By Kaylia Metcalfe
On May 22, California residents will celebrate Harvey Milk Day.
You might vaguely remember Harvey Milk as the subject of that biopic several years ago (Sean Penn and an infamous sex scene, right?). Perhaps you think of him as some sort of LGBT hero that died back in the 1970s—and wasn’t there something about a Twinkie?
Consider this your crash course in why Milk matters.
Harvey Milk was the first openly gay man to be elected to public office in California and the first non-incumbent gay man to be elected to public office in the United States. He was publicly assassinated during his term on the City Council.
In 2010, more than a hundred gay politicians claimed elected victory. And as of 2011, 48 states have been served by openly LGBT elected politicians (the exceptions being Alaska and South Dakota) and 32 states have elected openly gay politicians to one or both houses of state legislatures.
Obviously, a shift in public opinion and a tendency toward open-mindedness can be credited with much of these successes, but Milk was one of the first, and he did it in 1977.
San Francisco 1977, but still; 1977 was just four short years after the American Psychiatric Association removed “homosexuality” from its Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. In 1975, California had officially legalized homosexuality thanks to the Consenting Adult Sex Bill, and the tide was beginning to shift.
Many people mistakenly think Milk was the first elected gay politician. That isn’t exactly true. He technically was the first openly gay man to win a first-time election. We would be remiss if we forgot Kathy Kozachenko, who served on a City Council in Michigan; Elaine Noble, who was a state legislator in Massachusetts; and Allan Spear, a Minnesota state legislator who came out during his first term and then won reelection.
But none of that diminishes who Milk was or what he did. The epitome of the common man, Milk wasn’t all that political. It wasn’t the LGBT struggle that led him into politics, but rather a frustration with how the city government treated business owners (Milk and his partner Scott Smith ran a camera store in the Castro district).
Milk was also flabbergasted at the state of public schools in San Francisco; a famous anecdote features Milk becoming outraged when a teacher came to his store in order to get a working projector. The ones in the schools were broken, and there was no sign of them getting repaired.
It was shortly after this incident that Milk said what would later be one of his most famous, and influential, quotes: “I knew I had to become involved, or shut up.”
More than anything else, that spirit of helping to fix the city’s problems instead of fuming as a bystander was to be his legacy. Here was a man who got involved because it was the right thing to do, because he understood the adage of if you aren’t part of the solution, you’re part of the problem.
Once in office, Milk began his tenure by sponsoring a civil rights bill that outlawed discrimination based on sexual orientation. The New York Times called the ordinance the “most stringent and encompassing in the nation” and drew attention to the growing power of the homosexual vote.
But he wasn’t a one-note politician. His other famous campaign was the “pooper scooper” ordinance that pushed for dog walkers to clean up after their pets! Milk was a man of the people, all people, and he wanted to make positive concrete changes.
His assassination, just 10 months after being sworn in, was not motivated by his sexuality, but by his political career. Dan White, who had clashed with Milk on such matters as the location of a mental institution and who had recently resigned but regretted it, shot Milk after killing Mayor George Moscone.
White’s defense, called the Twinkie defense as it relied on blaming his mental capacity on his junk food binge the night before, enraged the public. He was acquitted of first-degree murder charges but found guilty of voluntary manslaughter. Public outrage boiled over, and there were riots at city hall.
Which leads us to the last part of Milk’s legacy. His death, the trial, the outrage—these things led to changes in both city politics and the California legal system by ending district supervisor elections (this change was in effect for almost 20 years) and by changing the law to no longer accept diminished capacity as a defense for those who clearly knew what they were doing.
You can read more, lots more, about Milk on the Internet, but I hope this quick rundown of factoids serves you well in the coming month.
Note: The Fresno LGBT Community Center will be providing a free screening of Milk on May 22. For more details, visit www.fresnolgbtcenter.org.
Kaylia Metcalfe is a writer, blogger and activist in Fresno. She is a cofounder of Skeptics Without a Cause and serves on the Gay Central Valley Board of Directors. Her short story collection Links is available at www.amazon.com. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.