Milk and Twinkies

November 26, 2008

Harvey Bernard Milk, a Gay Jewish insurance salesman from New York, moved to the Castro District of San Francisco in 1972 and opened a camera store on Castro Street, back when Gay people still trying to win the right to "freedom of assembly" - any sizable gathering of LGBT folks meant violent police intervention - usually with name badges covered so we could be beaten into submission without fear of reprisal. Brash, geeky, irreverent, outspoken, and incorrigibly uppity, Harvey insisted that LGBT folks needed to stop pandering to straight liberal politicians (who offered only crumbs in return) and instead should dive into the feast of freedom without restraint, particularly focusing on anti-Gay police brutality. Honest to a fault, he built a coalition of unionists, feminists, ethnic minorities, and LGBT people - and campaigned unsuccessfully for city supervisor several times. Dubbing himself the "Mayor of Castro Street", he invited Gays to settle in the working-class Castro neighborhood and renovate the aging Victorian "painted ladies". With an exploding "out, loud, and proud" Gay population, in 1977 Milk finally won a seat on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors - the first openly Gay person to be elected to public office in the United States.

Harvey Milk
Harvey Milk outside the Castro Camera Shop

He fiercely led battles against several anti-Gay initiatives that pummeled California at the time, and was responsible for passing a stringent LGBT rights ordinance in San Francisco at a time when the freedom of speech, the freedom to assemble, and freedom of the press were still not guaranteed to most LGBT people in the United States.

Unfortunately, elected the same year to the Board of Supervisors, was Dan White, a blue-collar Irish-American Vietnam Vet and former SF police officer and firefighter. Although initially on good terms, the two men later had several political battles, which ended with White resigning his position. After his potato restaurant on the pier failed, White swallowed his pride and decided to ask Mayor George Moscone for his job back. However, at Harvey Milk's urging, Moscone instead informed White that he would appoint a more progressive Don Horanzy to the opening in the Board.

Early in the morning of Monday, November 27 (30 years ago this Thanksgiving Day), Dan White loaded his police service revolver, packed ten extra rounds into his coat pocket, and had a friend drop him off at City Hall. Waiting in the cool morning, White consumed several twinkies, Ding-Dongs and Ho-Hos, unusual food for the fitness fanatic. Once City Hall's doors opened for morning business, White slipped in through a basement window to avoid the metal detectors and proceeded to Mayor Moscone's office. Once there, he pled once again to be re-appointed. When Moscone said no, White drew his revolver and shot the mayor twice in the stomach and then twice more in the head. He quickly reloaded his weapon and headed for Harvey Milk's office. Confronting his foe, White reported that Milk smirked at him about Horanzy's appointment. This made White begin to scream at Harvey and when Harvey arose from his chair, White shot him three times in the chest, once in the back, and twice in the head.

White fled City Hall and turned himself in to former co-workers at his old precinct. Although he made a taped confession there, he denied premeditation, despite the loaded gun, the extra ammunition, the covert entrance into the building, etc.

Over 30,000 LGBT folks and allies joined in an impromptu candlelight march from the Castro to City Hall, where Joan Baez sang "Amazing Grace" and the San Francisco Gay Men's Chorus sang a hymn by Mendlessohn in their very first public performance. (One of the choir's founders was ex-Mormon, Gerald Pearson.) Lesbian folk singer, Holly Near, that night composed the the beautiful "Song for Harvey Milk," whose lyrics begin,"We are a gentle, angry people, and we are singing, singing for our lives."

On May 21, 1979, the day of sentencing for Dan White, another impromptu, peaceful vigil began - again from the Castro to the steps of City Hall. White's attorney had argued "diminished capacity" exacerbated by the junk food he had consumed before his killing spree; and there was no premeditation - White was simply on "auto pilot" and therefore not responsible for his actions. As the crowds gathered at City Hall, the announcement came that the judge had given Dan White a slap on the wrist - seven years in prison for manslaughter (and likely only to serve half that for good behavior as a former police officer). The infamous "Twinkie Defense" was born.

