The Year of Harvey Milk
2009 is turning out to be a busy year for Harvey Milk. Over three decades after his death, the first out gay man elected to public office in the United States has been the subject of intense media attention. A critically acclaimed feature film about his life moved into wide release on January 30th - it was awarded Oscars for Best Actor and Best Original Screenplay at the Academy Awards. Randy Shilts’ 1982 book about Milk, The Mayor of Castro Street, was re-issued in paperback with a swanky new cover-photo, clearly aimed at promoting mass consumption. Barack Obama posthumously awarded Milk the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and a bill that would designate May 22nd “Harvey Milk Day” has passed the California legislature and is currently awaiting Governor Schwarzenegger’s signature. While it is still not clear whether the “Governator” will sign the bill, he has announced that Milk will definitely be inducted into the California Hall of Fame later this year.
Despite all of this interest in Harvey Milk, there has been very little in-depth reflection on his political philosophy, the character of his activism, and his place among the contesting ideologies of the LGBT movement. The focus has been very much on celebrating his political achievements, obsessing (soap-opera style) about his love life, and finding various ways to canonize him as an icon of civil rights and gay liberation. Milk certainly deserves to be revered: he served as a strong leader of San Francisco’s gay community, who augmented visibility and political power for homosexuals worldwide. But it is also necessary to assess Harvey Milk’s oeuvre from a more critical perspective. How can we characterize his approach to gay rights? How did he aim to improve the lives of gays and lesbians? What was his political philosophy? How does his conceptualization of gay issues compare to the approaches of other prominent figures in the LGBT movement?
Milk’s Gay Opponents
Perhaps the best way to begin an analysis of Milk’s political philosophy is to examine his main rivals within the San Francisco gay community. According to Randy Shilts, Milk defined his activism in opposition to the “gay moderates,” who promoted the homosexual cause by lobbying San Francisco’s liberal political establishment and cultivating heterosexual “friends.” They believed that the best way to secure positive change was through clandestine deals with leading figures in the Democratic Party: the “gay moderate” leaders would promise to support a particular politician in exchange for legal changes and token appointments of homosexual civil servants. In the following passage, Shilts describes the “gay moderate” approach in a way that emphasizes its similarities to today’s gay conservatives (as discussed in this previous post):
“All we want are equal civil rights, simple legal reform, the gay moderates stressed. You get that, they figured, by showing liberals that you’re decent respectable people, just the same as they are except for a few bedroom gymnastics. Liberals clearly were much more comfortable with this approach…By keeping the topic of gay sexuality a private, bedroom matter, liberals also did not have to confront the reality of gay sexuality, something that still made them uncomfortable” (86).
Prominent “gay moderates” included the co-founders of the Society for Individual Rights (Jim Foster and Rick Stokes), Advocate publisher David Goodstein, and Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon, the founders of the Daughters of Bilitis. Together, they all formed the Alice B. Toklas Democratic Club, which they used as a base for their political lobbying. And, for a variety of reasons, they always vehemently opposed Harvey Milk’s election efforts in San Francisco: they did not think it was realistically possible for an out gay candidate to win an election, they were afraid of losing their leadership positions in the gay community, and they thought that electing a homosexual would not be as beneficial for gay rights as coddling up to the city’s political establishment.
The strategy of cultivating “liberal friends” did bring some benefits. For example, in exchange for supporting Art Agnos over Harvey Milk in a Democratic Primary for the California State Assembly, the “gay moderates” managed to secure a repeal of California’s sodomy statute. And by 1975, ten cities and three counties enacted gay civil rights ordinances, which made various types of discrimination against homosexuals illegal. But the “gay moderate” approach also had some very serious drawbacks. In a twist on Tennessee Williams’ famous phrase, Harvey Milk rightly accused them of “depending on the kindness of heterosexuals” (Shilts, 148). In a difficult situation, the straight liberals would “always act solely to save themselves,” and this was proven in the wake of Anita Bryant’s successful 1977 campaign to repeal Dade County’s gay rights ordinance (Shilts, 148). By that year, public opinion shifted against the gay movement, and San Francisco’s liberal politicians began to avoid openly supporting gay rights for fear of losing votes. For instance, most of the city’s political elite avoided the 1977 Gay Freedom Day Parade, even though they had participated actively in previous queer manifestations. Straight liberals would only be reliable allies as long as supporting gay rights could win them votes.
The second problem with the “gay moderate” approach was its excessive legalism: they defined gay progress largely in terms of the successful resolution of legal issues relating to homosexuals. But positive changes for gays in the legal system were only going to have an effect if people’s opinions about homosexuals changed. It would be difficult to implement new laws if no one actually believed in implementing them. Legal victories would have to be backed up by wider transformations in social value systems and beliefs about gays. The “gay moderates” focused far too much on backroom deals with prominent politicians, and apart from Jim Foster’s rousing speech at the 1972 Democratic National Convention, almost completely neglected the necessary work of engaging with the attitudes of the wider population and developing a grassroots movement for gay liberation.
Grassroots Gay Realpolitik?
Milk developed his activism largely in opposition to the dominant “gay moderate” faction in San Francisco. Shilts claims that Milk was a practitioner of a populist version of “realpolitik,” or political realism (107), which aimed to move the gay movement forward not by “nurturing liberal friends through high-level politicking, but [by] forging strong power for gays at the grassroots” (288). While Shilts does not adequately explore the meaning of realpolitik and how it applies to Harvey Milk, I believe that it is possible to view some aspects of Milk’s activism as belonging to that tradition of political thinking and practice.
