Harvey Milk and homosexuality in politics

More and more openly gays elected into public offices fight for LGBT rights.

HomoCulture LGBT History Silvia Hildebrandt

This article was published on October 30th, 2018

Right after Stonewall, homosexuality became a political issue. 1971 already saw a major change in laws and LGBT rights. More and more countries along with U.S. states decriminalized homosexuality. Sodomy laws, together with all victimless crime laws, are called for a repeal by the US Libertarian Party.

Franklin Kameny

Franklin Kameny became the first candidate for the United States Congress who openly came out as gay. After his defeat by Walter Fauntroy, Kameny founded the Gay and Lesbian Activists Alliance in Washington DC. Kameny and his organization fought hard to remove homosexuality from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. On December 15 1973, a day when “we were cured en masse by the psychiatrists,” as he described his success, the American Psychiatric Association removed homosexuality from the DSM.

His second project was helping service members of the U.S. military to obtain honorable discharges after they were discovered to be gay and faced humiliating and career-destroying punishments.

Throughout the seventies, many openly gay men and women held positions in public offices.

Harvey Milk and homosexuality in politics

The most famous of them is Harvey Milk, who was elected city-county supervisor in San Francisco in 1977. Living a drifting hippie life with his partner Scott Smith in the gay community of San Francisco, Milk almost serendipitously found his calling with a political career in 1973. Arguing for the rights of small business owners – he had a camera shop on Castro Street – he decided the time was ripe for him to go into politics and to actively change what he considered injustice. Although people in his inner circle acknowledged him his natural talent for politics, gay right activists, and the gay community as a whole frowned upon him and his work. “There’s an old saying in the Democratic Party. You don’t get to dance unless you put up the chairs. I’ve never seen [Milk] put up the chairs,” as gay politician Jim Foster described his antipathy for the newcomer; most of his colleagues thought Milk was only advocating for his own interests, mostly concerning business ownership.

Equality rights leaders, Cleve Jones and Harvey Milk

His political job mingled with his sexual identity as he founded the Castro Village Association, after two gay men tried to open an antique shop, but their efforts were prevented by the Eureka Valley Merchants Association. For a longer period of time, tensions were growing between the gay Castro District and the older inhabitants of the Most Holy Redeemer Parish. Having noticed his talents for political activism for gay rights, he organized the Castro Street Fair in 1974 to attract customers for the shops and small businesses in his neighbourhood; earlier, he’d stated that gays should only buy from gay businesses.

After the mid 1970s, he continued his wider political ambitions up to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. But he still remained one of the main figures of gay rights movements in San Francisco. He himself saw his work in favor of the LGBT community: “We want gays to represent gays … I represent the gay street people—the 14-year-old runaway from San Antonio. We have to make up for hundreds of years of persecution. We have to give hope to that poor runaway kid from San Antonio. They go to the bars because churches are hostile. They need hope! They need a piece of the pie!”

Harvey Milk and homosexuality in politics

His assassination on November 27, 1978, however, had nothing to do with people’s attitude against his sexuality. Ex-board member Dan White, frustrated by the city’s politics and arguing about his low income, had resigned earlier but, having second thoughts, requested Mayor Moscone for him to be reinstated. Moscone, on advice of Milk, refused. Dan White killed both Milk and Moscone. A discord between White and Moscone had led to Milk’s death because he was caught in the crossfire. Actually, Dan White often had been in favor of Milk’s activism concerning gay rights.

Nevertheless, the White Night Riots broke out after Milk’s death on May 21, 1979. San Francisco’s gay community was outraged by Dan White’s conviction of voluntary manslaughter. Castro Street and the surrounding LGBT communities protested for White to being charged for first-degree murder. Thus, Milk became a martyr figure for the LGBT community. In fact, since Milk seeked a position in the California State Assembly, he began to receive increasingly violent death threats. Recording his thoughts and last wills, he ended with: “If a bullet should enter my brain, let that bullet destroy every closet door.”

Also in 1979, the first national homosexual rights march on Washington, D.C. was held.

The fight for the rights of gay people – sparked almost a decade ago by the Stonewall riots – wasn’t over as the 1980s were approaching. In fact, a new catastrophe which would shatter the community, emerged: a new, lethal disease that became known as Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome – AIDS.

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