Tag Archives: gay politics

Gay History: A Gay Martyr Who Ignited A Global Revolution

Biography: Harvey Milk, Lillian Faderman, Yale University Press, €21.99, JP O’ Malley

Sean Penn (left) won a best actor Oscar for his portrayal of Harvey Milk, California’s first openly gay elected politician, in the 2008 film ‘Milk’

On November 18, 1977, Harvey Milk distributed a secret tape recording to a select network of close friends: “To be played only in the event of my death by assassination,” the audio began: “If a bullet should enter my brain, let that bullet destroy every closet door,” the statement concluded.

Milk made the recordings shortly after becoming the first openly gay man to be elected to public-political office anywhere; when he won a seat on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. Just one year later he was murdered by Dan White.

White, a fellow supervisor on San Francisco’s governing body, killed Milk because he claimed the city was being turned into Sodom by men who insisted on flaunting their homosexuality in public.

As historian and scholar of the LGBT movement, Lillian Faderman, explains in the concluding chapter of this concise, yet enormously insightful biography, Milk’s murder immortalised him forever: igniting a nationwide call to action from the LGBT community to demand equality, free from prejudice.

At the last Gay Freedom Day rally he attended before his death, Milk proposed that gay people across America gather in the US capital. On October 14, 1979, the first March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights had 100,000 people in attendance.

As Faderman notes, support for the LGBT movement grew in numbers over time: the second March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights in 1987 drew 600,000 people; while the third in 1993 attracted close to a million. As of 2016, 43 states across the US have elected at least one LGBT person to their state legislature. And this historic progressive change spread further afield.

Indeed, it’s possible to draw a line from Milk’s death, to Ireland’s progressive move in 2015 to enshrine marriage equality into law for same sex couples; and the subsequent appointment, two years later, of the country’s first openly gay Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar.

A hopeful, moving, and uplifting read, Faderman’s book tells the story of a man that didn’t fit the typical criteria for a progressive political martyr. Primarily because Milk lacked consistency in his political allegiances: he could play the liberal-pot smoking hippie, just as he could champion right wing conservatism when it suited him.

Faderman subtly hints that the circumstances of Milk’s personal life meant he never felt entirely comfortable in one firmly-rooted set of political ideals.

Essentially because he was living a double life. Born in 1930, into a conservative Jewish family in Long Island, New York, Milk never came out to either of his parents. Both died knowing nothing of his sexual identity.

As a Jew and homosexual, Milk always saw himself as an outsider who had to fight for social acceptance. He often used analogies of Jews being slaughtered in Nazi Germany. The Holocaust remained a pertinent metaphor in Milk’s speeches and editorials. Drawing lessons from European history, Milk claimed that calling any minority group pariahs, criminals, and demons would naturally only end in catastrophe.

Milk lived much of his life in a peripatetic manner: oscillating between New York, Dallas, and California. He took jobs in teaching, acting, on Wall Street and in the navy too, where he briefly served in Korea. But it was in the Castro area of San Francisco where Milk finally laid down roots and began to interact with a burgeoning gay community.

Then in his forties, Milk, along with his partner Scott Smith, opened Castro Camera: a gay camera photo development shop, which also served as a political constituency office, as well as a popular neighbourhood gay hangout spot too.

Faderman continually stresses that Milk was often shunned by certain sections of the gay community in his own lifetime.

Since the Stonewall Riots in New York’s Greenwich Village in 1969, a large proportion of the gay community across America had become synonymous with radical politics: seeking to overthrow existing social institutions.

Milk, however, was no committed leftist. He simply sought for gay people to be accepted into mainstream society as it presently stood.

Faderman points out that even martyrs have their flaws too: shortly before his death, the US Attorney General authorised that the FBI look into allegations that Milk had tried to divert funds from the Pride Foundation into his own pocket. We also read how Milk’s love life was mired in anguish, abandonment, heartache, and tragedy. One of his long-time partners, Jack Lira, hanged himself in 1977, leaving Milk a rather nasty suicide note.

