40 years on from his assassination, activist friends of California’s first openly gay elected official recall his monumental moments
“Harvey knew he was going to die soon, he always used to talk about it,” says 71-year-old Gary Geddes, a friend and colleague of gay rights icon Harvey Milk. “He knew he wasn’t going to make it, he knew they’d take him out - and it happened.”
Harvey Milk became the first openly gay person elected to public office in California when, after almost a decade of unsuccessful attempts, he was elected to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors in 1977. 10 months after he took the oath of office, former City Supervisor Dan White assassinated Milk alongside Mayor George Moscone.
Today marks 40 years since Milk was assassinated. His death, just months before the Aids crisis gripped the world, devastated San Francisco’s gay community, sending shockwaves through America’s LGBTQ+ movement. Nowadays Milk is a global icon whose imprint across politics and culture is indelible. The Oscar-winning film Milk told the story of his final decade, where politics dominated his life. A new book by Andrew Reynolds, The Children of Harvey Milk, explores how LGBTQ+ politicians have changed the world in the four decades since his death.
But before Hollywood and publishers embraced him, Milk had to write his own story. Gary originally met him in New York, but the pair reconnected after Milk moved to San Francisco in 1974. He gave Gary a flyer for the camera store he had just opened on Castro Street. This iconic street eventually became the hub of San Francisco’s gay rights movement. As the community’s most visible representative, Milk was often called the Mayor of Castro Street. “The Castro street community was a unique group of people,” Gary tells Dazed. “It was after the Vietnam War and New York City was in a bad situation – there was a lot of crime and there was no jobs. Gay people found a home in San Francisco and moved into that area. We all experienced discrimination, but Harvey pulled us together.”
Milk unsuccessfully ran for office twice before finally winning in 1977. But despite his early losses, he succeeded in focusing the energy of San Fran’s LGBTQ+ community on fighting for common causes. Though with no role models to look up to, particularly in politics, this was no easy task. “Harvey’s biggest problem was getting gay people to think he could win an election. And if he did, then so what? It was tough convincing gay people that he could create change,” explains Gary. “That is his biggest achievement. He really got people to believe in themselves. He made people feel like they could do anything.”
A highlight of Milk’s activism was the Coors Beer boycott. In 1977 the notoriously anti-union beer brand moved to destroy its workers union a strike of nearly 1,500 workers. Part of this anti-union campaign was to fire, without evidence, workers suspected of being LGBTQ+ from its Colorado-based brewery. The boycott, which began in gay bars then spread to sympathetic straight bars, is an important example of the union between working class and queer rights activism that is central to Milk’s legacy. Coors also discriminated against women and funded anti-immigrant causes throughout the US, so the boycott became a resistance of varying axis of oppression.
“The most important thing he wanted was for the bullet that pierced his head to pierce every closet in America”
“He was a sweet man. He was never going to give up on his work, just like with his boyfriends. I think he had one tragic affair after the next,” Gary recalls. “But the most important thing he wanted was for the bullet that pierced his head to pierce every closet in America. So the people who are trapped in those closets can get out. He wanted that bullet that killed him to bring people out into the fight.”
Gary co-owned Backstreet, a gay bar in the ‘Tenderloin’ area of San Francisco that was among the first to boycott Coors Beer. His friend David Patrick Stucky managed the bar, where Harvey would often be seen handing out flyers. David lived in San Francisco from 1972 to 1981. During that time, he volunteered on Milk’s political campaigns, but was highly active in other community-wide projects. “It was naturally what one did at the time,” he says. David was involved in opposition to Anita Bryant, the pageant queen-turned-singer-turned-political-activist who ran the infamous ‘Save Our Children’ campaign, which repealed laws in Florida that prohibited discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. Sensing this fight would soon come to California, San Francisco’s LGBTQ+ community mobilised to defeat such efforts.
Looking back, David laments that hard won progress was eventually stalled by the AIDS crisis. “We were on such a role, going from triumph to triumph,” he says. “We couldn’t have been in a better position at the time Harvey was shot, but we were only six months away from the beginning of the Aids crisis. All that momentum was brought to a screeching halt because we put everything into keeping people alive.”
