Rainbow Flag at SF City Hall

Before there was Dan Savage and “It Gets Better,” before there was Barack Obama and “The Audacity of Hope,” before there was Bill Clinton, “the man from Hope,” there was Harvey Milk, who was among the first openly gay politicians to win elected office.

Thirty two years ago today at 10:55 AM, Harvey Milk was shot and killed in his office at City Hall in San Francisco.

“My name is Harvey Milk, and I’m here to recruit you. . .”

That was the standard opening line for his stump speech, as he ran unsuccessfully San Francisco city supervisor twice and California’s state assembly once before finally winning a seat on the SF Board of Supervisors in 1977. The line was Milk’s way of taking the stereotype of gays and turning it on its head with humor.

Throughout his political career, Milk fought two ongoing battles. One was against entrenched corporate and political interests, and the other against the local gay Veal Pen. In rereading journalist Randy Shilts’ biography of Milk entitled The Mayor of Castro Street, I’m struck by how savvy a politician Milk was, by how his battles remain our own, and by how we can learn from him.

The battle with big business is not hard to understand. In SF at the time, the downtown powers battled with the neighborhoods and small businesses. Unions battled with corporations, long-time residents looked askance at newcomers, and divisions of race and ethnicity churned things even more. As Milk became politically active, he recognized that anyone running for office needed allies in order to win, and he was quick to latch onto them — and just as quick to hold them accountable.

In 1973, drivers for the local Teamsters Union were striking against the six major beer distributors, looking for a better contract. Allan Baird, the organizer of the Coors boycott, came into Milk’s camera store, knowing he was a local activist in the area, and asked for his support with the boycott. Milk agreed, on one condition: that the Teamsters recruit and hire more gay drivers.

Five of the six brewers soon settled with the Teamsters, with Coors as the only holdout. The boycott sharpened, and Milk launched a big effort among the gay bars to quit serving Coors. According to Shilts, “Baird was surprised not only at Milk’s success, but by the fact that Harvey was as outraged at Coors discrimination against Chicanos as by the fabled Coors antipathy to gays.” (p. 83) Baird held up his end of the bargain, bringing more gay drivers into the Teamsters. Again, from Shilts: “‘These guys in the gay community are real powerful. I don’t think you understand their power yet,’ Baird told Teamsters officials.”

But they were learning, and so was Milk.

Meanwhile, the “nice gays” of the more moderate SF political scene were appalled. By pairing up with labor (especially in the anti-labor political environment of that time in SF), Milk was endangering the quiet inroads they had made with the downtown powers, the corporations, the money people, and their friends in the political establishment. Shilts captures Milk’s reaction (pp. 125-126):

Milk thought the gay reformers were like so many southern ladies from a Tennessee Williams play, always depending on the kindness of heterosexuals. In a pinch, Milk thought, the liberals would always act solely to save themselves; they would always urge gays to wait and be patient; the time would never be right. The answer, Milk thought, lay in seizing power for gays. Power, not polite lobbying, would win the gay cause. Every day of waiting would only increase the suffering wrought by a society that, Milk believed, still fundamentally hated homosexuals and still prodded gays to hate themselves.

I don’t know about you, but Milk’s diagnosis of the veal pen seems spot on to me. The plaintiffs in the challenge to Prop 8 were told “it’s too soon — just wait.” The opponents of DADT and DOMA are told the same thing. Proponents of ENDA are told the same thing. But in pushing against both the veal pen and those in power, these activists are walking in Milk’s footsteps.

Milk won by building coalitions with labor and others outside the political power structure, and by refusing the “be nice” as “nice” was defined by those same political power structures. At a time when gays were invisible or stereotyped as child molesters and perverts, Milk got the endorsements of macho unions like the Teamsters, the firefighters, and the construction unions. Imagine hardhat workers alongside drag queens, stuffing envelopes in his campaign headquarters. I think Harvey would have loved the sight of David Boies and Ted Olson at the Prop 8 trial — talk about coalition-building! Milk understood that politics is about power, and simply asking those in power to be nice would not do.

Milk’s stump speech, by the end of his career, came to be called “the Hope Speech” because of its conclusion. In it, he spoke of the pains and problems of not only gays but other groups, noting that anyone suffering oppression deserves to have relief. On the ballot in 1978 was the now-famous Proposition 13, which Milk took on directly when he spoke to the gay caucus of the California Democratic Council:

We hear the taxpayers talk about it on both sides. But what you don’t hear is that it’s probably the most racist issue on the ballot in a long time. In the City and County of San Francisco, if it passes and we indeed have to lay off people, who will they be? The last in, not the first in, and who are the last but the minorities.

The conclusion of the Hope speech was this:

I can’t forget the looks on the faces of people who’ve lost hope. Be they gay, be they seniors, be they blacks looking for an almost-impossible job, be they Latins trying to explain their problems and aspirations in a tongue that is foreign to them. . . . [After recounting various specific episodes of pain and oppression in San Francisco, he noted that these people were] reaching out for some symbolic thing that would give them hope. These were strong people, people whose faces I knew from the shop, the streets, meetings and people who I never saw before but I knew. They were strong, but even they needed hope.

And the young gay people in the Altoona, Pennsylvanias and the Richmond, Minnesotas who are coming out [this refers back to two stories told earlier in the speech] and hear Anita Bryant on television and her story. The only thing they have to look forward to is hope. And you have to give them hope. Hope for a better world, hope for a better tomorrow, hope for a better place to come to if the pressures at home are too great. Hope that all will be all right. Without hope, not only gays, but the blacks, the seniors, the handicapped, the us’es, the us’es will give up. . . .

So if there is a message I have to give, it is that if I’ve found one overriding thing about my personal election, it’s the fact that if a gay person can be elected, it’s a green light. And you and you and you, you have to give people hope.

Thirty two years ago today at 10:55 AM, Harvey Milk was shot and killed in his office at City Hall in San Francisco, but the message of hope that he offered to his city took root across the country, even in the backyard of Fred Phelps.

He built coalitions and spurned the Veal Pen’s approach, all to give hope.

Thanks, Harvey.

(photo h/t: Jamison Weiser)