I love Harvey Milk. I mean, I really love Harvey Milk, he was so cool, such an incredible human being and he was a saint. Harvey got around. He was in college to be a schoolteacher, went to the navy and came out, at least to his close personal friends and came to NYC and dated first one of the Warhol superstars—a hustler named “Sugarplum Fairy,” that Lou Reed mentioned in his famous ode to the Warhol crew “Walk on the Wild Side.” After this, he went out with who became the owner of NYC’s first gay bookstore, who radicalized Milk and made him shed the rest of his vestiges of the closet. He had been a successful Wall Street broker and realizing the bro-culture of that community wasn’t for him as an out gay man in the ’70s. Instead, along with his next boyfriend, became part of the producer teams for the amazing Broadway musicals Hair, and Jesus Christ Superstar. I grew up with those musicals, danced to them and “mirror sang” to them, and performed puppet shows with them, embedding into my consciousness not just the lyrics but also the ideology into my unconscious and conscious. The spirit of well-being, the celebration of agency, the super-liberal politics of what I remember the Rolling Stone Record Guide said “what the squares thought the ’60s were about” were the musicals that helped to form my queer liberal consciousness …
When he moved to the Castro with his boyfriend Scott Smith and opened a camera store, the world was about to change. Becoming even more radicalized by the super-gay environment of the Castro, Smith and Milk had a new awakening. Revolting against the fervent wave of homophobic repressive forces, Milk began campaigning as the “Mayor of Castro Street” for civic office. Affable, whimsical, and brilliant, Milk was able to meet and become friends with hundreds of his constituents in his district in San Francisco, beyond the gay men, who of course loved him and what he stood for. Harvey wanted to represent ALL people, but had the gay community at his core, and felt it was the major responsibility for all LGBTQ people to come out—successfully predicting, after capitulating the gay movement to the major success story it is now in the twenty-first century.
When he finally won city supervisor in 1977, he broke all glass ceilings and became the first elected out LGBTQ official in all America, during a time that was particularly egregious for villains against gay rights. Anita Bryant had become a force in American politics, and like Phillis Schlafly, was able to organize conservatives across the US against gay rights. In the Bay Area, an opportunistic politician began an anti-gay campaign, against teachers, ostensibly to allow for the firing of gay people to be teachers and other employment, housing, and public accommodations based on sexual orientation. Although he was only in office eleven months, he was able to deliver a crushing defeat. He also campaigned alongside the teamsters against Coors beer (something I participated in later antecedents as a high school youth!), and waged human rights campaigns to help all people, especially for the elderly. Milk was a people person and had a huge heart and ability to spread empathy and compassion wherever he went and planted major seeds that helped to propel the gay movement where it has arrived, post-AIDS, today.
Dan White was a disgruntled bro-like fireman, all-American and white, who was jealous of Milk’s popularity, which compelled him in part to quit his job as elected councilman. When the conservative businesses and corporations that were supporting him for his payback, he tried to get on board as councilman once again, and wasn’t allowed by Milk’s friend and colleague, the then Mayor Moscone, White took revenge by breaking into the capital building through the window in the building and shot and assassinated both the Mayor and Harvey Milk, and calmly walked out before turning himself in. The city and country were in horror, with moving candlelight vigils and events, however the bias jury let White off, acquitting him from first-degree murder and instead given voluntary manslaughter, and got off in five years before himself committing suicide.
Although Milk’s life was cut short, and his time in office was short, the legacy and impact of Milk and his life has stood long in time and history. By being completely out and campaigning, after he was in office, against the Briggs initiative all across the country, Milk made a case for civil rights and the humanity of all peoples, most of all of course for the LGBTQ community that lasts through today.
When I painted this work, it also, like the images of all the civil rights leaders I have created, gave me hope and spirit. Even in this era, gays and other LGBTQ+ folk come across situations of homophobes trying to oppress us—the difference now is that we fight back, partly because of Harvey Milk.
While painting, I listened to the excellent and canonical Mayor of Castro Street by Randy Shilts, which is excellent, and of course watched the like-minded and titled documentary film, which is still as moving today as it was when I first saw it in college. Milk was a huge opera queen, and it was neat to finally indulge again. Milk’s life was an opera, and although I couldn’t stomach too much Wagner, I listened to his favorite feel-good comedic opera, and Tosca, with Maria Callas, as he loved her and poignantly, he saw another production of this the night before he died. But he also dug Mick Jagger. I realized the secret of Milk was that he was actually a really sexy man—the contemporary pictures from when he was Councilman don’t necessarily reveal this, as he was an unusual-looking guy, but he was really fit until his end, and in early pictures, is a queer version of Frank Zappa, another long-nosed, unconventional big-eared hunky guy, as Milk was, who had no problem finding lovers and boyfriends in his day. Playing the Rolling Stones really fit, as I think he would have enjoyed being equated with, as he knew how to take the stage and spotlight. I of course listened to all his dynamic speeches, including most of all the hope speech, which was the light of all the spirit in this painting, the last of the show that encapsulates everything the show stands for …
His message was of hope, and his hope speech ends:
“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. And if you help elect to the central committee and other offices, more gay people, that gives a green light to all who feel disenfranchised, a green light to move forward. It means hope to a nation that has given up, because if a gay person makes it, the doors are open to everyone.
“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 …”