Lillian Faderman’s biography of Harvey Milk is terrific.
Harvey’s story is inspiring and, because he was no angel, because he didn’t live in an exalted stratosphere, ‘ordinary’ people like me, with character faults and failings, can relate to him, person to person. We can all learn from, and be inspired by, the life of Harvey Milk. He is not just a role model, an inspiration, a ‘virtual’ mentor for the LGBTQ community!
‘He has become larger in death than he was in life. The title of a museum exhibition in 2003, “Saint Harvey: The Life and Afterlife of a Modern Gay Martyr,” even bestowed sainthood on Harvey Milk, the lowly Jewish buy who worked in a modest camera store, was killed for his views, and catalyzed a movement.’
Susan Stryker, Saint Harvey exhibit curator, GLBT History Museum, San Francisco, interview with author, May 3, 2016
Faderman: “In the light of Harvey’s deeply human flaws and unsuppressed excesses, the appellation “Saint Harvey” is, of course, tongue in cheek. But the exhibit’s title also conveys the gay community’s need to endow Harvey’s murder with a mythic meaning that inspires action.”
That quote by the author does not mean that Milk’s life, his courage and his achievements, were fictionalised. The ‘gay community’ to which Faderman refers, were only able to “endow” his murder “with a mythic meaning that inspires action” because he was so courageous, because he was so successful, because there was so much of real substance in and to the man.
I knew, before I read the book, who Harvey Milk was, that he had had to beat the social, cultural and political odds to become the first openly gay elected official in California’s history (he served on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors) in the late 1970’s. I did not realise the extent to which large swathes of the gay community in San Francisco were against him. His inherent ability to keep picking himself up, dusting himself off and pushing on was, is, inspirational.
Harvey Milk was endowed with a quality lacking in so many politicians: empathy. He empathised with the downtrodden, the disenfranchised, with those who were subjected to racism and bigotry. His commitment to seeking justice for ‘the little guy’ and for minorities, it consumed him. If more of our politicians were driven to right wrongs, to stand up for those who can’t stand up for themselves, to the extent that Harvey Milk was during his political life, the world would be in a better state than it is today.
“Jews know they can’t allow other groups to suffer discrimination if for no other reason than we might be on that list some day”
Harvey Milk quoted by his nephew, Stuart Milk, in Iris Mann, “ ‘Milk’ Captures Doomed Life of Gay, Jewish Politician,” ‘Jewish Journal’, December 10, 2008.
Faderman: ‘While Harvey lived he brought to politics a perspective that had its genesis in what he had learned of tikkun olam– the obligation to repair the world – from his mother, Minnie, and his grandfather, Morris…. (Harvey) argued that gay people had to make coalitions with all dispossessed people. Not only did they have common enemies: the “them”s that kept the poor and minorities in positions of powerlessness; but also it was the morally right thing to do. He claimed his election victory as a triumph for all minorities: “Because if a gay person makes it, the doors are open to everyone,” he often said.’
All politicians are buffeted by strong headwinds but what Harvey had to face, the courage it must have taken to stay standing in the face of so much hatred, it is mindboggling:
City Hall aides used to post ‘bizarre correspondence’ on their ‘bulletin board’ ‘to amuse themselves’:
‘Harvey’s aides always got the Letter of the Week Award. Correspondents addressed him as “Ms. Harvey” or “Milk the Faggot” or “Dirty lowdown good for nothing cock-sucking son of a bitch.” They threatened to firebomb his store or take potshots at him. Some letters were frighteningly graphic – threatening to decapitate him or chop him into pieces after making him suffer prolonged torture. “We can’t let it bother us. We’ve just got to keep doing what we’re doing,” Harvey would tell his assistant, Anne Kronenberg. But though he put a brave face on it to shield his aides from panic, Anne sensed his nervousness.’
Hate mail in box 6, folder 6, Harvey Milk Archives – Scott Smith Collection (GLC 35), San Francisco Public Library; and Anne Kronenberg, interview with author.
It took Harvey Milk some years to ‘find himself’ but he was fueled in his search by the inherent goodness in his soul. Viktor Frankl, neurologist and psychiatrist, is considered to be the father of logotherapy.
“Rather than power or pleasure, logotherapy is founded upon the belief that striving to find meaning in life is the primary, most powerful motivating and driving force in humans.”
Maria Marshall; Edward Marshall (4 August 2012). Logotherapy Revisited: Review of the Tenets of Viktor E. Frankl’s Logotherapy. Ottawa Institute of Logotherapy. ISBN 978-1-4781-9377-7.
Harvey is a textbook example of logotherapy at play. Although he was real, although he did, as aforementioned, have what might be referred to as negative character traits, although he also pursued pleasure for pleasure’s sake, although he was human, he strove to find meaning in his life and it clearly was the primary, most powerful motivating and driving force in his life, more important than his love life, which he continually sacrificed on the altar of public service, more important than his life per se – he was well aware of the risk and dangers to which he exposed himself by being so public and vociferous an advocate of and for gay/LGBTQ rights but he kept going regardless. Clearly, for Harvey, if he couldn’t live his life of public service, if he couldn’t help improve the lot of others, if he couldn’t help to bring about the emancipation of those in chains, he didn’t want to live at all.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr:
“No one is free until we are all free”.
Thanks, Lillian, great biography!