How fitting that I should finish reading Randy Shilts’ biography of Harvey Milk just one day before President Obama honored 16 people — truly agents for change — with the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Along with the likes of Steven Hawking, Senator Edward Kennedy, Desmond Tutu, Billie Jean King, Sandra Day O’Connor and Sidney Poitier, Harvey Milk was (posthumously) awarded with the nation’s highest civilian honor.
Here is what was said of Milk at the White House ceremony yesterday:
Harvey Bernard Milk dedicated his life to shattering boundaries and challenging assumptions. As one of the first openly gay elected officials in this country, he changed the landscape of opportunity for the Nation’s gay community. Throughout his life, he fought discrimination with visionary courage and conviction. Before his tragic death in 1978, he wisely noted, “Hope will never be silent,” and called upon Americans to stay true to the guiding principles of equality and justice for all. Harvey Milk’s voice will forever echo in the hearts of all those who carry forward his timeless message.
And the Band Played On, also written by Shilts, is still one of my all-time favorite books, so I had little doubt that I would also love The Mayor of Castro Street (and was very happy to receive it as a birthday present from my brother!). Shilts does such a brilliant job of gathering an incredible amount of detail and information and turning it into a fascinating description of a life. And it never becomes dull, even for one second. Nor does he attempt to gloss over Milk’s failings, as one may be wont to do with such a symbolic figure of the gay movement. Instead, I was left with an honest sense of who Milk was; intriguing and complicated and much more interesting than what the White House speech might lead you to believe.
Milk prophesied many times that he would never make it to see his 50th birthday, and it is truly a tragedy that his assassination proved him right.
“If a bullet should enter my brain, let that bullet destroy every closet door.” – Harvey Milk