If Sean Penn wins the Academy Award for best actor for portraying you in a biopic, you’re likely not an average politician. (If James Franco plays your boyfriend, well, that’s just a bonus feature.) And indeed Harvey Milk was quite different. As the first openly gay man to hold political office in a major American city, he was proud to be different.
But although he is famous for being a first, for being a high-profile face of what was a new struggle for more equal rights, Milk comes from a long line of Jews who fought for the oppressed.
For centuries the Jewish people has been considered as the “other.” Them. “The Jews.” Not us. Whether in Spain or in Russia, or from Argentina to Algeria, in many societies at various points in history Jews have been made to feel that they don’t belong.
Perhaps due this, many Jews have learned to sympathize with the stigmatized and to battle bigotry, both when it affects them and others.
There are endless examples of this, but perhaps the most repeated Jewish cri de coeur is Shylock’s speech in Shakespeare’s “The Merchant of Venice,” in which he argues that he and his people are equally human:
“If you prick us do we not bleed? If you tickle us do we not laugh? If you poison us do we not die? And if you wrong us shall we not revenge? If we are like you in the rest, we will resemble you in that.”
Although these words were also used to illustrate the fate of the Jews in Nazi-occupied Warsaw in Ernst Lubitsch’s 1942 masterful “To Be or Not to Be,” the timelessness of this sentiment and its enduring resonance go well beyond the Jewish experience.
So perhaps this persecution-inspired sympathy for marginalized people is bred into the Jewish consciousness. If so, it is no surprise that Jewish leaders have battled for equality in various areas.
For instance, many Jews were involved in the battle for equal rights for African Americans, including Kivie Kaplan who headed the NAACP, and Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman, the anti-racist activists murdered in Mississippi in 1964.
Jewish women have been prominent figures in the feminist movement, from Emma Goldman, who fought for the rights of women to obtain birth control, through Bella Abzug, to Gloria Steinem and Naomi Wolf.
In Europe, the United States and Beyond Jews fought for the poor as prominent Socialists, Communists and, eponymously, Marxists; meanwhile Peter Benenson, a British Jew, founded Amnesty International to fight for human rights.
In the late 19th and early 20th century, German Jewish sexologist Magnus Hirschfeld was an early proponent of gay rights and argued on behalf of sexual minorities.
So while the Jewish people has certainly produced its share of criminals and no-goodniks, Harvey Milk hailed from this more noble Jewish tradition: one of do-gooders who have struggled for equality.
Like many a good Jew since, Harvey Milk came into the world on Long Island, born in Woodmere, New York, on May 22, 1930. As a young child, one of his greatest influences was his grandfather, a Lithuanian immigrant named Morris Milk who had opened a successful department store in 1882.
Morris had also helped to cofound the Woodmere synagogue, which was then called Sons of Israel, and was the strongest link to Judaism in Milk’s very secular family. But it was Morris’s open-mindedness rather than his religiousness that most affected Milk. “Morris had… [an] inclusive paradigm, and was very much a touchstone for Harvey,” Milk’s nephew, Stuart Milk, told the Forward.
This strong connection to his immigrant grandfather, no doubt, gave Milk a greater appreciation of the American Dream. Unlike the Old Country, America allowed Morris Milk not just to practice his religion safely as a Jew but also to prosper as a businessman.
Milk explained his view of America in “The Harvey Milk Interviews: In His Own Words,” stating that, “All men are created equal. Now matter how hard they try, they can never erase those words. That is what America is about.”
In pursuit of his American dream, Milk went out West to San Francisco, where he opened a camera shop, in 1972. At the time, most states in America had explicitly anti-gay legislation. Many gay people (primarily gay men) were prosecuted for sexual crimes and it was still both socially and legally risky to be—or to be considered—homosexual.
In fact, while Illinois became the first U.S. state to remove same-sex sodomy laws from its criminal code in 1962, it took until 2003 for the Supreme Court of the United States to remove same-sex sodomy legislation in over a dozen states.
The first gay pride march was only held in 1970 in New York City and other cities, and the American Psychiatric Association listed homosexuality as a mental illness in its DSM-II Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders until 1973. This was removed thanks to the work of many, including the psychologist Evelyn Hooker and psychiatrist Richard Green, a Jew from Brooklyn.
It was in this climate that Milk had unsuccessfully run for office three times, before he eventually won election to the San Francisco board of supervisors in 1977.
Although Milk only spent one year in office in San Francisco, in that time his speeches attempted to inspire a sense of community among all marginalized peoples, however disparate they might at first seem.
In 1978, almost 30 years before President Barack Obama wrote “The Audacity of Hope,” Milk’s “Hope” speech took more than audacity; it took good, old-fashioned chutzpah. For although the message he delivered still rings true today, it came at a time when the gay marriage debate seemed a million miles away, far outside the realm of mainstream political discussion.
“I can’t forget the looks on faces of people who’ve lost hope,” Milk said. “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’s foreign to them.”
“I personally will never forget that people are more important than buildings. I use the word ‘I’ because I’m proud. I stand here tonight in front of my gay sisters, brothers and friends because I’m proud of you. I think it’s time that we have many legislators who are gay and proud of that fact and do not have to remain in the closet…”
“So if there is a message I have to give, it is that 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.”
Despite his message of hope, Milk and San Francisco’s then-mayor George Moscone were assassinated by Dan White, a disgruntled former city supervisor, on November 27, 1978. Milk was 48 years old when his political career was violently ended in its infancy.
The president of the San Francisco board of supervisors, Dianne Feinstein, who discovered the dead bodies of both Milk and Mayor Moscone, went on to rally for stricter gun regulation in America, no doubt influenced by her personal experience. She remains a strong voice for gun control as the senior United States Senator from California.
And, of course, the gay rights movement has gone on to become a mainstream political issue, and gay marriage rights have attained the support of not just the majority of the American people but also the President of the Untied States.
Though Milk died long before he had the opportunity to shape the change he wanted to see, in death he joined a noble tradition of pioneers whose ideas long outlived their bodies.
It is worth remembering today that the fight for gay rights was a very different matter before Milk became the first openly gay political figure in American political life.
As things have changed so dramatically, in such a short period of time, it is sometimes hard to imagine the strength it took to publically and outspokenly proclaim that, “All young people, regardless of sexual orientation or identity, deserve a safe and supportive environment in which to achieve their full potential.”
In fact, to do so took the chutzpah of hope—it took Harvey Milk.