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Still Under Threat: On Harvey Milk Day, Leading Activist Says LGBTQ+ Leaders Face Dangers Decades After Assassination

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A white man and a Black man hold candles with another white man to the side and a sign above and behind them that says "In Memoriam George Moscone Harvey Milk"
Mourners hold a candlelight vigil for Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk after they were assassinated at San Francisco City Hall, on Nov. 27, 1978. (Roger Ressmeyer/Corbis/VCG via Getty Images)

Beginning in 1977, for nearly a year, Harvey Milk served on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors — the first openly gay man to be elected to public office in California. He authored a bill banning discrimination in public places, housing and employment based on sexual orientation. He also promoted free public transportation, cheaper child care facilities and public oversight of the police.

In November of 1978, Milk and San Francisco Mayor George Moscone were assassinated. The city mourned the loss of two of its most outspoken political leaders. Over the years, Harvey Milk became a martyr for causes of equality and social justice, and in 2009, the state of California designated May 22, Milk’s birthday, as Harvey Milk Day.

At a time when LGBTQ+ rights are under attack nationwide, with a string of anti-LGBTQ+ legislation introduced in dozens of state legislatures, the significance of Harvey Milk as a politician and activist resonates more than ever.

Cleve Jones, author and longtime activist, talked to KQED’s Brian Watt about Milk as a person, a politician and an icon.

This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

Brian Watt: Can you take us back to when you met Harvey Milk? What was that like?

Cleve Jones: Well, Harvey was quite a character. When I first met him, he was still emerging from his hippie phase, and he struck me as being entirely too old to be wearing a ponytail. But he and his partner, Scott Smith, had opened a little camera store on Castro Street, and I met him on Castro Street as he was registering voters. And that was our first conversation. I was struck by his warmth, though, and he ran for office a few times before he was elected.

And with each campaign, I could see that he became more serious, more grounded in the issues and more thoughtful in his approach, which was never a single-issue thing. He cared, of course, about gay rights, the community we now call LGBTQ+. But he cared about unions, he cared about seniors, he cared about kids. He was a very astute coalition builder.

What are some of the things he taught you about coalition building and government and advocacy?

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I got to work with Harvey on the Coors beer boycott, which was one of the first, if not the very first, real alliance between the LGBTQ movement and the labor movement, specifically the Teamsters, who were on strike at the brewery in Golden, Colorado.

Harvey saw an opportunity to get jobs for gay people, to support the union and to build a relationship that ended up being incredibly valuable, because just a couple of years later, we in California faced the Briggs Initiative, which was Proposition 6 of the 1978 November ballot. Prop. 6 would have essentially made it illegal for LGBT people and their supporters to work in any capacity in the public school system. And so those initial alliances with labor through the Teamsters then grew to a powerful alliance with the teachers union, the service workers union, and all the unions who saw that not just as an attack on gay people, but as an attack on workers.

A bespectacled white man with white hair and a green sweater smiles at the camera with arms crossed and a blurry city street behind him.
Cleve Jones, in the Castro District in San Francisco, on Feb. 16, 2017. (Carlos Avila Gonzalez/The San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Images)

Milk also taught me a lot. He took me with him to City Hall when he got elected and I was a student intern in his office until he was shot. So I got to work on the inside and saw the nuts and bolts of creating legislation, the hearings, the committee work, all of that. But I will say one kind of overarching lesson I learned from him that has really stuck with me is the importance of communicating with plain language, and always trying to find common ground. He was really a genius at that. He could meet anybody, a worker in a union hall, a society lady on Nob Hill, cute street kids. He could talk to anybody, find the common ground, and create a deeper conversation about shared values and shared aspirations.

You have been open about this before: You found Milk on the night that he was gunned down. What was going through your mind then? 

It was Nov. 27, 1978. It was horrifying. I’d never seen a dead person before. I’d never seen close up what bullets do. I was maybe the third person to walk in. Dianne Feinstein was there. I just kept thinking, “Well, it’s all over now.” He was our leader. And also for me personally. Harvey had become, for me, very much a father figure. And I just kept thinking, everything’s over. I mean, how can we move forward without him? And it was a real personal loss.

But that night was so extraordinary. As word spread, people began to gather, gay and straight, young and old, Black and brown and white, immigrant and native-born, and it was just thousands and then tens of thousands and tens of thousands more. And that enormous silent candlelight procession filled Market Street from Castro to City Hall. It was just the most extraordinary thing. And I think I realized that night that I was wrong. It wasn’t over. It was just beginning.

