Harvey Milk: His Lives and Death by Lillian Faderman

Harvey Milk: His Lives and Death
by Lillian Faderman
Yale University Press, 2018


In Harvey Milk: His Lives and Death, historian Lillian Faderman chronicles the rise and fall of an exuberant and cantankerous political warrior who was struck down by an assassin’s bullet at the age of 48. The subtitle aptly indicates that Harvey Milk lived multiple lives: a rich personal existence consisting of multiple identities that preceded, and ran concurrently with, his well-chronicled political life as one of America’s first openly gay elected officials. Harvey served on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors for just eleven months in 1978.

As part of Yale University Press’ Jewish Lives series, Harvey Milk emphasizes what has heretofore been a limited examination of the special role that Milk’s Jewish cultural identity played in shaping his political beliefs. From a young age, he was taught the principle of tikkun olam—a duty to repair the world—a concept which came to define Harvey’s political life:

…From his earliest political campaigns, Harvey had argued that gay people had to make coalitions with all dispossessed people. Not only did they have common enemies: the “them”s that kept the poor and minorities in positions of powerlessness; but also it was the morally right thing to do.

During his career, Milk forged coalitions with the black community, among others, to fight common enemies such as apartheid in South Africa. Aside from being an effective way to maintain and expand his voting base, fighting racism was the right thing to do. His numerous battles for gay rights, including the Coors beer boycott and anti-Prop 6 campaign, also served the greater community because according to Milk “…if a gay person makes it, the doors are open to everyone.”

As with any examination of a political figure, Harvey Milk takes careful consideration of his legacy. Although Harvey’s time in office was short, it granted legitimacy to the LGBT community and galvanized their presence in the public arena for generations to come. At least one openly gay or lesbian person has been a San Francisco supervisor since Milk’s election, and many more openly gay people have been elected across the country. His untimely murder at the hands of fellow supervisor Dan White left a great chasm in the heart of the gay rights movement and led to “the greatest single outpouring of grief since Martin Luther King was killed.” We are left to wonder what if—what if Milk had lived to fight against the AIDS epidemic and promote marriage equality? While we can never know the answers to those questions, his advocacy on issues such gay youth counseling has clearly had a lasting impact. Without Milk, current movements such as “It Gets Better” may not have been a reality.

Faderman succeeds in accomplishing what every good biographer should—illuminating the subject, warts and all, to see if the man lives up to the myth. “Saint Harvey,” as he is sometimes referred to, had a bad temper and a penchant for stubbornness. He was also a “serious political animal” who was not above orchestrating stunts to gain a political advantage. Examples range from the silly to the serious, including an effort to promote a “Doggy Doo” ordinance by intentionally stepping in a well-placed pile of feces during a televised interview, as well as an incident in which Milk may have illegally rewritten a federal grant application to divert money from a community center project for his own purposes. Both instances show that Milk, like most politicians, was subject to human folly.

The only troubling aspect of Faderman’s writing is her commentary on Harvey’s complicated personal relationships. She posits that with each new partner, Milk, who was often significantly older, tried to symbolically rectify the unsatisfactory relationship he had with his father. This recurring theme seemed to be a tortured dollop of pop-psychology, which could have tainted a weaker book.

While by no means an exhaustive or authoritative biography, Harvey Milk is a more than adequate survey. Even if readers have already explored Randy Shilts’ The Mayor of Castro Street: The Life and Times of Harvey Milk, this book will provide both a novel and substantive introduction to an extraordinary figure, whose legacy of tolerance and hope makes Milk someone who has lived up to his myth.

Logan Mortenson is a non-practicing attorney living in St. Paul, MN with his wife and an ever-expanding collection of presidential biographies.