who promote their religious, "BORG" ! You don't mind if I destroy you because YOU ARE bad sex. YES! I mind because I don't do guilty "bad" sex. I abhor you destroying me & other sissies with your just join OUR "BORG" They are a dime a dozen. NO this isn't some Armistead Maupin effin video PLAY, this is gay people being bullied to death by other pseudo {on a MISSIONARY} gays. I.e. Benedict Arnold's. I.e. Jonestown wasn't PRETTY!
    Go to Hell!
    Jonestown, Nov. 18, 1978  /  Harvey Milk,  Nov. 27, 1978
    As painful as it is to remember, I REMEMBER.
    The "current" state of gay politics here in weho, Ca.
    NO! I do not accept your we'll push you to death with Morman effin, gay psuedo christian effin, Elton John eating Lindpuke  s cat  for a million or any other macho PREJUDICE BS.
    Harvey Milk would be pissed!
    Now, if someone could write a play about OCCUPY. I don't know if it would play in this new internet age. Especially like I say [The powers do not forget.] I think it's already in/at play.
    A play about OCCUPY. Interactive? A play that doesn't end in you're such a GOOOD Christian!
    There are some good Christian religions. Like all good religions, they lead by example, not by force or manipulation.
    Thought I'd add in this story…
    From HAIR, I dodged the draft in Hawaii. Hawaii like Canada was a refuge. If you heard someone was asking about you, you could get on a boat and go anywhere in the world. There were some serious draft dodgers in Hawaii.
    My first Jesus freak experience…
    There was this particularly sadistic cult the maranatha's in Hawaii. Every time we'd see them in town, they'd prosthelytize us.
    In the times, we'd be visiting another shack or commune type setting. Someone (in our HAZE) would say did you just hear that? "I hope I didn't hear that." "Are we going crazy?" Things like, John you're going to hell, blah, blah.
    So one night this girl comes in and she says "You're not going to believe what I just saw." "Those effin maranathas are in a clearing in the coffee trees and they're reading like scripyure and inserting our names.
    There was this older dude who had a pistol (mind you this was 1970, way different times). He grabs his pistol, he and the girl leave, a couple minutes later we hear 5 or six shots and this dude yelling "If I see any of you god damned nutcases anywhere near any of these shacks anywhere in this entire valley, next time, I'LL AIM!
    He comes back with some flashlights, and we laugh & laugh & LAUGH as he describes them running through the bushes & trees all askitter.
    Like I say there were some serious draft dodgers in Hawaii. Names, This dude MEANT it! (different times)
    When we went to town post, the maranthas would see any of us and walk a different direction :)
    As you get older you dig experience.

  •  He showed the world (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    what "courage" looks like. Thank you for reminding of some of the details of his story.

    Life is short and time is cruel, but I can't help seeing the glass half-full. --Kevin Fisher

    by Sonnet on Wed May 22, 2013 at 03:40:36 PM PDT

  •  Anita Bryant came to Boston way back when spewing (0+ / 0-)

    her hate and our community came out with a massive rally against her.  It was something I will always remember.  Every part of our community was in that huge crowd, we some how knew she was poison and we were the antidote.  It worked, she thought better and left town after she observed us below her hotel window in Copley Place.  Don't bring hate to Boston or MA.  We are  not home of patriots for nothing, sister.  By the way after that she was dropped as the orange juice spokesperson, the same fate for Rush with his sponsors soon I hope

    Thanks, Harvey Milk for your kind, tough bravery and the life you gave, along, with Mayor Mosconi for our freedom.

    And Bravo, CityLightsLover for this brilliant post.  Pictures of love, too.

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