A white man in a suit and tie leans back in his chair behind a desk in his office and smiles at the camera.
San Francisco Supervisor Harvey Milk, Dec. 4, 1977. (Bettmann/Getty Images)

We often just hear about these highlights with major figures, the tragic ones. But I want to know about moments of joy. Like maybe a time when Milk made people laugh or some other act of kindness.

Harvey was very funny. He loved being a clown. He would dress up as a clown. He really had an amazing ability to connect with kids and make them laugh. He also had a real big place in his heart for senior citizens. At his campaign office, his camera store and his City Hall office, I was always struck by how many kids and seniors were there. He was very empathetic and he had all these funny little rituals. Like one of the rituals was that every year on his birthday, he would receive a pie in the face.

He was very good at self-deprecating humor, and this was part of a strategy, because at that point in time most heterosexual people had yet to encounter an out-loud-and-proud gay politician. So there was fear, there was anxiety, there were all sorts of preconceptions. And Harvey would disarm people with humor that would then open the door for more serious conversations to happen.

You have dedicated your career to fighting for LGBTQ rights. In what way did being close to Milk help you reach this point where you realized that this was the work that you wanted to do? 

You know, I was always interested in politics. I was always interested in the movement. I’m a product of the Vietnam War era and the Civil Rights Movement and the feminist movement. I graduated from high school in 1972, just as the war in Vietnam was winding down. Certainly Nov. 27, finding Harvey’s body, kind of set my course permanently. But I’m not just an LGBTQ activist. In fact, for the last 17 years or so, I’ve worked with Unite Here, the hospitality workers union in the Bay Area. We’re Local 2, and we’re a fighting union of people, immigrants, native-born, people of all colors, faiths, backgrounds, genders and orientations. We take on some of the biggest corporations in the world, and we fight.

We win contracts that provide workers with better pay, safer working conditions, access to health care and more respect on the job. And so my work for the last almost two decades now focused on labor as well as LGBTQ. It really goes directly back to Harvey Milk and the Teamsters and a Teamster organizer named Allan Baird, who gave Harvey a bullhorn and built that coalition to get Coors beer out of all the gay bars.

How do you see Milk’s legacy today, particularly in San Francisco and the Bay Area?

I think about Harvey almost every day, and I wonder what he could have accomplished had he not been killed. I wonder if he would have survived the AIDS pandemic, which took so many of us. I think he might possibly have become mayor. I think he might have ended up in Congress. Maybe he would have ended up being just another disappointing politician who made big promises. But being cut down as he was, he gave a people and a community a shared martyr. Now, there are a lot of martyrs in the LGBTQ community. A lot of people have been taken by violence or by suicide or have lost their way to drugs and alcohol, with which we suffer a lot of tragedies. But Harvey’s death brought us together in a powerful way that continues to reverberate through the generations.

And at the core of his message is the importance of coming out and being true to yourself. Being honest and open about who we are, and also about understanding that none of us goes through our lives alone, that all of our lives and our communities are intertwined and interconnected, and that what we do matters. The decisions that we make have consequences, and we need to support each other and do our best to build a world that is free from war in which we can live with justice.

Black and white photo in which a white man screams with joy and pumps his fist in the air with his right hand while holding a sign that says "I'm from Woodmere NY" with the other, seated on the back of a convertible with a parade of people holding signs and flags behind him on a city street lined with people and buildings.
Harvey Milk at the Gay Pride Parade, San Francisco, June 23, 1978. (Terry Schmitt/San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Images)

This is a pretty fraught time for LGBTQ rights around the U.S. We’re seeing state legislatures introducing bills that ban books focused on queerness and others targeting drag performances. How do you think Harvey Milk would have tried to address this moment? 

Well, I don’t need to speculate at all. I know exactly what he would do. He would be organizing people and he would be encouraging people to take responsibility for fighting these fights. You know, when Harvey was coming of age back in New York and as he was becoming aware of his sexual orientation and figuring out who he was going to be, the Holocaust was unfolding in Europe. As a Jewish gay person, Harvey was extremely aware of what could happen, and he spoke of it often.

And there’s this very famous quote from Dr. King about how the moral arc of the universe bends toward justice. And I believe that that is true. But when we step back and look at that arc, we see that there are a lot of twists and turns. And I have no doubt that if Harvey were here with us today, he would be warning people that there is peril ahead, that we are in dangerous times, that not only are the advances made by LGBTQ people threatened, but our very democracy is threatened. And if he were here today, I know he would be speaking out against that every single day with every breath he could find.

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