Pioneering LGBTQ rights activist Harvey Milk is the first and most famous openly gay male elected official in California. His birthday (May 22) is a state holiday. He was assassinated on Nov. 27, 1978.
Milk became the public face of the LGBTQ rights movement, and his reputation has continued to grow since his death. He has been called a martyr for LGBTQ rights — and for all human rights.
As America’s first openly gay man elected to public office in a major city, Milk was responsible for passing a tough gay-rights law in San Francisco before he was killed. (When Milk was elected in 1977, two gay politicians were already in office: lesbian Massachusetts State Representative Elaine Noble and Minnesota State Senator Allan Spear, who came out after he won re-election.)
Milk was born May 22, 1930 in the suburbs of New York City. A Navy veteran, he was running a camera shop on San Francisco’s gay-oriented Castro Street when he entered politics.
He served only 11 months on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors before his death, but in that short time he fought for the rights of the elderly, small business owners, and the many ethnic communities in his district as well as for the growing LGBTQ community. The definitive book about his life is “The Mayor of Castro Street” by Randy Shilts.
Harvey Milk Day celebrates equality on May 22
|Harvey Milk Day March,
by Show Me No Hate
St. Louis, MO
Harvey Milk Day events happen all across America, especially in California, where it became an official state holiday in 2009 and public schools are encouraged to teach suitable commemorative lessons about the LGBTQ rights activist. Milk is the only openly gay person in the United States to receive such a distinction.
Resources tend to emphasize that Milk was more than an LGBTQ rights activist, but also a “social and political pioneer” who ”fought for the rights and equality of all” and inspires “disenfranchised communities.”
Harvey Milk Day events often include showing one of the two Oscar-winning movies about his life, the documentary “The Times of Harvey Milk” (1984) or the biographical drama “Milk” (2008), which stars Sean Penn as Milk in an performance that won an Academy Award for best actor. The movie tells how he rose to become one of America’s first openly gay elected leaders, only to be killed by an assassin’s bullet. Directed by Gus Van Sant, the film got eight Academy Award nominations.
Harvey Milk killed by assassin on Nov. 27, 1978
An assassin shot Harvey Milk on Nov. 27, 1978. “If a bullet should enter my brain, let that bullet destroy every closet door in the country,” Milk said. Two bullets did enter his brain, and his vision of queer people living openly is also coming true.
Haunted by the sense that he would be killed for political reasons, Milk recorded tapes to be played in the event of his assassination. His message, recorded nine days before his death, included this powerful statement:
“I ask for the movement to continue, for the movement to grow, because last week I got a phone call from Altoona, Pennsylvania, and my election gave somebody else, one more person, hope. And after all, that’s what this is all about. It’s not about personal gain, not about ego, not about power — it’s about giving those young people out there in the Altoona, Pennsylvanias, hope. You gotta give them hope.”
Shots fired by conservative fellow supervisor Dan White cut Milk’s life short also killed San Francisco mayor George Moscone. More than 30 years later, the hope and the movement for LGBTQ rights are more alive than ever.
Milk has received much recognition for his visionary courage and commitment to equality. In 2014 the U.S. Postal Service issued a stamp in his honor, with the rainbow colors of the LGBTQ pride flag appear as a vertical strip in the top left corner. Other LGBTQ people have appeared on U.S. stamps, but this is the first to feature someone specifically for LGBTQ activism.
In 2009 he was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom and inducted into the California Hall of Fame. He was included in the Time “100 Heroes and Icons of the 20th Century” for being “a symbol of what gays can accomplish and the dangers they face in doing so.”
A Prayer for Harvey Milk Day
Milk’s life and legacy inspired “A Prayer for Harvey Milk Day” from All Saints Episcopal Church in Pasadena, California:
Almighty God, who created us in your own image: Grant us grace to follow the example of our brother Harvey Milk, that we might fearlessly contend against evil and to make no peace with oppression; and, that we may employ our freedom and our privilege in the maintenance of justice in our communities and among the nations. Ground us in your love and in your compassion to be agents of change and proclaimers of the hope that will never be silent. All this we ask in the name of the One who created us in love and called us to walk in love together. Amen.
Harvey Milk in religious art
The Harvey Milk icon painted by Robert Lentz was hailed as a “national gay treasure” by gay author/activist Toby Johnson. Milk holds a candle and wears an armband with a pink triangle, the symbol that Nazis used to identify gay men. Here is expresses solidarity with all who were tortured or killed because of their sexuality. It is one of 40 icons featured in the book “Christ in the Margins” by Robert Lentz and Edwina Gateley. Lentz discusses the icon in a YouTube video.
The Harvey Milk icon is one of 10 icons that sparked a church controversy in 2005. Critics accused Lentz of glorifying sin and creating propaganda for a progressive sociopolitical agenda, and he temporarily gave away the copyright for this and nine other controversial images to his distributor, Trinity Stores. All 10 were displayed there as a collection titled “Images That Challenge.”
The icon has also been criticized for portraying Milk, a secular Jew, in a iconographic style rooted in Christian tradition. Milk himself said, “The fact is that more people have been slaughtered in the name of religion than for any other single reason. That, that my friends, that is true perversion!”
One scholar who questions the use of Christian symbols to glorify Milk is Brett Krutzsch, visiting assistant professor of religion at Haverford College in Pennsylvania. A chapter on Milk is included in his forthcoming book “Dying to be Normal: Gay Martyrs and the Quest for Equality,” which is scheduled for publication by Oxford University Press in 2018. The book examines how LGBTQ activists applied Christian traditions to prominent LGBT deaths to counteract Christian conservatives between 1995 and 2015.
The Jesus in Love Blog at Q Spirit honors Milk in its interfaith LGBTQ Saints series as a martyr who died in the struggle for LGBTQ rights.
Another artwork that puts Milk into a Christian context “Stations of the Cross: The Struggle For LGBT Equality” by Mary Button. Milk’s assassination is juxtaposed with Jesus falling under the weight of his cross in Station 9. Using bold colors and collage, Button puts Jesus’ suffering into a queer context by matching scenes from his journey to Golgotha with milestones from the last 100 years of LGBTQ history. For an overview of all 15 paintings in the series, see LGBT Stations of the Cross shows struggle for equality.
The Altar Cross of LGBTQ Martyrs from Metropolitan Community Church of San Francisco features photos of Matthew Shepard, Harvey Milk, Gwen Araujo and others.
Milk’s assassination also inspired an important musical creation. When lesbian singer-songwriter Holly Near learned of the assassination, she composed “Singing For Our Lives,” sometimes known as “Song for Harvey Milk.” It appears in the official Unitarian Universalist Association, with a title based on its first line: “We Are a Gentle, Angry People.” The song became an unofficial anthem of the LGBTQ rights movement and reached other justice movements, with new verses continuing to be added. It has been sung at countless marches and spiritual gatherings. Near introduces and sings it on a 2015 video of the 50th anniversary of the first national demonstration against the Vietnam War.
Links related to Harvey Milk:
Harvey Milk Day Quotes 2015: 11 Inspiring Sayings That Still Ring True Today (International Business Times)
Harvey Milk at the Legacy Project
SF City Hall Unveils Harvey Milk Tribute (advocate.com) (Bronze bust by Daub Firmin Hendrickson sculpture group)
Top image credit:
“Harvey Milk of San Francisco” by Robert Lentz
This post is part of the LGBTQ Saints series by Kittredge Cherry. Traditional and alternative saints, people in the Bible, LGBTQ martyrs, authors, theologians, religious leaders, artists, deities and other figures of special interest to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender and queer (LGBTQ) people and our allies are covered.
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