6 min

Calling the next Harvey Milk

If ever we needed a leader, now is the time


Last summer I re-lived San Francisco in the 1970s by reading in rapid succession Tales of the City, a biography on Sylvester, and Randy Shilts’ The Mayor of Castro Street.

Where the first two books teleported me to a golden age in the gay movement, Shilts’ biography on Harvey Milk gave me flashes of déjà vu.

With the imminent release of Milk, the film starring Sean Penn, it is important that the generation of people unfamiliar with Harvey Milk’s story realize he is not a fictional character but a real person.

Harvey Milk was the first openly gay elected official in America. He went from being an accountant in New York, to a Broadway producer, a camera-store-owning hippie in San Francisco and ultimately a city supervisor.

Until he was elected, Harvey Milk was San Francisco’s equivalent to Jamie Lee Hamilton: vocal on civic matters, but rebuffed. Milk ran for supervisor three times, and though he gained more votes with each election, it was the city’s first district elections in 1977 that gave Milk his seat on the board.

In the eleven months that Milk was in office he was able to pass a poop and scoop ordinance and a gay rights bill, and he successfully fought Proposition 6, known as the Briggs Initiative, banning homosexuals from teaching in California schools.

On Nov 27, 1978, Dan White —the only member on the Board of Supervisors to vote against the gay rights bill —assassinated Milk and Mayor George Moscone. In court, White’s lawyers used the “Twinkie Defence” claiming the murders were the product of a marathon binge of junk food and soda.

The all-white, all-straight jury returned a verdict of voluntary manslaughter with a sentence of seven years. White was released from prison in 1984 and committed suicide in1985 by carbon monoxide poisoning.

A year after I wiped the tears from my face and dreamed of what could have been, I could not stop drawing analogies between Harvey Milk’s time and my own —particularly where affordable housing and development are concerned.

The majority of the board that Milk served on was pro-business, pro-development much like the current Vancouver city council (as of this writing). Thanks in part to gay migration and the tourists who followed them, San Francisco’s real estate market was also experiencing a boom similar to Vancouver’s in the build up toward the Olympics, and developers were shameless in their exploitation of it.

While many members of the board, including Dan White, were dipping their fingers into pork barrel projects, Harvey was speaking out on an affordable housing complex that was demolished to build a parking lot for a performing arts centre.

“It’s a scandal of human nature to rip a down 67 housing units in this day so that the wealthy can have a place to park their cars,” Milk said at the time.

Fast-forward 30 years. At a time when affordable rental units are being converted into condos and entire buildings are getting eviction notices, Vancouver city council voted unanimously to put a $15 million animal shelter on the capital budget and then bailed out the Olympic Village to the tune of $100 million.

If there was ever a need for another Harvey Milk, now is the time.

Tom Ammiano was a friend and colleague of Milk’s who is now running for the state assembly of California. He spoke with me about Milk from his car in San Francisco.

Ammiano met Milk on Castro St where he had his camera shop.

“Harvey was always standing on the corner especially after the bars were closed. The cops were very brutal in those days, and Harvey used to engage them about why they were there and what they were doing and I thought, ‘This guy’s my hero.'”

Ammiano was a teacher at the time and active in the gay teacher movement.

“Harvey was always terrifically supportive of that when a lot of ‘mainstream’ gays were afraid of that issue,” Ammiano remembers.

“In fact, he came to one of our meetings of gay teachers and there was a new member from the East Bay who was really cute and Harvey went home with him. We hated him ever since,” he laughs. “He could juggle quite a few balls in the air.”

Within the ‘mainstream’ gay movement of his day, Milk was labelled a loudmouth and an opportunist.

“I think there is a distinction between those who use the movement and those who are part of the movement,” Milk himself said in a tape he recorded in anticipation of his assassination. He clearly saw himself as the latter.

“It was important that there was somebody unapologetic out there,” Ammiano says. “That plays into his iconic part.

“He humanized the gay issue,” he continues. “He also showed you didn’t have to be one issue because he really did relate to the Asian community, the African-American community, unions —he was a populist.”

The issues that affected the average San Franciscan affected Milk personally. His landlord raised the rent on his apartment and tripled the rent on his camera store. The landlord, a gay realtor, also evicted a senior citizen so a title company could take over her apartment.

 “No single strip in San Francisco felt the pinch of the inflated real estate values like the two-block core of the Castro district,” writes Randy Shilts in The Mayor of Castro Street.

“Leases rose dramatically, killing marginal businesses to make way for establishments oriented toward the high-profit services needed by tourists and the increasingly affluent residents.”

In 2008, window-shopping in the West End has taken on a literal meaning. Tiny businesses that eked out a living for years are disappearing; a 30 percent rent increase on Denman St has closed more. Fatburger, Beard Papa’s, Tim Horton’s, Marble Slab Ice Cream —chains that have nothing to do with Vancouver —are taking their place.

Harvey Milk believed there was more to a city than development and tourism. He was someone everyone could identify with in some small way. I can’t really say that I identify with Vancouver’s current city council. When I hear some councillors speak I wonder if we are even living in the same city.

A couple of years ago I was walking to a friend’s place to watch the fireworks when I wondered how long it would be before they stop taking down the barricades after the show and we need ID to get into the West End. That’s where I fear Vancouver is heading and no one in City Hall seems very concerned about it because it doesn’t affect them.

If there was ever a need for another Harvey Milk to lead not just our own community but the city as a whole, now is that time.

Granted, trying to find the next Harvey Milk is like searching for the next Dalai Lama —lots of leads but no Yangtze. But we need to find someone because wherever homos go, the status quo is sure to follow.

“Today you see a lot gay political muscle in San Francisco,” says Ammiano. “The visibility is high but the contribution is also high. You have people working with other communities, working on issues of health care and rent control. Harvey Milk did all that in the ’70s.”

We don’t need just one Harvey Milk; we need several.

Ideally this person or people will be young and have run their own business or a non-profit; someone who has been broke or can at least relate to being broke. Someone who knows what’s it like to be late for work because five empty buses that weren’t in service drove by you in the rain.

One thing is certain, if we are going to cultivate the next generation of gay leaders, we have to get rid of the stigma that being ‘political’ is a socially unacceptable trait. Being political is what got us where we are today.

I ask Ammiano what he remembers most about Harvey Milk.

“The combination of seriousness and sense of humour. He always had a certain élan and he could diffuse issues with a little bit of wind, but at the same time he could be very, very serious. I have a lot of respect for my colleagues but they need to lighten up some times, you know what I mean?”

What I take from Milk’s story is this: those of us who have reaped the rewards of gay liberation are beholden to make things even better for the generation behind us. It’s time for us to pick up the signs and bullhorns and carry the torch —not just for our successors but for our predecessors so they can enjoy the rights they fought so hard for as well.

Hopefully the attention being paid to Penn’s portrayal of Milk will inspire the next generation of gays and lesbians to read The Mayor of Castro Street and to see the original 1984 documentary, The Times of Harvey Milk.

And maybe enough of those young queers will see themselves reflected in Milk’s story that we’ll see a resurgence in gay activism the likes of which haven’t been seen since Act Up.

As for the next Milk, there’s no doubt in my mind that he or she is out there waiting to step up to the plate. We just have to be willing to support them when they do.