Tag Archives: Harvey Milk

Gay History: Martyrs Among Us: Deifying Matthew Shepard, Harvey Milk + more

IMAGE ABOVE: JAKE GYLLENHAAL AND HEATH LEDGER IN BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN; COVER STORY IMAGE: HILLARY SWANK IN BOYS DON’T CRY

When news broke that Matthew Shepard’s remains were finally buried at the National Cathedral some 20 years after his death, we were reminded of the collective grief the nation felt after the brutal, senseless murder of the waiflike 21-year-old. In the intervening years since he happened into a bar where he met up with two men who lured him into their truck, robbed him, and drove him to a desolate stretch of highway outside Laramie, Wyoming where they pistol-whipped him, tied him to a wooden fence and left him for dead in the cold night air, Shepard had become more than an emblem of the senseless hate crimes perpetrated against the gay community, he had become a martyr.

Matthew Shepard was an openly gay student at the University of Wyoming who was brutally attacked in a hate crime at the age of 21.

Shepard’s place among sacrificial victims was solidified when more than 5,000 people gathered on the steps of the Capitol to mourn his death and cemented when Congress passed the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, which broadened existing law to include crimes triggered by sexual orientation, gender, gender identity, race and disability. Byrd was an African American man murdered by three white supremacists in Jasper, Texas. On June 7, 1998, they dragged his body for three miles behind their pickup truck. Although Byrd wasn’t gay, his inhumane murder serves to remind us of the hate that permeates society.

In his book, Dying to Be Normal: Gay Martyrs and the Transformation of Sexual Politics, author Brett Krutszch theorizes that LGBTQ activists are using religion to make the argument that gays are essentially the same as straights and deserve the same equal rights. He points to the veneration of Shepard, Harvey Milk and other high profile gay victims, as well as campaigns like the It Gets Better Project, which he believes promotes the notion that “like Christ’s suffering on the cross, one’s trials today can lead to a better tomorrow.” Krutszch says that national tragedies like Orlando’s Pulse nightclub shooting show how activists use headline-grabbing deaths to gain acceptance, shape the debate over LGBTQ rights and foster assimilation.

Krutszch maintains that Mr. Shepard’s 1998 murder is steeped in religious imagery. Just the thought of the all-American boy-next-door tied to a fence conjures up images of the crucifixion. He concludes that Matthew Shepard’s resulting canonization is due to the interplay of religion, death and LGBTQ politics and that “martyrs as emblems can be changed into more respectable figures than they were in their lifetime.” We may never know if Mr. Shepard was the innocent victim most people believe he was, or as The Book of Matt: Hidden Truths About the Murder of Matthew Shepard indicates, he was a meth dealer who not only knew his killers, but was sexually involved with one and that his death was the result of a drug robbery gone bad.

Whatever the motive for his murder, Shepard has become a shining symbol in the pantheon of almost exclusively white gay martyrs. The group dates back to the 4th century when Sergius and Bacchus, two Roman Christian soldiers who happened to be lovers, took part in a rite called adelphopoiesis (the ancient equivalent of same sex marriage) and refused to attend sacrifices for Zeus, thereby revealing their Christianity. The pair was paraded through what is now Syria. They were dressed in women’s clothing and tortured to death. They lived on through fervent followers and the churches that were dedicated to them throughout The Byzantine Empire.

Any conversation about modern-day martyrs would not be complete without mentioning Harvey Milk. He was the first openly gay elected official in California. Krutszch described Milk as “a secular Jewish, Yiddish-speaking, anti-monogamist” who was transformed by activists who “downplayed his Jewishness, depicted him as committed to fidelity and presented him as someone whose death, like Christ’s crucifixion, transformed the world.” One can argue the validity of that characterization, but it is hard to deny the contributions Milk made as San Francisco’s District 5 Supervisor. Those included defeating Proposition 6 that would have banned lesbian and gay educators from teaching in California public schools, and his efforts to pass legislation that prohibited discrimination in housing and employment based on sexual orientation.

