Michael Aaron

40 years after the assassination of Harvey Milk

Harvey Milk was among the first elected openly-gay people, elected to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors after numerous previous attempts. Forty years ago last week he was assassinated by fellow supervisor Dan White.

Over 500 LGBT politicians now hold public office in the United States — city council members, mayors, members of Congress, state legislators, even governors. Hundreds more have been elected in countries around the world, including four heads of state. A far cry from the 70s when you could count them on one hand.

“Harvey was charismatic, funny and something of a father figure to me. He was one of the first people to tell me that I had value as a human being and that I didn’t need to change,” wrote Cleve Jones in his book, When We Rise: My Life in the Movement. 

Jones interned for Milk, and when Milk was killed, he was among the first to see his dead body in San Francisco City Hall. As news raced through the city, Jones rushed back to City Hall and let himself into a private hallway, heading towards Milk’s office.

“I looked down the hallway and saw Harvey’s feet sticking out from Dan White’s office. I recognized his secondhand wingtip shoes immediately,” he wrote. Seeing him close-up confirmed his fears. “I struggle to comprehend as my mind begins to understand what my eyes are seeing. The only thing that I can think is that it is over. It is all over. He was my mentor and friend and he is gone. He was our leader and he is gone. It is over.”

Jones remembered a tape that Milk had recorded, “Just in case.”

“I’d known of the tape and teased him a bit, ‘Who do you think you are, Mr. Milk? Dr. King? Malcolm X? I don’t think you’re important enough to be assassinated.’” He pressed the play button.

“This is Harvey Milk … This is to be played only in the event of my death by assassination. I fully realize that a person who stands for what I stand for, an activist, a gay activist, becomes a target or the potential target for somebody who is insecure, terrified, afraid, or very disturbed themselves. Knowing that I could be assassinated at any moment, any time, I feel it’s important that some people know my thoughts,” the recording started. “I cannot prevent some people from feeling angry and frustrated and mad, but I hope they will take that frustration and that madness and instead of demonstrating or anything of that type, I would hope they would take the power and I would hope that five, ten, one hundred, a thousand would rise. I would like to see every gay doctor come out, every gay lawyer, every gay architect come out, stand up and let that world know. That would do more to end prejudice overnight than anybody would imagine. I urge them to do that, urge them to come out. Only that way will we start to achieve our rights.”

“If a bullet should enter my brain, let that bullet destroy every closet door in the country,” Milk said in the tape.

That sparked a lifetime of activism and Jones became known as the “Boy with the Bullhorn.”

To say that Milk became a martyr may not be far from the truth. While some thought people might fear to hold public office after Milk’s murder, what actually happened was that many took to knocking on doors for the first time.

And here we are, 40 years later, with hundreds of openly LGBT politicians holding office. In Salt Lake County alone we have and have had dozens of openly gay representatives from school board members to state senators.

As Jones put it, “I was wrong. It wasn’t over. It was just beginning.”

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