This Friday would have been slain San Francisco supervisor Harvey Milks 79th birthday, and California state senator Mark Leno has introduced legislation to mark the date with a state holiday. The bill doesnt call for a furlough from work, but instead instructs the governor to proclaim a Harvey Milk Day and designates that date as having special significance in the public schools and educational institutions and encourages them to conduct suitable commemorative exercises. The legislation passed muster with the state senate in overwhelming fashion last week. Though only about one in five Californians polled supports the measure, and Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger vetoed a similar bill last year, Leno is optimistic. If theres one thing Arnold Schwarzenegger understands, its box office, Leno relates. And Harvey Milk now has box office.
Indeed he doesand critical acclaim, too. Earlier this year, Sean Penn won an Academy Award for his portrayal of Milk in the eponymous biopic. A quarter-century ago, the Harvey Fiersteinnarrated The Times of Harvey Milk won an Oscar for best documentary film.
Milk makes a rather unremarkable subject for the silver screen. In his seven years in San Francisco, he made four bids for elective office, only emerging victorious in his lasta 1977 run for city supervisor. For his persistence, Milk jokingly referred to himself as the gay Harold Stassen. He served for less than a year. In naming the onetime camera-shop proprietor one of the 100 most important people of the twentieth century, Time conceded, As a supervisor, Milk sponsored only two lawspredictably, one barring anti-gay discrimination, and, less so, a law forcing dog owners to clean pets messes from sidewalks. Eleven months on the city council hardly seems the stuff of Hollywood legend. So Hollywood invented a legend.
Rather than the gentle, soft-spoken idealist portrayed by Sean Penn, the real Harvey Milk was a short-tempered demagogue who cynically invented stories of victimhood to advance his political career. During his successful run for city supervisor, for instance, Milks camera store was the object of a glass-shattering attack by low-grade explosives. Milk blamed singer Anita Bryant, the outspoken opponent of gay-friendly legislation. Years later friends hinted broadly that Harvey had more than a little foreknowledge that the explosions would happen, biographer Randy Shilts noted. One friend explained to Shilts: You gotta realize the campaign was sort of going slow, and, well . . .
The stunt would hardly have been the sole instance of Milks employing deceit to further his standing within the victimhood cult. In the upside-down world of San Francisco politics, Milk curried favor with voters by boasting that his homosexuality had resulted in a dishonorable discharge from the Navy in the dark ages before the sexual revolution. But far from the in-your-face, ponytailed Mayor of Castro Street of the 1970s, Chief Petty Officer Milk of the 1950s was a closeted homosexual whose discharge papers reflected four years of honorable service.
Milk was far more cavalier about the privacy of others than he was about his own. When Bill Sipple became a national hero for tackling gun-toting kook Sara Jane Moore before she could kill President Gerald Ford in 1975, Milk anonymously leaked news of the former Marines homosexuality to the media. Its too good an opportunity, Milk reasoned. For once we can show that gays do heroic things. Just as Milk anticipated the outing tactics of ACT-Up and Queer Nation, his rhetoric, too, foreshadowed the hyperbole of AIDS activists of the following decade. Milk liberally tossed the Nazi label at opponents of various gay-rights proposals and even compared politically moderate homosexuals to Nazi collaborators. We are not going to allow our rights to be taken away and then march with bowed heads into the gas chambers, Milk proclaimed at 1978s Gay Freedom Parade in San Francisco.
Such unflattering details made neither the final draft of the Harvey Milk Day legislation nor the final cut of the Milk biopic. Milks cheerleaders are guilty of sins of omission and commission. What the film and legislation insinuatein an effort to depict Milk as a martyr for the gay rights movement on par with Martin Luther Kings martyrdom for the Civil Rights movementis that homophobia killed Harvey Milk on November 27, 1978.
But Harvey Milks homosexuality played about as much of a role in his murder as San Francisco mayor George Moscones heterosexuality played in his. Their murderer, troubled political neophyte Dan White, had donated $100 to defeat the Briggs Initiative, which would have empowered school boards to fire teachers for homosexuality. White hired a homosexual as his campaign manager and voted as a city supervisor to fund a Pride Center for homosexuals. White wasnt driven to murder by Milks vision of gay rights but rather by something more pedestrian: the petty politics of City Hall. What makes for good history doesnt always lend itself to good theater.
In a sign of the instability he would so dramatically display on November 27, a cash-strapped White had resigned his seat on the Board of Supervisors on November 10, only to demand four days later that the mayor reappoint him. Mayor Moscone publicly responded by saying that he still regarded White as a member of the board, handed back his letter of resignation, and promised him the seat. Enter Harvey Milk, who saw White as an obstacle to progressive initiatives. As the movie depicts, Milk successfully lobbied Moscone to refuse to reseat the former policeman, fireman, and Vietnam veteran. Believing Milk and Moscone guilty of perfidy, the tightly wound, sore-loser White assassinated Moscone and then Milk.
Perhaps the most amazing historical detail of the murders of Harvey Milk and George Moscone is that their dramatic assassinations werent the biggest story to hit San Francisco in November of 1978. Bowdlerized from the Hollywood treatment is the role Harvey Milk played in the news story that eclipsed his own murder.
Nine days prior to Milks death, more than 900 followers of Jim Jonesmany of them campaign workers for Milkperished in the most ghastly set of murder-suicides in modern history. Before the congregants of the Peoples Temple drank Jim Joness deadly Kool-Aid, Harvey Milk and much of San Franciscos ruling class had already figuratively imbibed. Milk occasionally spoke at Joness San Franciscobased headquarters, promoted Jones through his newspaper columns, and defended the Peoples Temple from its growing legion of critics. Jones provided conscripted volunteers for Milks campaigns to distribute leaflets by the tens of thousands. Milk returned the favor by abusing his position of public trust on behalf of Joness criminal endeavors.
Rev. Jones is widely known in the minority communities here and elsewhere as a man of the highest character, who has undertaken constructive remedies for social problems which have been amazing in their scope and effectiveness, Supervisor Milk wrote President Jimmy Carter seven months before the Jonestown carnage. The purpose of Milks letter was to aid and abet his powerful supporters abduction of a six-year-old boy. Milks missive to the president prophetically continued: Not only is the life of a child at stake, who currently has loving and protective parents in the Rev. and Mrs. Jones, but our official relations with Guyana could stand to be jeopardized, to the potentially great embarrassment of our State Department. John Stoen, the boy whose actual parents Milk libeled to the president as purveyors of bold-faced lies and blackmail attempts, perished at Jonestown. This, the only remarkable episode in Milks brief tenure on the San Francisco board of supervisors, is swept under the rug by his hagiographers.
Sean Penns Harvey Milk is as real as Toby Maguires Spider-Man. Who has time for the sordid details of purportedly staged hate crimes and boosterism of Americas most prolific mass murderer when there is a gay Martin Luther King to be mythologized? Even the fervent atheist Milk understood the need for patron saints. When confronted by a jaded supporter over his fabricated tale that the Navy had booted him out because of his sex life, Milk responded: Symbols. Symbols. Symbols. He understood his movement better than his movement did. When the facts didnt fit the script, both Milk and his present-day admirers adjusted the facts. As the elected sponsors of Harvey Milk Day realize, Californians are more likely to remember the celluloid hero they saw depicted by Sean Penn earlier this year than the obscure city official who walked largely unnoticed in their midst three decades ago.
The advocates of a Harvey Milk Day know box office. They dont know the real Harvey Milk.
Daniel J. Flynn, the author of A Conservative History of the American Left, blogs at www.flynnfiles.com.