“If a bullet should enter my brain, let that bullet destroy every closet door.” Harvey Milk was America’s first openly gay politician. He knew the risks. He took them anyway. And in 1978 he was shot dead by a straitlaced reactionary. In Milk, Gus Van Sant and Sean Penn tell the untold story of the Martin Luther King of gay rights.
The weather was awful in San Francisco the morning Harvey Milk died. But America’s first openly gay elected official was never the sort of man to let lowering skies and thin rain dampen his spirits. Gabbing with aides and poring over the day’s agenda inside City Hall, Milk was his usual gregarious, witty self. He may have been prone to blue-faced tantrums and a spot of childish petulance, but the Jewish middle-class boy with the wavy black hair and thick New Yawk drawl inspired deep loyalty in followers, friends and lovers alike, as much for his twinkle-eyed wit as for his pitbullish bravery when it came to fighting for gay rights in 70s America.
Milk’s fellow supervisor Dan White was also in City Hall that November day. But the clean-cut 32-year-old had entered by a rather unconventional route. Wearing his usual brown three-piece suit, White had climbed through an open basement window to avoid the bleep of the metal detectors that would have given away his concealed handgun and pocketful of bullets. White had spent the weekend, he claimed later, deep-bingeing on Twinkies, crisps and Coca-Cola. He was in turmoil over whether Mayor George Moscone would give him back the job he’d quit in anger ten days before.
At 10:45am, White walked unannounced into Moscone’s office, pulled out his firearm after a brief heated exchange and shot the older man in the chest, before pumping two more bullets at close range into his head. Stopping to reload, he then walked to the other side of City Hall and approached Milk: “Say, Harv, can I see you?” Reluctantly, Milk followed his embittered conservative rival into White’s old office, where White shut the door behind them. “Oh no,” Milk was heard to gasp, throwing his hands up as the first bullet ripped through his right wrist. As Milk staggered and collapsed, White fired again, finishing the job in the same way he’dslain Moscone, by placing the gun to Milk’s head and firing a bullet into his brain. White then left the building, called his wife Mary Ann and turned himself in. Milk was pronounced dead at the scene. He was 48 years old.
Subsequent to his murder on November 27, 1978, Harvey Milk may have been dubbed the Martin Luther King of gay rights, but his story is not widely known outside of progressive America, or taught in schoolbooks. But in January, Gus Van Sant is releasing a feature film starring Sean Penn as Milk and Josh Brolin as White. Van Sant has been trying to bring Milk to the screen for over a decade; he came closest in 1994 with an adaptation of Randy Shilts’ biography The Mayor Of Castro Street, but walked when Oliver Stone, who was producing, didn’t like his script (thank heaven for small mercies – Robin Williams was attached to play the jug-eared activist; Van Sant later dangled the carrot of playing Dan White to Tom Cruise in a second aborted version in the late 90s).
“The first time I remember hearing his name was when he was shot,” Van Sant explains. “I was pretty much a closeted individual until around that time.” Van Sant confesses that tackling Milk’s life was always going to be daunting in the wake of The Times Of Harvey Milk, the 1984 Oscar-winning documentary that, the filmmaker admits, “set the bar so high”. But, he adds, “since Harvey died in the line of duty, he has achieved sainthood in the gay world – one reason to make this film was for younger people who weren’t around during his time; to remember him, and to learn about him.”
Milk’s own closeted days lasted until well into his 30s. Before blazing his trail as an out-and-proud activist, Milk slipped through a Jewish upbringing in Woodmere, Long Island, joining the navy after college, becoming a stock analyst, and keeping his sexuality secret from everyone (including his mother, the amusingly named Minnie Milk). But surfing the wave of social upheaval that swept across late-60s America, Milk embraced hippiedom, moved to San Francisco and opened up a camera store with then-lover Scott Smith on Castro Street (“Yes, We Are Very Open” said Milk’s hand-carved placard on opening day in 1973). This sleepy, Irish neighbourhood gone to seed was swiftly becoming a mecca for gays on the run from heartland homophobia. With the charismatic Milk behind the counter, Castro Camera assumed the air of an unofficial community centre. It was there, listening to his customers’ tales of police harassment, lost jobs and even homelessness, that Milk was galvanised into political action.
