After Harvey Milk became the first openly gay man elected to any substantial political office in the history of the planet, thousands of astounded people wrote to him. "I thank God," wrote a 68-year-old lesbian, "I have lived long enough to see my kind emerge from the shadows and join the human race." Sputtered another writer: "Maybe, just maybe, some of the more hostile in the district may take some potshots at you--we hope!!!"
There was a time when it was impossible for people--straight or gay--even to imagine a Harvey Milk. The funny thing about Milk is that he didn't seem to care that he lived in such a time. After he defied the governing class of San Francisco in 1977 to become a member of its board of supervisors, many people--straight and gay--had to adjust to a new reality he embodied: that a gay person could live an honest life and succeed. That laborious adjustment plods on--now forward, now backward--though with every gay character to emerge on TV and with every presidential speech to a gay group, its eventual outcome favoring equality seems clear.
When he began public life, though, Milk was a preposterous figure--an "avowed homosexual," in the embarrassed language of the time, who was running for office. In the 1970s, many psychiatrists still called homosexuality a mental illness. In one entirely routine case, the Supreme Court refused in 1978 to overturn the prison sentence of a man convicted solely of having sex with another consenting man. A year before, it had let stand the firing of a stellar Tacoma, Wash., teacher who made the mistake of telling the truth when his principal asked if he was homosexual. No real national gay organization existed, and Vice President Walter Mondale haughtily left a 1977 speech after someone asked him when the Carter Administration would speak in favor of gay equality. To be young and realize you were gay in the 1970s was to await an adulthood encumbered with dim career prospects, fake wedding rings and darkened bar windows.
No one person could change all that, and not all the changes are complete. But a few powerful figures gave gay individuals the confidence they needed to stop lying, and none understood how his public role could affect private lives better than Milk. Relentless in pursuit of attention, Milk was often dismissed as a publicity whore. "Never take an elevator in city hall," he told his last boyfriend in a typical observation. The marble staircase afforded a grander entrance.
But there was method to the megalomania. Milk knew that the root cause of the gay predicament was invisibility. Other gay leaders of the day--obedient folks who toiled quietly for a hostile Democratic Party--thought it more important to work with straight allies who could, it was thought, more effectively push for political rights. Milk suspected emotional trauma was gays' worst foe--particularly for those in the closet, who probably still constitute a majority of the gay world. That made the election of an openly gay person, not a straight ally, symbolically crucial. "You gotta give them hope," Milk always said.