First, a realpolitik-inspired view of the world assumes that power is the key to political success. Whichever political faction has a large amount of material power (many people on its side, considerable economic clout, and military strength) is likely to get what it wants. To this effect, Milk sought to use the burgeoning numbers of gay men in San Francisco, and their increasing economic importance, as a way of gaining political influence. By 1976, about eighty homosexuals migrated to the city per week and one in five citizens were gay. Milk encouraged the gay community to use this strength-in-numbers at the ballot box by only voting for out homosexual candidates or straight candidates who have a history of unequivocally supporting gay rights. Milk’s volunteer corps registered thousands of gay voters every year, and he considered get-out-the-vote drives, which astronomically increased the numbers of homosexuals who voted, to be one of the major successes of his activism. Milk was also keen to flaunt the economic significance of the San Francisco gay community. When a Castro neighborhood storeowner complained that gays were disrupting the “family character” of the area, Milk did not hesitate to subtly remind him that his business had tripled since a gay bar was set up across the street from his store (Shilts, 139).
Second, practitioners of realpolitik tend to form alliances with other political factions on a pragmatic basis. They do not aim to build partnerships according to moral or ideological affinities; for realists, there is “no virtue like necessity” in seeking political friends. Milk adopted this framework in his grassroots coalition building. He formed close links with unions, such as the Teamsters, by demonstrating that the gay community could be useful to them. Although homophobia was common in their ranks, union leaders were impressed by the economic clout that gays held in San Francisco. For instance, the ultimate success of the unions’ boycott of Coors beer largely depended on the participation of the Castro neighborhood’s gay community, led by Harvey Milk. When they realized this, union leaders began to see the merits of forming a close friendship with gays. Milk was less interested in winning people over with moral arguments about homosexual rights than in developing a long-term marriages of convenience based on common economic and political interests.
Visibility and the American Dream: Harvey Milk’s Moral Vision
This is not to say that he completely ignored moral issues. For Milk, the primary moral priority of the gay movement can be summed up with one word: visibility. Electing a gay public official – such as himself – would “set an example for younger gays,” increase their self-esteem, and encourage them to come out (Shilts 169). Milk was fond of saying that “the true function of politics is not just to pass laws, but to give hope,” and he was convinced that a successful gay public figure would give much needed succor to the millions of closeted gays across the United States. Such a figure would also serve to destroy common myths that fuel the fire of anti-homosexual thought. If people could just see a homosexual person performing a public function well, they would quickly understand that gays are not child molesters, communists, sick people and sinners. One of Milk’s proudest moments was when he garnered national attention for his campaign to create laws that would oblige dog owners to clean up their dogs’ waste on the street. He was thrilled that the stories covering the campaign did not center on him being gay, but were simply about “a gay person who is doing his job” (Shilts, 239). This is how Milk wanted to educate the heterosexual majority: less with arguments about the moral status of homosexuality than with evidence that gay people exist all around us and that negative stereotypes about them have no basis whatsoever. He also pioneered the controversial strategy of “outing” by leaking information about the homosexuality of Billy Sipple, the man who saved President Gerald Ford from assassination, to the press. This was his way of showing that “gays do heroic things [and putting to rest]…all that ca-ca about molesting children and hanging out in bathrooms” (Shilts, 144).
Milk also conceptualized the struggle for gay liberation as “the fight to preserve democracy” (Shilts, 264). When he talked about homosexual rights, he based his arguments largely on the principles expressed in the United States’ founding documents. And he portrayed anti-gay bigots, who wanted to put out homosexuals in jail and prevent them from entering into certain occupations (such as teaching), as fundamentally threatening all Americans’ basic First Amendment rights – freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, and the right to petition. The following excerpt from one of his speeches provides is an example of this tactic:
“In the Declaration of independence, it is written: ‘All men are created equal and they are endowed with certain inalienable rights’…For [John] Briggs and [Anita] Bryant… and all the bigots out there: That’s what America is. No matter how hard you try, you cannot erase those words from the Declaration of Independence…That’s what America is. Love it or leave it” (Shilts, 265).
This is very similar to the political strategy advocated by Richard Rorty in Achieving Our Country (as explained in this previous post), which was put to use by Barack Obama. Instead of solely providing a trenchant critique of heteronormative U.S. society, Milk sought to give hope by showing that the principles of the gay liberation movement were already embedded in American political culture. The United States may not be a perfect nation (as evidenced by its racism, sexism and homophobia), but it is perfectible: a “more perfect union” can be achieved if Americans strive to fulfill the principles embedded in their country’s founding documents. In this sense, Milk’s approach to gay rights was deeply patriotic and likely to inspire U.S. citizens to action.
***For More Information***
This post has been largely based on information from Randy Shilts’ excellent book, The Mayor of Castro Street: The Life and Times of Harvey Milk. This is so far the only major publication to focus solely on Milk. Otherwise, there are many audios and transcripts of his speeches, pictures of his campaigns, and short articles about his life, on the Internet. Most of them can be accessed via this Wikipedia page. I realize that I have oversimplified the highly complex realpolitik political tradition in this post. To find out more about it, see Jack Donnelly’s Realism and International Relations, Reinhold Niebuhr’s Moral Man and Immoral Society, and Jonathan Haslam’s No Virtue Like Necessity: Realist thought in International Relations since Machiavelli. On the clashes between different ideologies (such as the moderates and the liberationists) within the gay and lesbian movement, have a look at the following articles by Mary Bernstein: “Celebration and Suppression: The Strategic Uses of Identity,” and “Identities and Politics: Toward a Historical Understanding of the Lesbian and Gay Movement.”
The Year of Harvey Milk
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