Political Notebook: Milk's old columns resonate today

  • by Matthew S. Bajko
  • Wednesday May 21, 2008
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Supervisor Harvey Milk, right, and then-<i>B.A.R.</i><br> publisher Bob Ross meeting on March 7, 1978. Photo:<br>Dan Nicoletta
Supervisor Harvey Milk, right, and then-B.A.R.
publisher Bob Ross meeting on March 7, 1978. Photo:
Dan Nicoletta

Harvey Milk would have turned 78 today (Thursday, May 22) were his life not cut short nearly 30 years ago. No doubt Milk, a city supervisor and the first out gay person elected to office in a major U.S. city, never would have imagined how far the LGBT community would progress in its fight for equal rights when he celebrated his historic election night victory in 1977.

Of course, one year later former Supervisor Dan White gunned down Milk and then Mayor George Moscone in their City Hall offices. The deaths shocked the city and traumatized the LGBT community, but Milk's spirit and legacy survive to this day.

Last week when the state Supreme Court issued its historic ruling upholding same-sex couples' right to marry, the justices probably didn't have honoring Milk in mind. But the 4-3 decision came one week prior to the unveiling of a memorial bust of Milk that will sit under City Hall's Rotunda, where city leaders and same-sex couples gathered last Thursday to celebrate the ruling.

Tonight, Milk's friends, family, and admirers will gather inside the Beaux Arts-style building to pay tribute to him and see first hand the bronze sculpture that will forever sit at the top of the grand staircase mere feet away from the Board of Supervisors' chambers.

Beginning June 16, gay and lesbian couples likely will be exchanging their wedding vows before the smiling visage of Milk. It will be a fitting scene, as Milk was an early proponent of having LGBT people not only come out of the closet but also demand equal treatment from their government.

Hired first as a contributor, then as a political columnist, for the Bay Area Reporter in the mid-1970s, Milk sought to encourage the city's burgeoning gay population to become engaged in politics, register to voter, and demand to be counted and treated with respect.

Nor was Milk shy about using the platform of the paper to take on the city's political establishment. In one of his earliest contributions to the paper, a front-page story on May 15, 1974, Milk lashed out against then-Assemblyman John Foran for voting against a bill that would have overturned the state's anti-sodomy laws.

Milk criticized Foran, who was up for re-election, because "this man now wants the gay community to support him" and described him as a typical politician who asks "you to forget their actual voting records and to have 100 percent faith in what they say they are now going to do for you in the future if you would only vote for them."

Instead, Milk put out a call to arms, so to speak, calling on the gay community to organize itself into a political force to be reckoned with.

"The gay community has been sold down the river more than once. The time has come to show the political leaders of this state and this city that we no longer can be used," wrote Milk, whose first attempt for a Board of Supervisors seat was in 1973. "The time has come for all gays to make a commitment for themselves and not be wooed by pretty words."

Milk's words still resonate today, particularly in a year where Americans will go to the polls in November to elect a new president. Sadly, none of the three leading candidates embraces marriage equality for LGBT citizens, preferring instead some version of a union, be it civil unions or domestic partnerships.

Milk's words from the pages of the B.A.R. offer LGBT voters an important reminder as they weigh whom to support this year, be it for the White House, a Statehouse office, or in local races.

In championing Foran's opponent, Father Gene Boyle , in their 1974 race, Milk urged B.A.R. readers back then to see the election not as a vote for one man, but as a chance to send a political message, loud and clear, to the city's establishment.

"It is time to show political leaders of this city and state that the time has come for them to pay attention to gay rights while they are in office and not just give us pretty words at election time," wrote Milk. "We want actions and not unkept promises. If Foran has to be the first victim of gay voting power, I can think of no more deserving politician."

Later that month, Milk called for "a small army of 100 gay persons" who would commit to registering two people to vote per week over the next 12 months so that there would be 10,000 new gay voters.

"That is a block of votes that every person running for political office will seek," wrote Milk. [Foran evidently heard the message, for in 1975 Milk praised him for "working very hard for our community."]

The October 2, 1974 issue saw the debut of Milk's political column called Milk Forum, in which he discussed the re-election campaign of then-state Attorney General Evelle Younger, whom Milk wrote "wants to put you in jail for smoking grass; ... for having sex with a consenting adult; ... for reading dirty books. Younger probably wants to just put you in jail."

In successive columns Milk would complain that more people voted in the race for Emperor and Empress that year than for a gay person running to be a delegate to the Democratic National Convention; urged gays to support a boycott against Coors in solidarity with unions trying to organize delivery drivers; and challenged labor leader Cesar Chavez to speak out for gay rights.

Other issues Milk focused on included challenging the city's two dailies at the time – the San Francisco Examiner and San Francisco Chronicle – for their paltry coverage of the Gay Freedom Day Parade; championing a boycott against Florida orange juice; complaining about Muni's lackluster service; and criticizing city leaders' plans to revitalize the Yerba Buena area.

He also used his column as a platform for his own supervisor races in 1975 and 1977, and a failed attempt for state Assembly in 1976. Following his election win in 1977, Milk issued a victory statement in which he said he thanked those who voted for him, as well as those who did not.

"We are all winners," wrote Milk. "We may continue to disagree but I will always be willing to listen. And I will always be available."

The following month, in one of his last pieces for the paper, Milk used his December 22 column to invite people to join him in his walk from the Castro to City Hall on January 9, 1978 for his swearing-in ceremony. In it he reiterated his theme of "You gotta give them hope" he had used in his stump speeches on the campaign trail that year.

"It will be a walk that will remind a nation that the most important commodity a nation has is its people. I hope that everyone – gay and non-gay – makes that walk. The first step is one that walks over past differences ... past mistakes," wrote Milk. "It becomes a walk that will give many people – HOPE."

Even in his death, Milk continues to provide hope to LGBT and straight people alike. State lawmakers took another step toward honoring Milk this week when the Assembly voted 45-23 to pass AB 2567, which would establish May 22 as Harvey Milk Day in California. The bill, authored by Assemblyman Mark Leno (D-San Francisco) now moves to the Senate.

The unveiling tonight of the Harvey Milk City Hall sculpture will begin at 7 p.m. Doors open at 6 p.m. for the free event.


Last week's column inadvertently left off Luke Klipp from the list of candidates running for the Democratic County Central Committee in the 13th Assembly District who have been endorsed by the Bayard Rustin LGBTQ Coalition, a new political group for gay African Americans. The online version has been corrected.