Harvey Milk is a hero and martyr for the gay rights movement. In The Mayor of Castro Street: The Life and Times of Harvey Milk, the late Randy Shilts writes about the slain politician who is seen as a pioneer whose life was tragically cut short. A sad and brilliant book, The Mayor of Castro Street isn’t just about Harvey Milk, but about looking at the moment when the mainstream gay rights movement took on a nation-wide profile. Reading the book, which was published in 1982, is fascinating because of all the recent strides and setback in the modern gay rights movement, as well as knowing where some of the players of The Mayor of Castro Street go in the three decades since the book’s publishing. While progress has been made in many aspects of the gay rights movement, there are chilling and direct parallels in the book that are still around today.
The story of Harvey Milk has been well-publicized and the man has been canonized by his admirers. What Shilts does is carefully deconstruct the saint, and show just how human Milk was. He was a complex, mercurial, and passionate figure, whose single-minded goal of breaking down barriers often left him at odds with friends, lovers, supporters, as well as political adversaries and allies. Through exhaustive research and interviews, Shilts tells the story of an ambitious and courageous man who sought to change minds through example and hard work.
What sets Shilts’ book apart from simple hagiography is that the author is more than willing to highlight sides of Milk that the media chooses to ignore. Though Milk was a compassionate man, he was also calculating and politically savvy. He cared about the issues, but was also very calculating in how he approached his work and how he crafted his image. In one notable example, when highlighting the problems of dog waste to a group of journalists, Milk stepped in dog feces in front of the cameras, as if to illustrate the nuisance, though he planted the offending feces himself for maximum effect. In another case, he refused to vote for Diane Feinstein as president of the board of supervisors, when his vote would’ve merely been symbolic as Feinstein garnered the necessary majority, but a unanimous vote would’ve been a nice courtesy. For Milk to become as successful as he was, he had to anger those around him, including many who worked with him and supported his agenda. Shilts isn’t arguing that Milk was stone cold or unfeeling, but merely that the man was much more wily than the smiling, sometimes idealized figure who has passed into legend.
For context, Shilts’ work gives us an encompassing view of San Francisco circa late 1970s. In this backdrop, Milk’s ascension works as a way of highlight progress. During Milk’s time, the city of San Francisco was gutted by the Jonestown massacre, in which over 900 members of the Peoples Temple died in a mass murder-suicide. The tragedy was a convenient way for right wing politicians and religious figures to legislate homophobia, through a series of anti-gay legislation that swept through the country, decimating local anti-discrimination ordinances. Shilts expertly describes the rise of the religious right and compares its success, tactics, and outcomes, to those of the growing gay rights movement. He doesn’t create false equivalencies, nor does he offer excuses for bigotry, but he adds context to the rising anti-gay movement, as well. This context is helpful when trying to assess the atmosphere under which Milk and his fellow gay rights activists were operating.
What the book really needs is a sequel, however. Unfortunately, its author has since died, but Milk’s story did not end in 1978 when he was gunned down by fellow supervisor Dan White. In the the more than thirty years that followed, the gay rights movement has shifted with its focus on marriage equality, hate crime legislation, Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, trans awareness, and most poignantly, the AIDS crisis (which would not only take Shilts away, but many of the people that populate The Mayor of Castro Street). Reading the book now adds a certain tension to the story because many of Milk’s goals have been met – there is a growing number of openly gay politicians – but a lot of the resistance and bigotry he and his contemporaries face are still prevalent. The Mayor of Castro Street is a beautiful book, but very sad one, because despite its inspirational tone and heroic subject, it exposes just how much of Milk’s legacy has been left unfulfilled.
Click here to buy The Mayor of Castro Street: The Life and Times of Harvey Milk by Randy Shilts on amazon.com.