My previous post attempted to characterize Harvey Milk’s political philosophy and activist approach. It argued that he engaged in a form of “grassroots gay realpolitik,” which eschewed back-room alliances with high-ranking straight liberals in favor of augmenting political and economic power for gays through pragmatic coalitions with unions and small business owners. He also believed that achieving “visibility” by coming out en masse would go a long way towards eliminating negative stereotypes about gay people and that the best way to argue in favor of queer rights was to appeal to the principles of individual liberty embedded in the U.S. Constitution. Milk’s thinking was clearly ahead of his time, in many ways, and he deserves to be recognized, appreciated and canonized for his inspirational leadership and pioneering role.

Nevertheless, there were also important flaws in his activism, and this post will provide a brief summary of some of the criticisms that can be leveled against him. While Milk developed an effective framework for gay male rights and gay male freedom, he did not build effective links with other sexual and racial minorities, and he failed to develop a broader moral vision for the general liberation of gender and sexuality. He was also not very interested in thinking about oppressive conformity and gender politics within the homosexual community itself, and he largely ignored the emerging devaluation of feminine men in San Francisco’s Castro neighborhood.

Lack of Alliances with Other Sexual and Gender Minorities

Despite his skilful coalition building with unions and small business owners, Milk failed to develop alliances with other groups seeking changes to the dominant gender, sexual and racial order. Feminists, lesbians, transsexuals and non-White communities were largely excluded (or excluded themselves) from his campaigns, and the movement he developed was far too white gay-male centric.

Although Anne Kronenberg was closely involved in Milk’s staff, few lesbians took part in Milk’s Castro Street demonstrations. According to Randy Shilts, “lesbian leaders had…spread the word that Harvey was anti-woman, partially [due to his] close alliances with drag queens” (211). “He’s a man,” they used to say to Kronenberg, “he’s just going to use you and throw you out” (211). While this attitude is extremely sexist towards both men and drag queens, Milk did not do much to reach out to lesbians; he did not bother to dispel the negative rumors that lesbian leaders had been spreading about him. Milk’s main constituency was the gay male community, and aside from hiring Kronenberg as a campaign manager, he made very few attempts to include lesbians in his activism.

Furthermore, even though he managed to secure a close friendship with the leaders of San Francisco’s Chinese-American community, he failed to make strong links with other racial minorities, such as the city’s Latinos and African-Americans. He allegedly campaigned less in their neighborhoods because he “assum[ed] that they would be too homophobic to support him” (Shilts, 170). But this is very uncharacteristic of Milk, given the fact that he was able to overcome homophobic reactions from the unions and develop strong a partnership with their leaders. And he was also fond of saying, with regards to queer issues, that “everyone can be reached, everyone can be educated and helped” (220). For Milk, there was no such thing as a person or a community that is indelibly homophobic.

His approach to the Latino and African-American communities clearly contradicts this view and suggests that he may have harbored racist biases against them, even though he often admired the achievements of the Civil Rights Movement. Avoiding the neighborhoods of these two racial minorities was also a major tactical mistake, since he “left virgin…territory” to other candidates (Shilts, 170). Indeed, Art Agnos owed his victory over Milk in a Democratic Primary for the California State Assembly to the fact that Milk diminished his campaign efforts in many non-White neighborhoods. This move eerily foreshadows Proposition 8 opponents’ reluctance to campaign in the Latino and African-American areas of California, which certainly contributed to their defeat.

No Vision of General Sexual and Gender Liberation

Although Milk focused far more on changing social attitudes towards homosexuals than the “gay moderates,” his approach to this issue was still somewhat limited. He believed that one of the best ways to alter the heterosexual majority’s opinions about gays would be to convince straight Americans that opposing queer rights could undermine the foundational principles that that their country was built on. He did not reflect very deeply about why homophobia was so endemic in society and how dominant ideas about sex, gender, and sexuality would have to be transformed in order for homosexuality to be accepted as a part of everyday life.

This is what was crucially missing from Milk’s activism. He thought that the principles of individual liberty, embedded in the U.S. constitution, were the major weapon in the fight against homophobic society. But would that be enough? Certainly, it is possible to argue successfully that, given the rights to freedom speech, freedom of association and the (still contested) right to privacy, the persecution of homosexuals is unconstitutional and “un-American.” However, this is still an overly legalistic argument (which is what Milk often reproached the “gay moderates” for). Would it have been possible, instead, to conceptualize the oppression of homosexuals as just another form of sexism? As Riki Wilchins points out in Genderqueer: Voices from Beyond the Sexual Binary:

“A man having sex with a man or a woman having sex with a woman is itself the most profound transgression of gender norms conceivable. It is at the heart of homophobia. It need not harm gay political aspirations to admit the obvious. That if it is gender-feminine to pull a dress over the male body, it is gender-feminine to pull a man down on it as well” (57).