Harvey Milk

Tyler Clemente may be less well known than Milk and Shepard, but like their deaths, his was another flashpoint. You may remember reading about his suicide in 2010. Clemente was an 18-year-old Rutgers University student who jumped from the George Washington Bridge after his roommate used a webcam to spy on him kissing another man. The video was posted on Twitter.

Most homosexual martyrs are white, but they are not all men. Brandon Teena, born Teena Renae Brandon, became famous when Hilary Swank played him in Boys Don’t Cry. The 21-year-old Teena was living a quiet transgender life in Humboldt, Nebraska, dating 18-year-old Lana Tisdel and hanging out with two ex-convicts John Lotter and Marvin Thomas “Tom” Nissen. Everything was fine until December 19, 1993, when Teena was arrested for forging checks. He used his one phone call to call Tisdel. She got the surprise of her life when she came to bail him out and was directed to the women’s prison where Teena was being held.

Brandon Teena

At a Christmas Eve party a few weeks later, Lotter and Nissen forced Teena to remove his pants, proving to Tisdale that he was a woman. Later that night, Lotter and Nissen forced Teena into a car, drove him to a deserted area, attacked and gang-raped him. Fearful that Brandon would file a police complaint, the pair murdered him on New Year’s Eve. While his family buried him as a female (his tombstone reads “Teena R. Brandon, Daughter, Sister and Friend”), the death of Brandon Teena is credited with raising awareness of transgender issues in the same way that Matthew Shepard’s became a clarion call for injustices directed toward gay men.

Teen Lana Tisdale

While real-life suffering seems like a necessary prerequisite for martyrdom, some fictional characters like Brokeback Mountain’s Jack Twist and Ennis Del Mar have transcended fictional status to take their place in the cultural zeitgeist. Brokeback author, Annie Proulx, said the characters Jack and Ennis were her first two that felt “really damned real” and “got a life of their own.” She also said, “Unfortunately, they got a life of their own for too many other people, too … the audience that Brokeback reached most strongly have powerful fantasy lives. They can’t bear the way it ends. So they invent all kinds of boyfriends and new lovers and so forth after Jack is killed. They can’t understand that the story isn’t about Jack and Ennis, it’s about homophobia.”

Gay martyrs like Matthew Shepard, Harvey Milk, Brandon Teena and even Brokeback’s fictional characters are often a byproduct of homophobia, when people who find themselves outside the mainstream and are struggling to just be who they are.

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Gay History:The Briggs Initiative: Remembering a Crucial Moment in Gay History

Homophobe John Briggs promoting his initiative

A lot of people are saying this year’s midterm election is the most crucial of our lifetime. It may well be, given the need to elect officials who will fight Donald Trump’s loathsome agenda. But another midterm election, 40 years ago, was one of the most crucial as well, at least in California.

In 1978, State Sen. John Briggs put an initiative on the ballot that would have mandated the firing of any gay or lesbian teacher in California public schools, or any teacher who supported gay rights (the term LGBT wasn’t used back then). Thanks to a Herculean effort by California grassroots activists — Harvey Milk, Cleve Jones, Sally Miller Gearhart, hundreds of others — Briggs’s Proposition 6, popularly known as the Briggs Initiative, was resoundingly defeated, by more than a million votes. It was the first time voters had rejected an antigay measure.

To mark the 40th anniversary of this milestone, the GLBT Historical Society in San Francisco is mounting an exhibition called “The Briggs Initiative: A Scary Proposition,” recounting the story of the initiative and how it was turned back. It opens September 14.

“This exhibition will bring a scary time for LGBTQ people zinging back for those of us who were there, reminding us that we can fight the forces of anti-LGBTQ discrimination and win even against long odds,” said co-curator Sue Englander, a veteran of the anti-Briggs Initiative effort, in a press release. “And if you weren’t here 40 years ago, the story will sear itself into your consciousness. The differences between 1978 and today aren’t as big as they may look.”

