'Gotta Give 'Em Hope': The Legacy Of Harvey Milk The first openly gay man elected to major public office was gunned down in 1978, after serving less than a year on San Francisco's Board of Supervisors. A new film tells his story — just as his memory fades among younger gay people.

'Gotta Give 'Em Hope': The Legacy Of Harvey Milk

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From NPR News this is All Things Considered, I'm Melissa Block.


And I'm Robert Siegel. In a couple of weeks, the film "Milk" is going to open. It's about the pioneering activist Harvey Milk. He was the first openly gay man ever voted into office in the United States. Milk was shot to death 30 years ago and the details of his story are not widely known. NPR's Neda Ulaby went to San Francisco to ask what is the legacy of Harvey Milk?

NEDA ULABY: If you know only one thing about Harvey Milk, it's this - the Twinkie defense. The man who brutally gunned down Milk and Mayor George Moscone in 1978, only spent a few years in prison. His lawyer connected a junk food binge to his client's diminished capacity. But the Twinkie defense has nothing to do with the transformational idea Harvey Milk championed.

(Soundbite of speech)

Mr. HARVEY MILK (Former San Francisco Board of Supervisors Member): Every gay person must come out.

ULABY: Today, it's hard to understand just how radical that sounded in 1977.

Mr. MILK: You must tell your relatives, you must tell your friends if indeed they are your friends, you must tell your neighbors.

ULABY: Milk's charisma and conviction helped gay people understand their destinies could change if they took charge of how others perceived them.

Mr. MILK: Once they realize that we are indeed their children, that we are indeed everywhere. Every myth, every lie, every innuendo will be destroyed once and for all.

ULABY: This year when "People Magazine" gave cover after cover to gay celebrities, their weddings and their babies, it's hard to remember that not so long ago, people were arrested or fired just for being gay.

Mr. WALTER CAPLAN (Gay Rights Lawyer): There were always gay teachers, gay nurses, gay health care people who lived quiet little lives and feared for losing the security of the jobs that they had.

ULABY: Walter Caplan was Harvey Milk's lawyer back in the mid-1970s. He says when Milk became the country's first openly gay city supervisor, it changed the tenor of workplaces in San Francisco.

Mr. CAPLAN: You could just see that people stood a little taller. They felt a little more secure in being who they were. That was the beginning.

Ms. ANNE KRONENBERG (Deputy Director, San Francisco's Department of Public Health): He had a charisma about him. He had this smile that just made his entire face light up.

ULABY: Anne Kronenberg was Harvey Milk's campaign coordinator when she was 23 years old.

Ms. KRONENBERG: And when he smiled, you just couldn't help smiling yourself.

ULABY: Now, Kronenberg works for the city. One wall of her office is taken out by a giant photo of the smiling Harvey Milk. She was an extra in the new movie with Sean Penn.

Ms. KRONENBERG: In fact, somebody just dropped this poster off from the movie today for me. Pretty cool, huh?

ULABY: What do you think, does he look like him?

Ms. KRONENBERG: Yeah, he looked a lot like him. There were a few times that he'd walk past me on the set and I'd gulp.

ULABY: The movie "Milk" was mostly filmed in San Francisco. The shoot reminded Kronenberg of the thrill of working with Harvey Milk at his little Castro Camera Shop that doubled as his campaign headquarters.

Ms. KRONENBERG: Harvey really understood politics. He understood it's give and take.

ULABY: For example, when Harvey Milk threw gay pride events in the Castro, he promised all the local mom and pops stores, they'd see record business. They did. Walter Caplan remembers when Milk helped the local beer drivers union during a boycott of Coors. That pleased the union head.

Mr. CAPLAN: And the following Monday morning, into his office came a handful of young gay men who were looking for jobs as union beer drivers. And that opened up the beer driver's union.

ULABY: Union support helped fuel Harvey Milk's campaign. People in the 1970s were shocked when this openly gay man got endorsed by Teamsters and fire fighters.

Mr. CAPLAN: Harvey built coalitions and understood the dynamic of how politics works.

