“Harvey Milk of San Francisco” by Robert Lentz)
Equality for all is celebrated today (May 22) on Harvey Milk Day, the birthday of LGBT rights pioneer Harvey Milk.
As America’s first openly gay man elected to public office in a major city*, Milk was responsible for passing a tough gay-rights law in San Francisco before his assassination on Nov. 27, 1978. 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
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.
|Harvey Milk Day March,|
by Show Me No Hate
St. Louis, MO
Resources tend to emphasize that Milk was more than an LGBT rights activist, but also a “social and political pioneer” who ”fought for the rights and equality of all” and inspires “disenfranchised communities.”
Harvey Milk Day events often include showing one of the two Oscar-winning movies 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 became the public face of the LGBT rights movement, and his reputation has continued to grow since his assassination.
“If a bullet should enter my brain, let that bullet destroy every closet door in the country,” Milk said. Two bullets did enter his brain, and his vision of queer people living openly is also coming true.
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.
In 2009 he 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.”
The Harvey Milk icon painted by Robert Lentz 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 sexuality. 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 icons that sparked a church 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 this and nine other controversial images to his distributor, Trinity Stores. All 10 were displayed there as a collection titled “Images That Challenge.”
The icon has also been criticized for portraying Milk, a secular Jew, in a iconographic style rooted in Christian tradition. “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!” He is honored in the interfaith LGBTQ Saints series here as a martyr who died in the struggle for LGBT rights.
Harvey Milk is assassinated as Jesus falls in “Stations of the Cross: The Struggle For LGBT Equality” by Mary Button, courtesy of Believe Out Loud
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 Altar Cross of LGBTQ Martyrs from Metropolitan Community Church of San Francisco features photos of Matthew Shepard, Harvey Milk, Gwen Araujo and others.
[*Note: When Milk was elected, two gay 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.]
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)
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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Icons of Harvey Milk and many others are available on cards, plaques, T-shirts, mugs, candles, mugs, and more at TrinityStores.com