Remembering Harvey Milk’s Death

It was a cold, rainy day in Boston when I looked up at the old news zipper above the Harvard Square subway kiosk and read that Harvey Milk and George Moscone had been assassinated that day in San Francisco.

I was 23 and had just the year before begun what seemed like a painfully slow process of coming out. Politics was a comfortable safe harbor through which I could try on my emerging sexual identity, and I had read as much as I could about Milk, who one year before, in November 1977, became the first out gay man elected to office in the United States, three years after Elaine Noble, an out lesbian from Boston, was elected to the Massachusetts House of Representatives.

Less than three weeks before Milk’s murder, he had successfully led a drive to defeat a statewide initiative to rid the public schools of gay and lesbian teachers. The victory was particularly sweet, coming as it did just one year after Anita Bryant led her Save Our Children crusade to overturn Miami-Dade’s pioneering gay rights ordinance. That bit of headline-grabbing ugliness had snapped me out of my complacency the summer I graduated from college, still confident that I never really had to sort out my sexuality.

The news about the killings of Milk and Moscone proved particularly confusing and distressing given the events of just nine days before. On November 18, 1978, one day after San Francisco area U.S. Rep. Leo Ryan had arrived in British Guyana to investigate complaints from constituents about what they were hearing about a cult encampment called the People’s Temple, Jim Jones, the messianic leader of that group, led his followers in a mass suicide/multiple murder that claimed the lives of 912 people, including Ryan.

Many of Jones’ followers were from the Bay Area, and the national news media was already speculating about the peculiar psyche of San Francisco when one just retired city supervisor, Dan White, turned up at City Hall and killed another supervisor and the mayor. In the painful days that followed, my own fragile sense of myself felt bruised at the suggestion, sometimes merely implicit, other times more overt, that somehow all these characters—Jones and Ryan, White and Milk and Moscone—were all part of a cultural experiment gone awry in San Francisco.

I worried about how history was writing the story of three outstanding leaders—Moscone, Milk, and Ryan—who died because they dared stare evil in the face. But, in fact, history has been kind. The exact details of Jonestown trips up people trying to remember them today, and Dan White, a sad and angry man, died alone at his own hand. Harvey Milk, cut down far too early, nonetheless lives on in the spirit of queer people everywhere.

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