Renée Graham

Harvey Milk and the enduring power of brash visibility

Harvey Milk sits outside his camera shop in San Francisco shortly after his election in 1977.
Harvey Milk sits outside his camera shop in San Francisco shortly after his election in 1977.(file photo)

If you grew up gay or lesbian in the 1970s, Harvey Milk may have been the first person to let you know you weren’t alone.

Elected in 1977 to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, Milk was one of the first openly gay men to hold public office. He served only 11 months before a homophobic former supervisor shot him, and Mayor George Moscone, to death in November 1978.

Yet it's what Milk did during his brief tenure, not how he died, that earns him comparsions to one of his heroes, Martin Luther King Jr. Milk was integral to the 1978 defeat of a statewide initiative that tried to prohibit lesbian and gay people from working in California schools. That ban would also have included any public school employee who addressed homosexuality in positive terms.


Still, as a new biography shows, Milk's greatest achievement may have been his brash visibility, and his plea to those concealing their sexual identity to claim their place in the world.

"Movements need heroes," said Lillian Faderman, author of "Harvey Milk: His Lives and Death." On Wednesday, she'll discuss her book, the first Milk biography since Randy Shilts' "The Mayor of Castro Street" in 1982, at the Harvard Book Store in Cambridge.

"Harvey deserves that position of a hero and icon," she said. "He didn't live long enough to have the platform Martin Luther King had. But attention has been drawn, through his assassination, to what he said and stood for, and those things have been carried forward to this day."

Boston's Pride Week starts June 2, culminating in its annual parade next Saturday winding through the South End and Back Bay. It's a long way from my first Pride 30 years ago in South Florida in a packed arena, concealed behind closed doors. In retrospect, it felt like a massive closet.

This year's theme in Boston is "Rainbow Resistance." Organizers say it's a call to unite "against the oppression and backwards policies of the current administration in Washington, D.C., the systemic threats to communities of color and trans people in our country, and the potential repeal of trans equality legislation in Massachusetts."


That theme would have appealed to Milk. As a gay man and a Jew, he connected to people of color, the disabled, senior citizens, and women — marginalized communities he recognized as "us," instead of "them."

In Faderman's book, part of the Yale University Press' Jewish Lives series, she portrays Jewish identity as a driving force in his activism. Born in 1930, Milk was raised on New York's Long Island, where anti-Semitism was common. The Klan held rallies and cross burnings. Pro-Nazi groups flourished, preaching lies about Jewish treachery.

Later, Milk "used the Holocaust as a metaphor for what can happen if you're not vigilant, if you're not organized, if you don't fight back," Faderman said. "It made him very sensitive to all people who were discriminated against and were oppressed."

If Milk stood with "us," then Dan White — Milk and Moscone's assassin — belonged to "them." If alive today, he would fit right in at a Trump rally. Elected to the board the same year as Milk, White promised to quell the "radicals, social deviants, and incorrigibles" he believed were turning San Francisco into "a cesspool of perversion."

In his confession, White said he killed his former colleagues because "I saw the city kind of going downhill." Of course, White wasn't just fighting Milk or Moscone. He was tilting against time itself, battling a changing society that would leave him behind, and on the wrong side of history.


To be fair, Milk wasn't the first out gay person to serve in public office. That distinction belongs to Kathy Kozachenko, who won a seat on the Ann Arbor, Mich., City Council in 1974. That same year, Massachusetts' own Elaine Noble was elected to the state legislature.

Today we take for granted out LGBT people such as Apple CEO Tim Cook, actress Laverne Cox, and MSNBC host Rachel Maddow. Certainly, LGBT folks have always been everywhere. They taught us, fought in our wars, entertained us on television, and patrolled our neighborhoods. We just didn't know it. That's what Milk worked for and gave his life to change.

"If a bullet should enter my brain, let that bullet destroy every closet door," Milk said in 1977.

In the nearly 40 years since his assassination, his words continue to awaken stymied lives, as they once compelled many of us to forever abandon our closets.

Like King, Milk still marches with us. With LGBT lives threatened by a hostile administration, his words offer strength, direction, and a reminder to all that LGBT rights are civil rights.

Renée Graham can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @reneeygraham