The Curious Case of Harvey Milk

11 11 2008

On the way home today, I was listening to NPR where they had an interesting program about a man I had never heard of before: Harvey Milk. No technically, I am a little off topic because I have no direct connections between him and the Lifestyle.  However, as he was the first openly gay person ever to be elected to office in the United States, I think that his story is very important in these days after California’s rejection of Prop 8.

Harvey Bernard Milk (May 22, 1930 – November 27, 1978) was an American politician and the first openly gay man to be elected to public office in California, as a member of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. Milk was born and raised in New York where he acknowledged his homosexuality as an adolescent, but chose to pursue sexual relationships with secrecy and discretion well into his adult years. His experience in the counterculture of the 1960s caused him to shed many of his conservative views about individual freedom and the expression of sexuality.

He was compelled to run for city supervisor in 1973, though he encountered resistance from the existing gay political establishment. His campaign was compared to theater; he was brash, outspoken, animated, and outrageous, earning media attention and votes, although not enough to be elected. He campaigned again in the next two supervisor elections, dubbing himself the “Mayor of Castro Street”. Voters responded enough to warrant his running for the California State Assembly as well. Taking advantage of his growing popularity, he led the gay political movement in fierce battles against anti-gay initiatives. Milk was elected city supervisor in 1977 after San Francisco reorganized its election procedures to choose representatives from neighborhoods rather than through city-wide ballots. Milk served almost eleven months as city supervisor and was responsible for passing a stringent gay rights ordinance in San Francisco. On November 27, 1978, Milk and Mayor George Moscone were assassinated by Dan White, another city supervisor who had recently resigned and wanted his job back. Both Milk’s election and the events following his assassination demonstrated the liberalization of the population and political conflicts between the city government and a conservative police force. Milk has become an icon in San Francisco and “a martyr for gay rights”, according to University of San Francisco professor Peter Novak.[1] While established political organizers in the city insisted gays work with liberal politicians and use restraint in reaching their objectives, Milk outspokenly encouraged gays to use their growing power in the city and support each other. His goal was to give hope to disenfranchised gays around the country. In 2002, he was called “the most famous and most significantly open LGBT official ever elected in the United States”.[2] Writer John Cloud remarked on his influence, “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.”[3]

While Wikipedia finds him to be a very significant figure in history, it is obvious from the NPR story (listen to the audio part) that many younger gay men and women have never heard of him, nor do they find it relevant. Well this is my part to change that.

One final interesting note, Dan White, the former city supervisor that assinated Milk and the Mayor, only got 5 years as a sentence.  Using a odd ball, yet somewhat famous,  “Twinkie defense“, White managed to convince a jury that he was of diminished capacity due to junk food.

The expression derives from the 1979 trial of Dan White, a former San Francisco, California (U.S.) Supervisor who assassinated Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk on November 27, 1978. At the trial, noted psychiatrist Martin Blinder testified that White had been depressed at the time of the crime, and pointed to several factors indicating White’s depression: he had quit his job; he shunned his wife; and normally clean-cut, he had become slovenly in appearance. Normally a fitness fanatic and health food advocate, White had also been consuming Twinkies and Coca-Cola. As an incidental note, Blinder mentioned theories that elements of diet could worsen existing mood swings.[2] Another psychiatrist, George Solomon, testified that White had “exploded” and was “sort of on automatic pilot” at the time of the killings.[3] The fact that White had killed Moscone and Milk was not challenged, but in part because of the testimony from Blinder and other psychiatrists, the defense successfully argued for a ruling of diminished capacity. White was thus judged incapable of the premeditation required for a murder conviction, and was convicted of voluntary manslaughter instead. The verdict was unpopular, leading to the White Night Riots.

In stories covering the trial, satirist Paul Krassner had played up the angle of the Twinkie,[2] and he would later claim credit for coining the term “Twinkie defense”.[4] The day after the verdict, columnist Herb Caen wrote in the San Francisco Chronicle about the police support for White (a former policeman himself) and their “dislike (understatement) of homosexuals” and mentioned “the Twinkie insanity defense” in passing.[2] News stories published after the trial, however, frequently reported the defense arguments inaccurately, claiming that the defense had presented junk food as the cause of White’s depression and/or diminished capacity, instead of symptomatic of and perhaps exacerbating an existing depression.[5]

As a result of the White case, diminished capacity was abolished in 1982 by Proposition 8 and the California legislature, and replaced by “diminished actuality”, referring not to the capacity to have a specific intent but to whether a defendant actually had a required intent to commit the crime with which he was charged.[6] Additionally, California’s statutory definitions of premeditation and malice required for murder were eliminated by the state’s legislature, with a return to common law definitions. By this time, the “Twinkie defense” had become such a common referent that one lawmaker had waved a Twinkie in the air while making his point during a debate.[2]

Some things are just too amazing for words.

Oh, all this is coming out due to a movie, titled Milk.

MV

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