Branding himself the Mayor of Castro Street, Milk ran three times for city office between ’73 and ’76 – and lost. At first his candidacy was a bit of a joke but Milk deployed tireless grassroots tactics to expand his appeal beyond the gay constituency. One major coup was winning over the blue-collar Teamsters union by organising a boycott of Coors Beer in the city’s gay bars. In 1977, he was finally elected to San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors to represent District 5. “The feeling was just one of total joy,” Milk’s campaign manager Anne Kronenberg recalled. “It was more than a candidate winning, it was the fact that all of these lesbians and gay men throughout San Francisco who felt like they had no voice before now had someone who represented them.”
The first gay elected official in America (or, as Time magazine put it, “in the history of the planet”) was a born populist, pushing policies like rent control, high-rise restrictions, OAP rights and – because he knew it would land him on the front pages – pooper-scooper laws to clean up the city’s shit-strewn parks. To many, Milk would always be a pain-in-the-ass rabble-rouser. Certainly at a time when being gay for most men was fraught with fear, guilt and self-loathing, Milk’s refusal to play the liberal game and take small, cautious steps was remarkable. His first victory was pushing through a gay-rights bill for the city that prevented employers from firing homosexuals. (The vote went 10-1 in his favour; Dan White was the lone dissenting voice.).
Milk’s political skills were raw, but his commitment to minority and civil rights was total. By contrast, White, elected at the same time, was the epitome of square-jawed Americana, a squeaky-clean ex-fireman who pledged to restore old-fashioned values to San Francisco and rid the city of “radicals, social deviates, and incorrigibles”. In essence, he represented the shrinking bastion of native San Franciscans who had watched their city become, virtually overnight, a magnet for gay émigrés declaiming, ‘We’re here, we’re queer, get used to it’.
“I fell in love with Harvey,” says Sean Penn. “I fell in love with his person, this spirit of this human being, which far transcended my own agenda as an actor.” Before Harvey Milk, there were no public figures for young gay Americans to look up to. He used to get phone calls from teenagers in the Midwest who had read about him in the newspaper or seen him on the news. But he had plenty of unwanted attention too: his first serious death threat was a 12-page letter in which the author told Milk he would “have [his] genitals, cock, balls, prick cut off”. He got used to the hate mail and assassination threats; he even told his cadre of young aides that his time in office would end with his death, calling it his “dark destiny”. Anne Kronenberg and Milk had an emergency escape route planned to the nearest hospital should he ever be attacked; she once floored the accelerator of her Volvo when “some queen with a snake came running up to the car to show it to Harvey… I totally panicked.”
The year before he was gunned down, Milk tape-recorded a will, which Van Sant makes the spine of his film – showing Penn (who, enthuses the filmmaker, brings “real old-time intense excellence” to the role) reading verbatim some of what Milk had left for posterity. At one point, Penn/Milk says, “I fully realise that a person who stands for what I stand for – an activist, gay activist – becomes the target or the potential target for somebody who is insecure, terrified, afraid, or very disturbed themselves.”
1977 and 1978 were dangerous times for the gay movement. Spearheaded by Anita Bryant, a former Miss America runner-up turned self-appointed “normal majority” crusader, gay-rights laws across the country came under siege. Bryant may have given the drag queens she was attacking a run for their eyeshadow in looks, but her TV-savvy, hymn-singing persona made her a national media star. One of the best things about Milk is the way Van Sant uses archive footage – including several shots of Bryant which are jaw-droppingly hilarious despite the damage she caused. When her Save Our Children campaign successfully overturned a gay rights ordinance in Dade County, Florida, the protective legislation began falling like dominos across America. Hitching his bandwagon to Bryant’s, Senator John Briggs launched his own attempt in California – Proposition 6 – that would make it mandatory to fire all gay teachers from the school system. Briggs accused them of recruiting children into “the lifestyle”; Milk – who wittily took to opening his speeches with “I’m Harvey Milk and I’m here to recruit you” – boldly took him head on, comparing Briggs’ initiative to Nazi Germany’s laws against Jews and thereby thrusting himself into a state-wide spotlight that he clearly relished. “Anita Bryant already says that Jews and Muslims are going to hell. You know she’s got a shopping list,” quipped Milk. Fiery declarations aside, though, up to voting day, it appeared that Prop 6 would win by a landslide. In the end, spurred by Milk’s pleas for gay citizens to come out, Proposition 6 was defeated by a 59-41 percent margin. Milk celebrated with his jubilant supporters – including Mayor Moscone – in the Castro. Having turned the tide of history against homophobic prejudice, he’d reached the apogee of his brief political career. That night, he took the stage and stirred the crowd’s passions: “We must destroy the myths once and for all. We must continue to speak out. And most importantly every gay person must come out… Once they realise that we are indeed their children, that we are indeed everywhere, every myth, every lie, every innuendo, will be destroyed once and for all.”
