Saturday, May 22, 2010

In Memoriam: Harvey Milk

If a bullet should go through my head let that bullet go through every closet door...

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at PhotobucketLong before he'd ever been successfully elected to anything, Harvey Milk proclaimed himself 'Mayor of Castro Street'; the mostly gay male community that had emerged in San Francisco in the 1970s ensured he held that title uncontested, and there's no telling what other titles he might have earned had Fate and hate not intervened. From the storefront of Castro Camera, a business he'd begun with Scott Smith in 1972 shortly after moving to the city, he built a grassroots movement whose effects are still being felt today - only now they're being felt around the world, and not just in one small part of San Francisco either!

Milk was finally elected to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors on his third attempt, in 1977 - the first openly gay man elected to any office in the United States (following lesbians Kathy Kozachenko of Michigan and Elaine Noble of Massachusetts by 3 and 2 years respectively).

In November 1978, Milk and San Francisco mayor George Moscone were murdered in their offices at San Francisco City Hall by former supervisor Dan White, a former police officer whose lawyers later defended him by blaming depression and a junk food diet. White was eventually convicted of 'voluntary manslaughter' and sentenced to serve seven years and eight months for the premeditated killing of two people.

Following the verdict - on the eve of what would have been Milk's 49th birthday - the city erupted in violence, which later came to be known as the White Night Riots. In terms of scale it's debatable if they outshone the Stonewall Riots, out of which the gay liberation movement had been forged, but in terms of impact they were at least equal, and they pointed to the gay male community's utter refusal to put up with any further bigotry.

In February 2007 a statue of Harvey Milk was erected in his adopted city as a tribute to the man and his legacy, which barely touches the civic and cultural tributes paid to the slain civil rights leader, which also includes San Francisco's Harvey Milk Plaza where Market and Castro Streets intersect as well as Harvey Milk High School in New York City, whose opening in 1985 as part of the Hetrick Martin Institute raised nearly as many hackles amongst the bullyocracy as it did when its operation was taken over by the city's Department of Education in 2002*.

The Mayor of Castro Street by Randy Shilts was one of not only the first books devoted to Milk's life and legacy, it was also one of the first books of gay history I ever read, and remains one of the finest ever written on any subject; it comes most highly recommended by the Pop Culture Institute.  Likewise the 1984 documentary The Times of Harvey Milk, narrated by Harvey Fierstein, which won the Academy Award. Gus Van Sant's 2008 film Milk earned Sean Penn a Best Actor Oscar; Bryan Singer has also been rumoured to be at work on a film about the life and death of Harvey Milk.

*In typical fashion, the bigots' complaining only served to underline the need for the school in the first place!

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