Hostess Twinkies
"Eat a Twinkie - Get away with murder"

The crowd exploded and began two days of rioting in the now famous "White Night Riots", with most of the Gay anger lashing out at the increasingly conservative police force. Over a dozen police cars were set ablaze, and dozens of windows at City Hall and nearby buildings were smashed in outrage. The police, in retaliation, showed up en masse at the Elephant Walk, a popular Gay bar in the Castro and demolished the interior, while severely beating its patrons who were not at the riots, but sitting peacefully in a bar, having drinks. Masses of Gays gathered around the bar and finally drove back the heavily armed and armored police. WE DO FIGHT BACK.

Paroled after 1984, Dan White found himself the most hated man in California. He pathetically killed himself in 1986.

This weekend I had the awesome privilege of spending a quiet evening with Cleve Jones, one of Harvey Milk's Gay student interns. In 1983, Jones co-founded the SF AIDS Foundation, the first health organization in the country to deal specifically with AIDS, at a time when the Reagan administration refused to even say the word AIDS. Then in 1987, he founded the NAMES Project Foundation which began constructing the AIDS Quilt. Now with 44,000 individual memorial panels (each the size of a human grave), it weighs an estimated 54 tons - the largest piece of community folk art in the entire world.

AIDS Quilt
AIDS Quilt on display at Washington DC

I first met Cleve when a large chunk of the Quilt was put on display at the Salt Palace in 1989. I was one of the organizers and one of the "angels" dressed in white who stood at strategic points on the Quilt to help provide succor and a shoulder to cry on for visitors. I also created a panel for the Quilt for a Gay Mormon who died named Jim Johnson. I did not know Jim, but his name had been sent in my his mother, who didn't want her extended LDS family to know about her son's death. I used a black cloth and painted stars all over it. I then connected the stars as a "constellation" to write out his name. Another "constellation" was the state of Utah so people would know where he was from.

Jim Johnson's quilt panel
Jim Johnson's quilt panel I made

Meeting Cleve again (he didn't remember me from before, but I didn't expect him to) was an amazing experience. Still hanging on after all these years with the virus, he's doing very well and is very happy in his life. He has a wonderful boyfriend and they're looking to buy a large property in Humboldt County so he can get away from the city and live quietly the rest of his days. A birth-right Quaker, he has some great stories of growing up in the Phoenix Monthly Meeting of the Society of Friends. And he regaled me and my friends Carl and Clayton with tales of Harvey Milk, his incredibly sense of humor, his humanity, his passion, drive and courage.

Cleve just finished up a year of being technical advisor to Gus Van Sant on the film that debuted last week called Milk about Harvey (played by Sean Penn) and his assassination. My new friend Cleve is played by Emile Hirsch in the film if you go see it. Ironically enough, the screenplay for Milk was written by none other than Gay ex-Mormon Dustin Lance Black, a writer for the HBO series "Big Love." Sean Penn had just left a sweet voice mail on Cleve's phone earlier that day and he was all excited. "Sean Penn left me a v-mail!!" I looked at Carl and exclaimed - "Oh my gosh - we're now only three degrees from Madonna! We know Cleve, Cleve knows Sean, and Sean knows Madonna!" Carl first giggled but then sniffed, "But everybody is only three degrees from Madonna." Okay, he got me with that one....

AND then today as I was thinking about Harvey and how different my life is because of his life (and death), just on a kick, I checked. And sure enough. It's happened.

Harvey Bernard Milk - the Gay Jew who would never have been allowed to join the LDS Church when he was alive - has now been baptized for the dead. Go figure.

RIP Harvey

baptism thumb
Harvey's LDS posthumous baptism record
(click to enlarge)

Harvey was baptized LDS on May 21, 1990, Salt Lake Temple
Endowed on October 18, 1990, Salt Lake Temple
Sealed to his parents on October 29, 1990, Salt Lake Temple

Update (December 8, 2008):

I've now seen Milk twice. Sean Penn certainly deserves an Oscar for Best Actor for his portrayal of Harvey. I loved the movie! I went opening night on Friday with about 300 Gay friends here in Santa Cruz. Then I went again the next night with three LDS friends, who were also very moved by the movie. I loved that Harvey was not portrayed as any martyred "saint" but just as human was he was, with all his messiness and foibles - just like you and me. And in that humanity, seized the day to challenge us all to end our lies, to find integrity and courage within ourselves, and to be exactly who we are.

Connell O'Donovan