In a cruelly ironic twist, on the eve of Milk’s release, Californian voters have just backed another initiative – Proposition 8 – to ban same-sex marriages in their state, rolling back the seismic shifts that Milk helped bring about. You can bet if Harvey had been around, Prop 8 would have been defeated. With his ability to speak articulately on the big issues and switch on a crowd, the greatest tragedy is imagining what he might have achieved had he not been murdered.
Four days after California canned Proposition 6, Dan White quit the board of supervisors. Then, prodded by the San Francisco police and conservative civic groups, he changed his mind and announced that he wanted his job back. Milk lobbied furiously against his reappointment – with White gone, liberals would outnumber conservatives on the board for the first time. It was Moscone’s call… and he fatefully sided with Milk.
Their double assassination sparked a silent candlelit march of thousands of San Franciscans through the city. Milk’s close friend, Sally Gearhart, called the night “one of the most eloquent expressions of a community’s response to violence I’ve ever seen”. But the dignity and calm that greeted the tragedy was short-lived.
Portraying their client as a decent American and “a casualty of pressure”, White’s defence team played to the sympathies of, literally, his peers (not a single gay or minority person sat on the jury). In what became known as the “Twinkie defence”, they trotted out a psychiatrist who claimed that junk-food gorging had put White in a state of chemical imbalance. This, combined with extreme depression and a lack of intimacy with his wife, they insisted, had driven him to kill. (Van Sant filmed a scene for Milk depicting White’s sugar-snack bender the night before the slayings that ended up with Brolin, according to the actor, “writhing naked on the floor, crying, with a cookie sticking out of my mouth”. Perhaps wisely, it was left on the cutting room floor.)
Pleading “diminished capacity”, White got off with the reduced charge of voluntary manslaughter and was sentenced to seven years. He served five and committed suicide in 1984. “Dan White has gotten away with murder,” said fellow supervisor Carol Ruth Silver at the news. Hard to argue with her verdict – and not surprising that ugly scenes erupted throughout the city, as outrage was expressed in the burning of cop cars and violent demonstrations. With his flair for the dramatic, Milk would no doubt have loved the theatrics that played out that evening, even as his replacement, Harry Britt, implored the crowd to stop acting “like a bunch of heterosexuals” and was met with angry jeers. “I don’t condone the violence and I don’t celebrate it,” says Robert Epstein, The Times Of Harvey Milk director. “But the burning of the police cars is a punctuation mark for history. If that hadn’t happened, it could have just slipped by and been another lost chapter.”
The arrival of Van Sant’s film may serve as both a celebration of the revolution Milk set in motion, and a jolting reminder of how fragile its gains may yet prove to be. “He was not a saint. He was not a genius. His personal life was often in disarray. He died penniless,” concludes Cleve Jones, fellow activist and a consultant on Milk (portrayed in the film by Emile Hirsch). “And yet, by his example and by his actions, he most certainly changed the world.”
Milk’s relevance can even offer direct parallels with Barack Obama’s historic election – but equally with America’s penchant for spawning right-wing paranoids who aim to kill messengers of tolerance, harmony and hope (RFK, MLK, etc). Not just a gay icon, Harvey Milk stood for much more than himself, and the sense of loss around his death was massive. But, as he himself said, “The only thing we have to look forward to is hope. Hope for a better world, hope for a better tomorrow… hope that all will be all right.”