Ms. KRONENBERG: He understood that we can't do it by ourselves. But if you could combine with people who were African-American who were fighting for their rights, or Latino or women, suddenly, we are no longer any of us minorities but we become the majority. He was only on the board for 11 months but what he did changed things so quickly and so dramatically - looking back, you don't even realize that happened.

(Soundbite of press conference)

Senator DIANE FEINSTEIN (Democrat, California): As president of the board.

ULABY: On November 27th, 1978, Diane Feinstein, the president of the San Francisco board of supervisors faced a mob of reporters. Visibly shaking, she made an announcement.

Sen. FEINSTEIN: Both Mayor Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk have been shot and killed.

ULABY: The shooter was Dan White, a former supervisor who had just stepped down after tangling politically with Milk and the mayor. He would serve only five years in prison. Violent protests followed the trial. Rioters set fire to police cars and smashed the doors at city hall.

(Soundbite of riots)

ULABY: 30 years later, right before a movie commemorates his life, who remembers Harvey Milk? Not Jessie Tree. The 25-year-old works at a gay bar in the Castro. It's called, Harvey's.

Mr. JESSIE TREE (Gay Bar Worker): I'm not gay or anything so Harvey Milk hasn't really changed my life. The most well known thing I think is the Twinkie defense that came from the trial and stuff. That just blew my mind. Yeah, but as far as like him personally, I don't know a lot about him.

ULABY: Harvey Milk's legacy of building coalitions and coming out is not necessarily remembered by a new generation of openly gay elected officials. There are hundreds, including Patrick Wojahn. When the 35-year-old city council member from College Park, Maryland names his gay political heroes, Harvey Milk is not on the list.

Mr. PATRICK WOJAHN (City Council Member, College Park, Maryland): His name came to mind but I don't know that much about his life story. It just shows, I guess, that all this stuff is many, many years ago now and unfortunately it's not as fresh in our minds as maybe it should be.

ULABY: And you won't find evidence of Harvey Milk's legacy in conversation with young people hanging out at San Francisco's lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender community center. To them, Milk is a little more than a name on a plaque. 24 year old Beck, just Beck, does not find Harvey Milk particularly relevant.

BECK (Community Center): Relevant to now? I feel like we've got lots of white male gay heroes around here doing like lots of different things. I mean, we have tons of like gay elected officials so it's something totally different now.

ULABY: So different in fact that the place to find Harvey Milk's legacy is with a young straight black woman who grew up in San Francisco. Latifah Simon is a Mills College junior.

Ms. LATIFAH SIMON (Student, Mills College): The fact that we have a politician who was slaughtered, not only because of his political beliefs, but because his sexual orientation, I think it provides a really good framework on not only homophobia, but how scary it is to be in leadership when you are not like the masses.

ULABY: That fear led Harvey Milk to record a sort of political will on cassette tape not long before he was killed.

(Soundbite of Harvey Milk's recording)

Mr. MILK: This is to be played only in the event of my death by assassination.

ULABY: In the tape, Milk invokes a phone call he got from a teenager in Altoona, Pennsylvania. The kid was scared and closeted. He got up the nerve to call Milk after he made national headlines for becoming the first openly gay man elected to public office.

Mr. MILK: And after all that's what it's about, it's about giving those young people out there in the Altoona, Pennsylvania's hope. You got to give them hope.

ULABY: Harvey Milk's closest friends have confessed that kid from Altoona might have been a handy rhetorical device. And they say Harvey Milk would be astonished by a world in which kids take gay leaders for granted, but where Californians just voted to take away civil rights from thousands of gays and lesbians. Where, they wonder, was a voice like Milk's in this year's fight for gay marriage? In 1978, Milk reached minority groups when the Brigg's Initiative sought to fire all of the state's gay teachers.

Mr. MILK: I think it's vital that the minorities, the traditional ethnic minorities and the gays and the feminists link together. Form a very solid strong coalition.

ULABY: Harvey Milk won. The Brigg's Initiative failed. 30 years later, Milk's coalition may have weakened and he lacks a political heir. But Milk himself never doubted the future of the movement he loved. Neda Ulaby, NPR News.

SIEGEL: You can see and hear more from Harvey Milk at our website, including more of the sound from his political will. That's at npr.org.

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