Yale University Press
2018, 296 pp, $25.00
Last April, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors voted to name the main terminal at San Francisco International Airport after Harvey Milk, the gay rights martyr who was assassinated 40 years ago. The decision further (and literally) cements Milk’s legacy as the best-known LGBT activist in American history.
Yet the new biography of Milk by one of the world’s leading historians of LGBT life, Lillian Faderman, suggests that we don’t know him that well at all.
All heroes have feet of clay, of course, and Harvey (Faderman calls him by his first name, and so will I—it’s almost part of his persona) was no different. It’s no surprise that, as a third-generation American Jew from New York, Harvey was an irascible, temperamental guy who wouldn’t last long in the age of #metoo. And while his series of intergenerational relationships with increasingly needy young men may scandalize some straight readers, that’s also not so surprising (or unusual) in the gay community.
The most interesting section of the book is the first part, which covers the 45 years of Harvey’s life before his brief period of fame in San Francisco. It turns out that he was a lost soul for most of that time. After growing up in Brooklyn and graduating from the New York State College for Teachers in 1951 (Harvey was a regular at Hillel, pledged a Jewish fraternity and was an early Zionist activist), he wandered for years. Following a stint in the Navy, he lived in Los Angeles, in his parents’ house on Long Island, in Dallas, New York, Miami, New York again, Dallas again, New York a third time, San Francisco, L.A. again, and finally, in 1972, settled in San Francisco for good.
All along, Harvey dreamed of a life in the theater. He enjoyed a peripheral career in it, but it couldn’t sustain him and he returned, again and again, to jobs he didn’t like: teaching, sales, insurance, finance. Faderman makes a convincing case that even Harvey’s political career was a kind of theater for him, one at which he excelled.
Harvey had known he was gay since he was a teenager—he had hooked up with “opera queens” for sexual liaisons at the Met—and in the 1960s, while working on Wall Street, he lived a partly open gay life with a long-term partner. Surprisingly, however, he was barely aware of the 1969 Stonewall riots in New York City, which are widely credited as the beginning of the modern LGBT movement. On the contrary, he thought the radicals of the period were naïve.
Still, by 1972, swept up in the spirit of the times, he’d grown long hair and a scraggly beard, and made his way, like so many others, to San Francisco. Suddenly, he abandoned his establishment-liberal politics and became a rabble-rousing local activist, writing a newspaper column, organizing meetings and, in 1973, running for city supervisor, the equivalent of city council member.
He lost. Then in 1975, he lost again. In 1976, he lost a race for State Assembly. Even the gay political establishment ridiculed him. But Harvey persisted, and after San Francisco changed the Board of Supervisors from being elected by the entire city to representing specific districts in 1977, Harvey finally won.
The years 1977 and 1978 were pivotal for gay rights. In Florida, Anita Bryant was successfully rolling back a local gay rights ordinance by depicting gays as child molesters and sexual predators. In California, the issue was the Briggs Initiative, which sought to bar gays and lesbians from teaching in public schools. These and other anti-gay issues finally gave Harvey a chance to shine. He spoke eloquently and dramatically at the Board of Supervisors, on the streets and in front of any audience that would have him. He cannily built coalitions with unions, with African American leaders, even with Jim Jones’s Peoples Temple. The Briggs Initiative was defeated, making national news. Harvey was, for a brief shining moment, the most famous gay man in America.
He was also outspokenly Jewish. Not religiously observant, but a cultural Jew through and through. As Faderman describes, the combination of marginality, anti-Semitism, the immigrant experience and some notion of Jewish prophetic values combined in Harvey, as in many of his generation’s peers, to propel him along the path of activism. He didn’t hesitate to invoke the Holocaust (again and again and again) as an example of what happens when hatred is allowed to prevail.
And then, in November 1978, he was murdered by a fellow city supervisor, Dan White. In fact, White’s motive was resentment at having been double-crossed in a political deal by Harvey and by Mayor George Moscone, not homophobia. But for the gay community, this was martyrdom, plain and simple. White, after all, was a conservative and a homophobe. He and Harvey had sparred openly and often. And now Harvey—who had once said, “if a bullet should enter my brain, let that bullet destroy every closet door”—was dead at age 48.
Faderman does a masterful job of narrating Harvey’s last day, slowing down the pace of the book to a minute-by-minute recap of that fateful morning. She also shows how quickly the legend of Harvey Milk (which culminated in the 2008 biopic Milk, nominated for eight Oscars) replaced the reality. Which, after all, happens to all martyrs—John F. Kennedy, for example, or even Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. In death, these figures loom even larger than in life.
And yet even today, Harvey’s work is incomplete. Turns out, the Harvey Milk Terminal at SFO is a compromise: The original proposal was to name the entire airport after him. But conservatives objected. Decades after his death, Harvey Milk remains a shediker—a troublemaker—for his fans and foes alike.
Jay Michaelson is a non-denominational ordained rabbi and a journalist. He writes a weekly column for The Daily Beast and is the author of six books, including God vs. Gay? The Religious Case for Equality.