“Harvey Milk: His Lives and Death” by Lillian Faderman— A Gay Icon

Faderman, Lillian. “Harvey Milk: His Lives and Death”, Yale University Press, 2018.

A Gay Icon

Amos Lassen

I did not know Harvey Milk (like everyone else claims— well, maybe not everybody, just those thousands who claim that they were at Stonewall and Woodstock, etc.). I was already living out of the country when he came to be known and he was gone before I returned to this country. What I do know about Milk comes from reading and the excellent films about him. I cannot think of anyone who I would rather have tell me the story of Harvey Milk than Lillian Faderman since I have enjoyed all of her books… and besides we are both Jewish and gay (but she is famous).

Harvey Milk was an elegant, eloquent and charismatic gentleman who had managed, practically on his own, to be elected to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors in 1977. Unfortunately for him and for us, he had not even been a full year in office when he was shot by a homophobic fellow supervisor. He was only 48-yeard-old and his death made him the most famous gay man of modern times. Milk was certainly influential and deeply loved and his loss of life was our loss of a very important friend. He had not set out to be a politician. He had been a teacher, a securities analyst, had worked on Broadway as a theater assistant and in politics for the election of Barry Goldwater.

Milk opened a camera store in San Francisco and soon became a leader in his community. He let go of organized religion and rejected Judaism yet remained “deeply influenced by the cultural values of his Jewish upbringing and his understanding of anti-Semitism and the Holocaust”. He decided to run for public office as a champion of the LGBT community, racial minorities, women, working people, the disabled and senior citizens— those who were marginalized in American life. He worked very hard to become a successful public figure with a distinct political voice.

This biography is part of the Yale “Jewish Lives” series and writer Faderman places emphasis on Milk’s Jewish cultural identity. He was twice an outsider— once for being gay and once for being Jewish. It is important to realize that his politics were influenced heavily by his family history and the basic tenets of Jewish liberalism just as they were by his sexual identity. Faderman did outstanding research to write this and then wrote the story in her beautiful prose, showing how his Jewish identity deeply informed his experiences and his politics.

Faderman introduces us to a Harvey Milk as part of the larger LGBT community so we actually get two histories here. We read of political contradictions, “human peculiarities” while gaining an analytic look at the LGBT movement overall thus making this a comprehensive history of gay rights.

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