Faderman’s narrative mixes the personal and the political with great skill; subtly displaying how at a fundamental level, fighting for collective political rights is really just a human yearning for personal happiness, which usually has its roots in compassion. The book is an exemplary testament to how ordinary citizens – with hope in their hearts and relentless ambition – can swing the pendulum of history towards progress and freedom.


Australian Gay Icons: Brian Patrick McGahen

McGahen, Brian Patrick (1952–1990)
by Phillip Black
This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 18, (MUP), 2012
Brian Patrick McGahen (1952-1990), city councillor, social worker, gay activist and social libertarian, was born on 3 March 1952 at Camperdown, Sydney, elder son of Patrick James McGahen (d.1963), hairdresser, and his wife Monica Marie Anderson, née Pettit, both born in New South Wales. Brian was educated at De La Salle College, Ashfield, and the University of Sydney (B.Soc.Stud., 1974). At the age of 17 he opposed the Vietnam War; he refused to register for conscription and was convicted of sedition for advocating draft resistance. He joined the Eureka Youth League of Australia, the Communist Party of Australia and the Draft Resisters’ Union.
In 1974-75 McGahen was employed as a social worker and drug counsellor in the methadone program of the Health Commission of New South Wales. When the Australian Social Welfare Union was created in 1976, he was a founding member. After travelling overseas that year, in 1977 he was an organiser for the Chile Solidarity Campaign. Over the next three years he worked on projects for the State Department of Youth and Community Services. With Social Research and Evaluation Ltd in the early 1980s, he reviewed the New South Wales Family Support Services Scheme.
Sexual politics had emerged as a social force worldwide by the mid-1970s. McGahen found like-minded activists in the Sydney Gay Liberation and subsequently in the Socialist Lesbians & Male Homosexuals. In 1978 he was part of a collective that organised the National Homosexual Conference on discrimination and employment. He was chairman (director) of the Sydney Gay Mardi Gras Association from 1981 to 1984, providing the young organisation with structure, direction and vision.
Remaining a member of the CPA until 1984, McGahen stood unsuccessfully in 1980 as its candidate in the election for the lord mayor of Sydney. In 1984, having campaigned as a leader of the gay community against the Australian Labor Party State government’s failure to repeal anti-homosexual laws, he was elected (as an Independent) to the Sydney City Council for the Flinders ward. A member of various council committees, he served from 14 April 1984 until the council was dismissed on 26 March 1987. Policies were implemented to prevent discrimination against homosexuals in council services.
McGahen became a director of a Sydney home care service in 1986, hoping to extend the service to people suffering from acquired immune deficiency syndrome. He was also concerned about immigration rights for the partners of gay men. Throughout the 1980s he was a consistent advocate for a permanent gay and lesbian community centre, preferably a registered club. In 1989 he joined the Pride steering committee, became treasurer, and soon gained support to set up such a club.
In 1987 McGahen was diagnosed positive for the human immunodeficiency virus. He decided to show that his carefully considered choice of voluntary euthanasia could be achieved in a dignified manner. Never married, he died on 3 April 1990 at his Elizabeth Bay home, accompanied by five close friends, and was cremated. He had fought with determination and enthusiasm for what he believed in, often against great opposition. In 1986 a homosexual social group, Knights of the Chameleons, had made him the Empress of Sydney, and in 1992 he was inducted into the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras Association Hall of Fame.
Select Bibliography

G. Wotherspoon, City of the Plain, 1991

R. Perdon (comp), Sydney’s Aldermen, 1995

Sydney Morning Herald, 17 September 1984, p 4

Sydney Star Observer, 6 April 1990, p 17

Sydney Morning Herald, 23 June 1990, p 69

McGahen papers (State Library of New South Wales)

Citation details

Phillip Black, ‘McGahen, Brian Patrick (1952–1990)’, Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/mcgahen-brian-patrick-14206/text25218, published first in hardcopy 2012, accessed online 17 September 2015.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 18, (MUP), 2012