Why Harvey Milk Still Matters to These Young People

3 min
A visitor to the GLBT Historical Society Museum listens intently to the recorded will of Harvey Milk, the first openly gay member of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, who was assassinated in 1978. (Courtesy of Gerard Koskovich, GLBT Historical Society Museum)

I first learned about Harvey Milk 10 years ago when I saw the movie "Milk," starring Sean Penn. I was 14 at the time and just starting to come to terms with being queer.

I don't remember much about the movie itself, which tells the story of the San Francisco supervisor who became the first openly gay elected official in California before being gunned down along with the mayor in City Hall.

What I do remember is being captivated by seeing a gay person as the subject of a Hollywood movie, and making sure that I didn't seem too captivated — people might start to ask uncomfortable questions.

Since then, I've come out and moved to the Bay Area. And while I have tried to learn more about the LGBTQ history in which Harvey Milk was such a central figure, that history can still feel very distant and removed from my day-to-day life.

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So as we prepared to mark the 40th anniversary of the assassination of Milk and San Francisco Mayor George Moscone by former Supervisor Dan White, I started to wonder how other young queer people think about Milk. Is he more or less a part of their lives than he is mine?

I sat in on Breana Bahar Hansen's Introduction to LGBT Studies class at City College of San Francisco, which teaches students about Harvey Milk. I figured the students might — like me — not be that knowledgeable about Milk, but I was shocked when several of Bahar Hansen's students had never even heard of him.

"This class is really involved in LGBT issues," Bahar Hansen said. "A lot of them are activists. Many of them are already doing work in the communities and are just coming here because they wanted a space to talk about LGBT issues in academia. And so the fact that so few knew [about Milk], and the ones that knew [about him] really only knew him from the lens of the 2008 film, that really surprised me."

Some students were more familiar with Milk's story. Miranda LaBounty said she grew up "with Harvey Milk mentioned in the same sentence as Martin Luther King." But even she was hazy on the specifics.

"I always assumed Milk was [killed] like 50 or 60 years ago," she said during in-class discussion. "That it was only 40 years ago he was assassinated? Our parents were walking around during that time."

So instead of the quick refresher and in-depth discussion Bahar Hansen was planning, the approach pivoted to introducing the students to Milk and his story: Born and raised in New York, Milk served in the U.S. Navy before moving to San Francisco in the 1970s and becoming an outspoken gay activist. He ran a camera store on Castro Street before he became the first openly gay elected official in California, when he won a spot on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors in 1977.

Less than a year into his first term, Milk and San Francisco Mayor George Moscone were shot and killed in City Hall by former Supervisor Dan White. For the double murder, White served only five years in prison, a fact that shocked and disgusted the students in Bahar Hansen's class.

"If Harvey Milk somehow killed Dan White and Moscone, he would get life in prison," LaBounty said, "but because it was a white cis[gender] straight man doing it ..."

"If it were a black guy or a trans person [who committed the murder]," added Mikaela Kendrick, another student, "that person would be institutionalized or still in jail to this day."

A lot of the conversations in the class touched on these ideas of race and gender identity privilege, not just for Dan White but for Milk, too. The idea of intersectionality — the way a person’s sexual orientation combines with their race, gender, socioeconomic status and other identities — is something that young queer people talk about a lot, and it impacts how they view someone like Milk.

"I do connect with him in some sense because he is a hero, and I will never sit there and say that he's not a hero because he literally died for us," said student Le Shawn Purcell. "At the same time, he comes from a different background, and I don't think he encapsulated everybody."

Purcell said he could connect with Milk because both of them are cisgender males. But for Purcell, who’s black, that’s where the similarities end. He said being a white cisgender male allowed Milk to be the outspoken advocate and eventual hero he became, options that weren't available to transgender activists like Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera.

But even while they looked critically at how his privileges allowed Milk to do what he did, the students still recognized the kind of impact Milk had.

"If it wasn't for him, this class wouldn't have been able to even be in college. That's a fact," said Michael Thomas.

Milk also opened the door to a generation of LGBT elected officials in San Francisco who felt like they could be political players without hiding who they were.

LaBounty noted that voters almost elected San Francisco’s first openly gay mayor this year, former supervisor and state Sen. Mark Leno. He ended up coming in second, ahead of Korean-American Jane Kim and behind London Breed, the city’s first African-American female mayor.

"The fact that our election was between two women of color and a gay man, I don’t know, that made me kind of happy," LaBounty said.

After class, I asked Bahar Hansen why students — some of whom had never heard of Milk before — still seemed to feel a connection with him.

Bahar-Hansen said even though the LGBTQ community has made significant gains in the last 40 years, many of the students still don't feel safe because of their queer identities.

"Even here in San Francisco, there's been just some very heart-wrenching stories of not being accepted by families," Bahar Hansen said. "Really, the issues that Harvey Milk was talking about in the '70s still so apply to their lives today."

Because those issues of oppression are still present for these young people, Harvey Milk and his legacy still matter to them, even if they only just learned about him.

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