“Harvey Milk of San Francisco” by Brother Robert Lentz, OFM. (TrinityStores.com)
Jesus falls for the third time as gay politician Harvey Milk is assassinated in Station 9 from “Stations of the Cross: The Struggle For LGBT Equality” by Mary Button, courtesy of Believe Out Loud
Pioneering gay rights activist Harvey Milk was assassinated 35 years ago today on Nov. 27, 1978. Milk is the first* and most famous openly gay male elected official in California, and perhaps the world. He became the public face of the LGBT rights movement, and his reputation has continued to grow since his death. He has been called a martyr for LGBT rights -- and for all human rights.
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Harvey Milk: LGBTQ rights pioneer stood for equality
“If a bullet should enter my brain, let that bullet destroy every closet door in the country,” Milk once said. Two bullets did enter his brain, and his vision of LGBT people living openly is also coming true.
Milk (1930-1978) served only 11 months on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors before he was killed, but in that short time he fought for the rights of the elderly, small business owners, and the many ethnic communities in his district as well as for the growing LGBT community.
Milk was elected to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors in 1977 after three unsuccessful election attempts. Haunted by the sense that he would be killed for political reasons, Milk recorded tapes to be played in the event of his assassination. His message, recorded nine days before his death, included this powerful statement:
“I ask for the movement to continue, for the movement to grow, because last week I got a phone call from Altoona, Pennsylvania, and my election gave somebody else, one more person, hope. And after all, that's what this is all about. It's not about personal gain, not about ego, not about power — it's about giving those young people out there in the Altoona, Pennsylvanias, hope. You gotta give them hope.”
Shots fired by conservative fellow supervisor Dan White cut Milk’s life short. More than 30 years later, the hope and the movement for LGBT rights are more alive than ever.
Milk has received much recognition for his visionary courage and commitment to equality. In 2014 the U.S. Postal Service issued a stamp in his honor, with the rainbow colors of the LGBT pride flag appear as a vertical strip in the top left corner. Other LGBT people have appeared on U.S. stamps, but this is the first to feature someone specifically for LGBT activism.
He is the only openly gay person in the United States to have an official state holiday in his name. Harvey Milk Day is celebrated in California on Milk’s birthday, May 22. The bill establishing Harvey Milk Day was signed in to law in fall 2009. State employees still have to work on Harvey Milk Day, but California public schools are encouraged to teach suitable commemorative lessons about the gay rights activist.
In 2009 Milk was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom and inducted into the California Hall of Fame. He was included in the Time “100 Heroes and Icons of the 20th Century” for being “a symbol of what gays can accomplish and the dangers they face in doing so.”
Two Oscar-winning movies have been made about his life, the documentary “The Times of Harvey Milk” (1984) or the biographical drama “Milk” (2008), which stars Sean Penn as Milk in an performance that won an Academy Award for best actor. The movie tells how he rose to become one of America’s first openly gay elected leaders, only to be killed by an assassin’s bullet. Directed by Gus Van Sant, the film got eight Academy Award nominations.
The definitive book about his life include “The Mayor of Castro Street” by Randy Shilts.
Milk’s assassination is juxtaposed with Jesus falling under the weight of his cross in the image at the top of this post: Station 9 from “Stations of the Cross: The Struggle For LGBT Equality” by Mary Button. Using bold colors and collage, Button puts Jesus' suffering into a queer context by matching scenes from his journey to Golgotha with milestones from the last 100 years of LGBT history. For an overview of all 15 paintings in the series, see my article LGBT Stations of the Cross shows struggle for equality.
The Harvey Milk icon painted by Robert Lentz (also pictured above) was hailed as a “national gay treasure” by gay author/activist Toby Johnson. Milk holds a candle and wears an armband with a pink triangle, the Nazi symbol for gay men, expressing solidarity with all who were tortured or killed because of their sexual orientation. It is one of 40 icons featured in the book “Christ in the Margins” by Robert Lentz and Edwina Gateley. Lentz discusses the icon in a YouTube video.
The Harvey Milk icon is one of 10 Lentz icons that sparked a major controversy in 2005. Critics accused Lentz of glorifying sin and creating propaganda for a progressive sociopolitical agenda, and he temporarily gave away the copyright for the controversial images to his distributor, Trinity Stores. All 10 are now displayed there as a collection titled “Images That Challenge.”
Such paintings have been criticized for portraying Milk, a secular Jew, in a style rooted in Christian tradition. Milk was critical of how religion was used to oppress LGBT people, stating, “The fact is that more people have been slaughtered in the name of religion than for any other single reason. That, that my friends, that is true perversion!” And yet Milk has become a symbol of all martyrs who died in the struggle for LGBT rights.
[*Note: When Milk was elected, two gay/lesbian politicians were already in office: lesbian Massachusetts State Representative Elaine Noble and Minnesota State Senator Allan Spear, who came out after he won re-election.]
The Altar Cross of LGBTQ Martyrs from Metropolitan Community Church of San Francisco features photos of Matthew Shepard, Harvey Milk, Gwen Araujo and others.
Harvey Milk Day Quotes 2015: 11 Inspiring Sayings That Still Ring True Today (International Business Times)
Harvey Milk at the Legacy Project
SF City Hall Unveils Harvey Milk Tribute (advocate.com) (Bronze bust by Daub Firmin Hendrickson sculpture group)
Icons of Harvey Milk and many others are available on cards, plaques, T-shirts, mugs, candles, mugs, and more at TrinityStores.com
This post is part of the LGBTQ Saints series by Kittredge Cherry. Traditional and alternative saints, people in the Bible, LGBTQ martyrs, authors, theologians, religious leaders, artists, deities and other figures of special interest to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender and queer (LGBTQ) people and our allies are covered.
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