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What did Harvey Milk do for us?

Freedom Requires Wings | by on




Although Harvey Milk didn't venture into gay activism until the later part of his political career, you would probably be surprised by how much he managed to do in those last few years of his life.

Let's go back to 1976, it's not that long ago. Some of you might have been born then, or your parents were at least. Yet, back then the gay rights movement was something very new and they faced little organised opposition. No 'One Million Moms' or 'Concerned Women of America'. As for the Westboro Baptist Church, they only started attacking LGBT people in 1991.

"So it was easy", one would think. Think again.

Mayor George Moscone of San Francisco had just been elected and keeping his promises like a good honest man, he appointed Milk to the Board of Permit Appeals making him the first openly gay city commissioner in the history of the USA. Despite this promotion, Milk wanted to go further. He was a man who was determined, strong of character and knew never to give up. The Board of Permit Appeals wasn't enough for him, he had California State Assembly in his sights.

At this time, Milk had a lot of support from the Castro Street area of San Francisco, not only that, but the numbers stacked up. He knew he could stand a good chance. In the previous race for supervisor, Milk received more votes than the currently seated assemblyman. But Mayor Moscone, as much as he supported Milk, had made a deal with the assembly speaker that Art Agnos should run for the position instead.

But Milk was determined! Five weeks into his new promotion he announced he would run for the California State Assembly leaving Moscone no other option except to fire him. Milk was left as the underdog in the race, but stayed relentless.

Reaction one second after the assassination attempt.
Harvey Milk took on a greater role as a representative of San Francisco's gay community on 22nd September 1975, in the most unlikely of situations, when Sara Jane Moore attempted to assassinate the then-President, George Ford. He was stepping out of his car when Moore raised her gun to shoot him. She shot once and missed, then raised her gun to try again. However, the President's life was saved as Vietnam veteran Oliver Sipple, who was gay, dove in front of her and pushed the gun to the ground. Sipple and Milk had a mutual ex-boyfriend, Joe Campbell. The spotlight was on Milk again, who took advantage of the opportunity to illustrate his cause that public perception of gay people would be improved if they came out of the closet. He told a friend: "It's too good an opportunity. For once we can show that gays do heroic things, not just all that ca-ca about molesting children and hanging out in bathrooms." President Ford sent Sipple a note of thanks for saving his life, but Milk stated that Sipple's sexual orientation was the reason he received only a note, rather than an invitation to the White House.

In the end, the race for State Assembly was close, but Milk lost by fewer than 4,000 votes. At this point he realised that the existing Alice B. Toklas LGBT Democratic Club would never support him in his political aspirations, Milk co-founded the 'Harvey Milk Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender Democratic Club' (changed to the 'Harvey Milk Democratic Club' after his assassination). One of their first interventions which asserted their existence was their demonstration at a speech given by Vice-president Walter Mondale in Golden Gate Park on 17th June 1977. When Mondale began talking about human rights in Latin America, demonstrators held up signs demanding a statement on human rights in the US. When a demonstrator verbally challenged Mondale to say something about gay rights, Mondale angrily left the stage.

Anita doesn't like rhubarb pie apparently!
All of this at a time when the gay rights movement we know today was brand new. The rainbow flag would be designed in San Francisco, but not until 1978. It's fair to say that Milk spoke out as an advocate for gay rights, prompting more and more gays and lesbians to come out of their closets and thus increasing their visibility enormously. Whereas before, the gays were attacked helplessly by crazy people such as homophobic Conservative Christian Anita Bryant (famously known for being splatted in the face with a strawberry rhubarb pie... the image made it to the front page of The New York Times) and her organization Save Our Children, now they were unified and they had a voice, a message, a mission.

This organisation of the beginnings of the LGBT movement sparked more radical reactions from Conservatives. The California Proposition 6, also known as the Briggs Initiative, was sponsored by John Briggs, a conservative state legislator from Orange County. This law, if passed, would ban gays, lesbians and anyone who supported gay rights, from working in California's public schools. Harvey Milk and a group of other activists headed a campaign to challenge the Briggs Initiative with the slogan, "Come out! Come out! Wherever you are!". Gays and lesbians all around California went door to door in their cities and towns to talk about the harm the initiative would cause. One of the main points of the campaign was to show that the gay community is omnipresent even though you may not be able to see it. Hundreds of gay men and lesbians came out of their closets and made lots of noise about who they were and what they stood for. The campaign revealed to the general population that gay people really are "everywhere" and included people they already knew and cared about.

Two months before voting day, in September 1978, opinion polls showed that a staggering 61% of voters supported the ban and only 31% opposed it. By October, the support for the ban was slowly dying as 45% said they wanted Prop 6 passed into law and 43% opposed it. 12% of voters were undecided on the issue. State Governor Ronald Reagan (yes, he would become president soon after!) spoke out in opposition of the Briggs Initiative after the Republican party split into two groups as the gay republicans who opposed it formed the Log Cabin Republicans' rallying point to oppose the Briggs Initiative. The Log Cabin Club then lobbied Republican officials, such as Reagan, to oppose the measure. Governor Reagan said "Whatever else it is, homosexuality is not a contagious disease like the measles. Prevailing scientific opinion is that an individual's sexuality is determined at a very early age and that a child's teachers do not really influence this."

It's thanks to Milk's work that former-President George Ford, then-President Jimmy Carter, and future-President Ronald Reagan all opposed the Briggs Initiative and on 7th November 1978, the initiative was defeated with 58.4% voting against it, and it even lost in Briggs' own Orange County, a conservative stronghold.

Proposition 6 (The Briggs Initiative)
Choice Votes Percentage
No 3,969,120 58.4%
Yes 2,823,293 41.6%
Valid votes 6,792,413 95.3%
Invalid or blank votes 339,797 4.7%
Total votes 7,132,210 100.00%
Voter turnout 70.41%

So what did Harvey Milk do for us? He helped us exist.

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