Following the assassination of Harvey, David describes an outpouring of sympathy from the wider community. “As much of a tragedy as Harvey’s death was, politically it was a move forward because we were given everything we asked for,” he explains. “The Mayor let us march down Market Street and even let us fly a flag over city hall. Harvey had become a martyr. I often think how much we could have achieved if we hadn’t lost so many years to Aids.”
40 years later, as the American left battles to resist president Trump’s agenda and a far-right uprising, there are parallels to be drawn with the activism that began on Castro Street decades ago. David is heartened by the new wave of activists – young and old – many of whom also identify as LGBTQ+. “Emma (González) and these kids who have come out of the Florida shootings are inspirational. But every march I go on now I also see a lot of 80 year-old women with very clever signs,” he says. “Change has got to transcend any particular age group and transcend the majoritarian view and today’s headlong rush towards money solving everything. We became so capitalistic and immune to the suffering of other people. That’s over now, so in some ways I’m grateful for what’s happening.”
Though San Francisco’s LGBTQ+ rights movement was not just spearheaded by gay men. Similarly drawn by the “awakening” that was happening on the West Coast, Gwenn Craig moved to San Francisco in 1975. After moving into the Castro Street area, Gwenn became involved in the movement for LGBTQ+ rights. “I was immersed in everything that was happening culturally, but I didn’t become politically active until 1976 when the Anita Bryant phenomenon started in Florida,” she explains. “There was a lot of fear and group meetings and town halls. I got swept up in the emotional wave of that.”
Gwenn was eventually appointed as the media coordinator for the movement, which brought her into contact with Milk. “If there’s one person who knew how to get media attention it was Harvey Milk. He had been very media-savvy,” she says. “I went into his Castro Street shop to see him and he swept me into his office and told me all of his ideas. He became my mentor from that point.”
“Harvey and I knew that if people could stop thinking of our community as just young white men and start to deal in the wholeness of our community then that would advance us”
Gwenn remembers that Milk was encouraged by her willingness to be out and stand out and go and talk to people as an open, African-American lesbian. This was particularly relevant as a central message of their campaign was ‘We Are Everywhere’.
“I always felt that we needed to show the diversity of our community. We wanted to impress on people: ‘we are your sons and daughters, the people you shop from, the people who come into your store, we are the people you see every day. We are everywhere’,” she explains, continuing: “Harvey and I knew that if people could stop thinking of our community as just young white men and start to deal in the wholeness of our community then that would advance us.”
Gwenn became involved in Milk’s successful City Supervisor campaign. The following year, she spearheaded the successful campaign against the Briggs Initiative, a poisonous piece of legislation that sought to ban openly gay teachers from working in California’s schools. This was the last campaign her and Milk worked on together as the legislation was defeated by public vote just weeks before his death. He visited Gwenn the day she closed the campaign offices, which was the last time she saw him. “The last conversation we had was a one-on-one, which was actually pretty rare because there was always lots of buzz and lots of people around him,” she recalls. “Except from the first time I met him, it might have been the only one-on-one conversation I had with him. He talked a lot about how optimistic winning this fight had made him and the people we’d brought together.”
Though less than three weeks later, he was dead. Gwenn had taken a much needed post-campaign vacation to Hawaii when she heard the news. “We went straight to the airport went straight back to San Francisco,” she remembers. “We were in total agony. In this world, that looked so good just a minute ago, how could this have happened? We were brimming with sadness and grief and anger and everything imaginable.”
Gwenn has remained politically active over the last 30 years, taking on numerous roles within the San Francisco City and County government. She tells me that she has always endeavoured stay connected to Milk’s legacy of a coalition of solidarity between marginalised groups. Despite such challenges remaining for America’s LGBTQ+ youth, African Americans and other communities, she still remains eternally hopeful.
“I’m not alone. I think of the women’s marches that happened right after the inauguration here. That is what gave me strength. We have masses of the people who believe as I do and the world we want to resist. That’s what gives me hope,” she says. “There are people who, like Harvey, can stand up and express a message of hope that inspired me, motivated me and made me believe that all is not lost. We are the majority. And we need to remember to resist the minority who wait for us to take a rest, who wait for us to take a day off, to try to take our power away.”