Indeed, there are similarities between 1978 and today. The gay rights movement jump-started by the Stonewall riots and other events of the 1960s had made some gains in the 1970s. Gays and lesbians were getting elected to state- or city-level public office, or coming out and getting reelected — Elaine Noble in Massachusetts, Allan Spear in Minnesota, Harvey Milk in San Francisco. Many cities and counties, including San Francisco and Miami-Dade County, were adopting ordinances banning antigay discrimination. Major cities across the nation were holding Pride parades, usually around the anniversary of Stonewall in late June. The American Psychiatric Association announced it no longer considered homosexuality a mental illness.

This amount of progress pales in comparison with that of the 21st century, which brought nationwide marriage equality, many more antidiscrimination laws, and, for a time, a president who wholeheartedly supported LGBTQ equality. But just as the Trump administration and other anti-LGBTQ forces are trying to undo civil rights progress today, homophobes came out of the woodwork to try to strip away the advances of the 1970s. The Briggs Initiative was part of this backlash, as was Anita Bryant’s campaign to repeal the Miami-Dade County gay rights law. But where she succeeded, Briggs would fail.

Briggs was a far-right Republican from a district in Orange County, a conservative enclave between Los Angeles and San Diego. In a state that makes greater use of the citizen initiative process than almost any other that has it, he hoped Prop. 6 would boost his political career. Specifically, he aspired to become California’s governor.

But one of the forces who helped persuade voters to reject the initiative was a former governor — Ronald Reagan. When he became president a few years later, Reagan didn’t build a gay-friendly record — he courted the religious right and notoriously ignored the AIDS crisis. But in 1978, he announced his opposition to the Briggs Initiative in an informal letter and in responses to reporters’ questions, and on November 1, six days before the election, he published a commentary in the Los Angeles Herald-Examiner denouncing the measure.

“Whatever else it is, homosexuality is not a contagious disease like the measles,” he wrote. “Prevailing scientific opinion is that an individual’s sexuality is determined at a very early age and that a child’s teachers do not really influence this.” That language may sound pretty tepid now, but at the time it was a significant statement. Then-President Jimmy Carter and his predecessor, Gerald Ford, also opposed the initiative.

Opponents meet: John Briggs and Harvey Milk

But the credit for defeating the Briggs Initiative really should go not to high-profile politicians but to the many grassroots activists who worked against it. The opposition started with gay and lesbian advocates and the women’s movement, but they formed alliances with organized labor, progressive religious groups, and community organizations representing a variety of populations. Milk and Gearheart famously debated John Briggs, as chronicled in the documentary The Times of Harvey Milk and the narrative film Milk (although the latter left out Gearheart). They made mincemeat out of Briggs’s arguments, particularly about his initiative being a way to combat child molestation; Gearheart cited government data showing that this is overwhelmingly committed by straight men.

But most important, gay people came out. “We can defeat the Briggs Initiative if all the gay people come out to your family, your friends — if indeed they are your friends, your coworkers, your neighbors,” Milk said at the time. “You will hurt them if you come out, but think of how they will hurt you if they vote for Briggs. If they don’t come out, then it will be a very tight race.”

Indeed, gay people and their allies managed to flip the script on the initiative, as Ramy K. Khalil noted in his Western Washington University master’s thesis on the campaign. In August, just three months before the election, opinion polls showed support for the measure at 61 percent, opposition at 31 percent. By September, the polls showed a toss-up. And on November 7, voters delivered a resounding defeat, with the proposition losing by a margin of 58.4 percent to 41.6 percent, and not even carrying Briggs’s home county.

“One decisive factor was the mistake by Briggs himself of over-reaching — of promoting an initiative that was more extreme than the anti-gay ballot initiatives in other states,” Khalil wrote. “Proposition 6 required school districts to terminate employment of LGBT or straight people who expressed any sympathy toward homosexuality, on or off the job, whereas the ballot initiatives in other states merely repealed special protections against discrimination for gays or lesbians. Most importantly, though, Proposition 6 was defeated by LGBT people, labor unions, feminists, and other allies who organized a powerful grassroots movement involving highly visible protests and actions that successfully confronted the homophobic arguments behind Proposition 6.”

One of the posters to be featured in the exhibit
“Never Again! Fight Back!” (San Francisco: Too Much Graphics, 1978); silk-screened poster sold as a fundraiser for the No on Six campaign, GLBT Historical Society.
“No on 6” bumper sticker (San Francisco: Bay Area Committee Against the Briggs Initiative, 1978). Collection of the GLBT Historical Society.

