Entertainment Book Reviews

Wednesday 20 June 2018

A gay martyr who ignited a global revolution

Biography: Harvey Milk, Lillian Faderman, Yale University Press, €21.99, JP O' Malley

Sean Penn (left) won a best actor Oscar for his portrayal of Harvey Milk, California’s first openly gay elected politician, in the 2008 film 'Milk'
Sean Penn (left) won a best actor Oscar for his portrayal of Harvey Milk, California’s first openly gay elected politician, in the 2008 film 'Milk'
Harvey Milk

On November 18, 1977, Harvey Milk distributed a secret tape recording to a select network of close friends: "To be played only in the event of my death by assassination," the audio began: "If a bullet should enter my brain, let that bullet destroy every closet door," the statement concluded.

Milk made the recordings shortly after becoming the first openly gay man to be elected to public-political office anywhere; when he won a seat on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. Just one year later he was murdered by Dan White.

White, a fellow supervisor on San Francisco's governing body, killed Milk because he claimed the city was being turned into Sodom by men who insisted on flaunting their homosexuality in public.

As historian and scholar of the LGBT movement, Lillian Faderman, explains in the concluding chapter of this concise, yet enormously insightful biography, Milk's murder immortalised him forever: igniting a nationwide call to action from the LGBT community to demand equality, free from prejudice.

At the last Gay Freedom Day rally he attended before his death, Milk proposed that gay people across America gather in the US capital. On October 14, 1979, the first March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights had 100,000 people in attendance.

As Faderman notes, support for the LGBT movement grew in numbers over time: the second March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights in 1987 drew 600,000 people; while the third in 1993 attracted close to a million. As of 2016, 43 states across the US have elected at least one LGBT person to their state legislature. And this historic progressive change spread further afield.

Indeed, it's possible to draw a line from Milk's death, to Ireland's progressive move in 2015 to enshrine marriage equality into law for same sex couples; and the subsequent appointment, two years later, of the country's first openly gay Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar.

A hopeful, moving, and uplifting read, Faderman's book tells the story of a man that didn't fit the typical criteria for a progressive political martyr. Primarily because Milk lacked consistency in his political allegiances: he could play the liberal-pot smoking hippie, just as he could champion right wing conservatism when it suited him.

Faderman subtly hints that the circumstances of Milk's personal life meant he never felt entirely comfortable in one firmly-rooted set of political ideals.

Essentially because he was living a double life. Born in 1930, into a conservative Jewish family in Long Island, New York, Milk never came out to either of his parents. Both died knowing nothing of his sexual identity.

As a Jew and homosexual, Milk always saw himself as an outsider who had to fight for social acceptance. He often used analogies of Jews being slaughtered in Nazi Germany. The Holocaust remained a pertinent metaphor in Milk's speeches and editorials. Drawing lessons from European history, Milk claimed that calling any minority group pariahs, criminals, and demons would naturally only end in catastrophe.

Milk lived much of his life in a peripatetic manner: oscillating between New York, Dallas, and California. He took jobs in teaching, acting, on Wall Street and in the navy too, where he briefly served in Korea. But it was in the Castro area of San Francisco where Milk finally laid down roots and began to interact with a burgeoning gay community.

Then in his forties, Milk, along with his partner Scott Smith, opened Castro Camera: a gay camera photo development shop, which also served as a political constituency office, as well as a popular neighbourhood gay hangout spot too.

Faderman continually stresses that Milk was often shunned by certain sections of the gay community in his own lifetime.

Since the Stonewall Riots in New York's Greenwich Village in 1969, a large proportion of the gay community across America had become synonymous with radical politics: seeking to overthrow existing social institutions.

Milk, however, was no committed leftist. He simply sought for gay people to be accepted into mainstream society as it presently stood.

Faderman points out that even martyrs have their flaws too: shortly before his death, the US Attorney General authorised that the FBI look into allegations that Milk had tried to divert funds from the Pride Foundation into his own pocket. We also read how Milk's love life was mired in anguish, abandonment, heartache, and tragedy. One of his long-time partners, Jack Lira, hanged himself in 1977, leaving Milk a rather nasty suicide note.

Faderman's narrative mixes the personal and the political with great skill; subtly displaying how at a fundamental level, fighting for collective political rights is really just a human yearning for personal happiness, which usually has its roots in compassion. The book is an exemplary testament to how ordinary citizens - with hope in their hearts and relentless ambition - can swing the pendulum of history towards progress and freedom.

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