By framing the gay movement as yet another battle against sexism, Milk would have connected it to the broader struggle against gender and sexuality-based oppression, instead of simply fighting for the constitutional rights of gay males. Such a general approach towards sexual liberation tout court would have greatly facilitated connections with feminists, transgender individuals, and lesbians. It could have also included heterosexuals; by exposing how straight sexual expression was also limited in some ways by societal norms. But Milk did not concern himself much with deeper questions about the origins of homophobia and its connection to systemic sexism and gender oppression. Perhaps due to his history of activism in right-wing Republican politics during the 1960s (he handed out leaflets for the Goldwater campaign on the New York subway), he was most likely to conceptualize the gay movement in a patriotic way, as working to fulfill the promise of individual liberty in the U.S. constitution. While this approach had its advantages, an inclusive vision for the general liberation of gender and sexuality was missing from Milk’s thinking.

Furthermore, the nature of Milk’s grassroots coalition-building (developing pragmatic alliances on the basis of common economic and political interests) was likely to encourage people to tolerate the gay community and to work with it when it was in their interests. It was no guarantee that homosexuality would be accepted. Was a homophobic union member, who developed a congenial working relationship with the gay community, more likely to accept her/his gay son or daughter? It is possible. But it is also possible that this person could take the view that homosexuality is fine, but not in his or her family. Working pragmatically with gays and developing an awareness of and sensitivity to homosexual issues are two separate things. While they could go hand-in-hand, they also might not. Milk's realpolitik-style coalition building was, thus, more likely to inspire tolerance for gay people than acceptance.

Lack of Interest in the Politics and Sociology of Gay Identity

Finally, Milk did not seem to care very much about gender politics within the gay male community. During the 1970s, as more and more gay immigrants flooded into the Castro, the neighborhood culture of dress and mannerisms turned away from effeminate and hippie models towards what Randy Shilts termed “macho conformity” (137). The homosexual fashion of that time was “derived from the most virile male images of the society – cowboys, constructions workers, and military men” (136). The problem with this was that femininity among the gay men of the Castro was starting to become passé and a total turn-off, which foreshadowed the general devaluation of “flamboyant behavior” (read: effeminacy) in American gay culture that is still ever-present today. Shilts points out that a cruising ritual between two men could have easily failed in the Castro of the 1970s if “the first stare was too longing, if the nod came off at all prissy, [and] if the salutation’s tone [usually a grunt] was not aloof or masculine enough” (136).

Rick Nichols, a close friend of Harvey Milk, was irritated by this new intra-community gender discrimination. He often complained that the gay immigrants came to the Castro to be free, but all looked alike: “all they’re doing is fitting into another mold, finding a new conformity” (137). Milk responded that “this is the first chance [the new gay immigrants] have ever had to be free” and that the obsession with machismo and masculinity would eventually diminish, but he did not dwell too much on the issue (137). He was considerably more interested “in the vast [and increasing] numbers of handsome young men,” than in the “sociological implications of the burgeoning gay counterculture” (137). Thus, Milk can be reproached for ignoring the emerging “traditional sexism” within the San Francisco gay community, which posited that masculinity in men was superior to, and more desirable than, femininity (Serano, Whipping Girl, 15). This type of sexism is still common in the gay community today, and gay conservatives, such as Andrew Sullivan, have often touted it (as explained in this previous post).

Conclusion – An Ominous Foreshadowing?

Perhaps it is slightly unfair to level all these criticisms at Milk, given that he was one of the first nationally-recognized out gay public officials and that, in many ways, he changed the queer movement for the better. As explained in my previous post, his approach was certainly superior to that of the “gay moderates,” who focused excessively on building high-level connections with liberal politicians, defined progress for homosexuals in almost exclusively legal terms, and argued for rights on the conservative basis of portraying gays as “just the same” as the straight majority, “except for a few bedroom gymnastics” (Shilts, 86). Milk greatly improved on this elitist and traditionalist model by developing a powerful grassroots movement, encouraging visibility for gay people, building useful political alliances, and showing that it is possible for an out gay man to be elected to public office.

Nevertheless, the flaws in his approach must be recognized, especially since they seem to provide an eerie foreshadowing of some of the major problems that the queer movement faces today. The dominance of gay male concerns and the exclusion of lesbians, feminists and transgender individuals is still a pressing issue nowadays. Racism in queer spaces and an unwillingness to engage with non-White communities also remain major problems. And “flamboyant” (or feminine) men are still discriminated against in the gay community. Thus, while Harvey Milk is a great role model for modern queer activists to follow, his approach is also emblematic of many crucial flaws in today’s LGBT movement.

***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. For more on “traditional sexism” and the devaluation of femininity in heterosexual society and in queer communities, see Julia Serano’s Whipping Girl. Her work has been addressed in detail in these previous posts. If you want additional information on how homophobia is closely linked to sexism, see Genderqueer: Voices from Beyond the Gender Binary, edited by Joan Nestle, Clare Howell and Riki Wilchins.

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