Reference

Gay History: What Were The White Night Riots?

‘Dan White murdered my friend’: When anger boiled over into violence at City Hall and San Francisco police raided a Castro bar

On May 21, 1979, thousands of members of San Francisco’s predominantly gay Castro District community took to the streets to protest the lenient sentence received by Dan White for the murders of local politician and gay rights activist Harvey Milk and Mayor George Moscone. Their anger–combined with the actions of police who arrived to quell the scene–soon boiled over into rioting. The resulting violence affected San Francisco’s LGBT community for decades to come.

Harvey Milk rose to prominence as a gay rights activist and became the first openly gay person elected to a public office in the state of California when he was elected to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors in 1977. His murder, as well as that of Mayor Moscone, devastated not just the gay community, but the city as a whole.

Dan White was a former member of the Board of Supervisors who had clashed with Milk during their time serving the city together. In November of 1978, White resigned from his post, but changed his mind and asked to be reinstated. Mayor Moscone denied the request–with Milk lobbying against White’s reappointment. On November 27, White entered City Hall through a basement window and shot both men to death in their offices.

Six months later, White was convicted, not of first-degree murder, but voluntary manslaughter. White’s defense team had pointed to his diminished mental capacity and emotional state at the time of the murders, as indicated by the once-health conscious White consuming too much junk food– a ploy that became known as the “Twinkie Defense.” The jury-predominantly white, Roman Catholic and heterosexual—bought into it, recommending the lesser charge, which led to a sentence of just 7 years and 8 months.

When news of the verdict broke on the night of May 21, Cleve Jones–a close friend of Milk’s who would eventually go on to become one of the creators of the AIDS Quilt–spoke to a crowd of about 500 gatherers on Castro Street, and a peaceful march was quickly organized. By the time the crowd of protestors had made its second trip around the block, they were 1,500 strong. They then marched to City Hall, where their numbers expanded to an estimated 5,000.

As the crowd grew, so did the anger. Police soon arrived to try to control the situation, but that only served to enrage the crowd more. The police had raised over $100,000 for White’s defense–he was a former police officer–and many in the community believed the department had conspired to reduce White’s charges and sentencing. Although ordered to simply hold the crowd back, many officers began attacking the protestors with night sticks. Many had even taped over their badges, so as not to be identified.

Chaos erupted, as the crowd fought with police and destroyed a dozen police vehicles, as well as parts of City Hall itself. After three hours, officers moved in to quell the rioting for good, using tear gas in the process, and the crowd dispersed. In all, 59 officers and 124 protestors were injured, with about two dozen arrests made.

Hours later, several police officers gathered on their own to raid the Castro neighborhood, vandalizing a local bar and assaulting patrons. They shouted anti-gay slurs at the victims, and eventually turned their attention to attacking anyone that happened to be out on Castro Street.

After two hours, Police Chief Charles Gain was made aware of the rogue officers’ activities, and he made his way to the Castro to put a stop to it. No officers were reprimanded for the attacks, as officials were never able to determine who had ordered it, but the violence was finally over.

The next day, on what would have been Milk’s 49th birthday, 20,000 San Franciscans gathered to remember him. That October, more than 75,000 people marched for gay rights in Washington, D.C., and gay rights activists from around the country were inspired to continue their fight.

In San Francisco, the riots led to a wave of political changes, as more and more LGBT politicians were elected over the next decades. LGBT presence on the police forced also dramatically increased, and has continued to increase to this day.

Reference

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.

Reference

Gay History: Harvey Milk Debates Sen. John Briggs, September 1978.

Harvey Milk and Republican state Sen. John Briggs of Orange County met in September 1978 for a debate at Northgate High School in Walnut Creek over the Briggs Initiative, a proposition that would have made it mandatory for school boards to fire openly gay and lesbian teachers. The photos were recently found in The San Francisco Chronicle archive by pop culture critic Peter Hartlaub and published for the first time in decades. 📷: John Storey