HIS LV/ES AND DEATH
Last April, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors voted to name the main terminal at San Francisco International Airport after Harvey Milk, the gay rights martyr who was assassinated 40 years ago. The decision further (and literally) cements Milk's legacy as the best-known LGBT activist in American history.
Yet the new biography of Milk by one of the world's leading historians of LGBT life, Lillian Faderman, suggests that we don't know him that well at all.
All heroes have feet of clay, of course, and Harvey (Faderman calls him by his first name, and so will I--it's almost part of his persona) was no different. It's no surprise that, as a third-generation American Jew from New York, Harvey was an irascible, temperamental guy who wouldn't last long in the age of #metoo. And while his series of intergenerational relationships with increasingly needy young men may scandalize some straight readers, that's also not so surprising (or unusual) in the gay community.
The most interesting section of the book is the first part, which covers the 45 years of Harvey's life before his brief period of fame in San Francisco. It turns out that he was a lost soul for most of that time. After growing up in Brooklyn and graduating from the New York State College for Teachers in 1951 (Harvey was a regular at Hillel, pledged a Jewish fraternity and was an early Zionist activist), he wandered for years. Following a stint in the Navy, he lived in Los Angeles, in his parents' house on Long Island, in Dallas, New York, Miami, New York again, Dallas again, New York a third time, San Francisco, L.A. again, and finally, in 1972, settled in San Francisco for good.
All along, Harvey dreamed of a life in the theater. He enjoyed a peripheral career in it, but it couldn't sustain him and he returned, again and again, to jobs he didn't like: teaching, sales, insurance, finance. Faderman makes a convincing case that even Harvey's political career was a kind of theater for him, one at which he excelled.
Harvey had known he was gay since he was a teenager--he had hooked up with "opera queens" for sexual liaisons at the Met--and in the 1960s, while working on Wall Street, he lived a partly open gay life with a long-term partner. Surprisingly, however, he was barely aware of the 1969 Stonewall riots in New York City, which are widely credited as the beginning of the modern LGBT movement. On the contrary, he thought the radicals of...