Guest Blogger

What Would Harvey Milk Say If He Were Here Today?

Filed By Guest Blogger | March 17, 2009 11:00 AM | comments

Filed in: Gay Icons and History, The Movement
Tags: elderly gays and lesbians, gay seniors, Harvey Milk, LGBT seniors, senior citizens

Editors' Note: Michael Adams is the Executive Director of SAGE (Services & Advocacy for GLBT Elders), the oldest and largest organization in the country providing services and advocacy for LGBT seniors. Prior to joining SAGE, Michael was the Director of Education and Public Affairs for Lambda Legal.

M_AdamsHeadshot.jpgWith major Oscar wins, packed movie houses nationwide and a recent DVD release of the MILK, it's apparent that the extraordinary story of Harvey Milk's rise as an early gay icon -- and his tragic death -- has grabbed the attention of a country ready to be inspired by heroic leaders.  Whether Milk's story is new to you or not, the power of his persona has been amply demonstrated. It's a persona, however, that is frozen in time.  Because Harvey Milk was gunned down in the prime of his career as a gay rights leader, he will always be remembered as the youthful firebrand so vividly portrayed by Sean Penn.  Sadly, an assassin's bullets robbed us of the chance to ever know Harvey Milk as an old man.  Or did it?

In the three decades since Milk's tragic death, scores of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people of his generation have survived and thrived to join the ranks of this country's seniors.  To do so, they've made it through the AIDS epidemic, and they've avoided becoming one of the scores of LGBT people who have lost their lives to anti-gay violence. They have weathered the day-to-day discrimination and prejudice whose virulence has receded somewhat in recent years but is still devastating to one's psyche and self-esteem. If Harvey Milk were one of the survivors ­ if he were alive today at the ripe old age of 78 -- who would he be and what would his life be like?

Many clues to the answer can be found at SAGE (Services & Advocacy for GLBT Elders), which was founded the year of Harvey Milk's death to ensure that there would be a place of honor and respect for LGBT older people both within their own community and in society at large. Many of SAGE's older constituents have life stories reminiscent of Milk's in many respects.  They were born during an era of intense anti-gay bigotry that more often than not drove them out of their families into a hostile world.  Like Milk, many SAGE seniors moved far away from their hometowns to urban centers where they could find the possibility of a more accepting community or at least some limited protection from anonymity.  Because of rampant homophobia in most of the professional world, they often ended up in service jobs or harnessed their creativity in the arts or, like Milk, scraped by as small businesspeople in gay ghettos.   Many built lives with partners, but their relationships were ridiculed and shunned by society at large.

These are the realities that would have shaped Harvey Milk's life if he had lived and grown old. Most likely, he wouldn't have had kids.  The current generation of LGBT seniors are four times less likely to have adult children than other seniors. With so little societal encouragement and so much opposition, he probably would have been single in his old age. Today's LGBT older people are twice as likely to be unpartnered. And there's a good chance he would have struggled financially in his later years. After all, the jobs reserved for gay people during Harvey Milk's time usually didn't come with pension plans.

So Harvey Milk probably would have had a tough go of it as he got older, as many of our lesser known but longer-living gay leaders tell me all the time. But in the face of all these challenges, would Harvey Milk have been defeated?  I don't think so.  In fact, the many LGBT people from Milk's generation who have survived and thrived are testament to the strength and resilience that has been as much a hallmark of the LGBT community as all the adversity. Just ask Jerry Hoose, who was one of the organizers or New York City's first Gay Pride Parade in 1971, faced near homelessness in his early 60's, and is now one of SAGE's leading volunteers. Or talk to Phyllis Lyon, who helped found the lesbian group Daughters of Bilitis in the 1950's and who in 2008 publicly married her life-long partner Del Martin in one of the most joyous - and visible - moments in gay San Francisco's history.

They will surely tell you they could not have imagined the progress we have seen in their lifetime, whether it is a film like Milk being nominated for an Oscar or the election of a President who said "straight and gay" during countless campaign speeches or the strides we are making in ensuring equal rights for LGBT individuals and families.  Yes, the struggle continues, but the voices and experience of our LGBT elders reminds us of how far we've come and provides the hope that Harvey Milk knew was the key to winning equality for his community.

My advice to you? Drop by SAGE one day and talk to one of the pioneers who paved the way for today's LGBT community. Or take a look at the vibrant and compelling LGBT seniors whose faces graced a thousand New York City subway cars in a recent ad campaign that declared "There's no expiration date on a full and active life." Then, you can imagine Harvey Milk as a senior.


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I don't know what he would say, and I am little hesitant to speculate. I do know that I had an uncle who passed away some time ago who would be around that age and was openly partnered with another man in the South in the 60s. He was never surprised by the gains that we had made and were making. He seemed always to see it as a matter of course.

I think he would have had a great political career in Congress. He was very similar to Barney Frank, articulate and argumentative. A key ingredient for a politicians to have. Would he be happy, probably not.

What a wonderful image, Michael--Harvey Milk as an LGBT elder. If only.

I know the Stonewall Communities group for older LGBT people here in the Boston area is very active as well. They're having an event honoring couples who have been together more than 50 years, and they're also helping to chaperone a prom for our local LGBT youth group. I think it's great to see the older generation reaching out to help the younger like this.

With respect to Harvey Milk, PLEASE let's not set his bar so high that it's impossible for any gay person to reach. He got a few things accomplished locally, and he was an interesting personality, but he's certainly not the "ultimate gay activist".

If Milk were around today, he'd probably be getting beaten down by the "Gandhi gays", for not allowing evangelicals to continue steamrolling over the gay community. I don't see Milk as a person who likes to remain in "victim mode", and the Gandhi gays ain't having THAT! LOL

"Ghandi Gays"? Non-violent resistance is hardly meek capitulation. If you'd care to read something about Ghandi and what he accomplished you would see how incredibly wide of the mark your comparison is.

colored queer | March 17, 2009 4:52 PM

I wish author had also substantially discussed issues of LGBT seniors of color who experience discrimination in employment on two fronts -- sexual orientation and institutionalized racism (both with in gay and straight communities) -- and are not likely to have substantial financial resources for their later years. Imagine a double whammy -- sexuality and then color which makes you a target of both straight and white gay communities. Because of our color we suffer discrimination exactly in a way that white gays face homophobia which we also face. Also, LGBT seniors of color are also most likely to face more violence including police brutality.

why do gay institutions constantly neglect issues faced by LGBT people of color? what would it take to remind gay institutions that LGBT people come in all colors and people of color face additional issues in addition to their sexual orientation?

Ofcourse lack of diversity (few tokens of color mostly as "communication people" to show diversity with no meaningful roles don't count) in gay orgs which are mostly white may be just one reason for systematically excluding people of color and their specific issues even though the face of America is changing and LGBT communities of color are rapidly growing. But good old boy/girl networks dominate gay institutions and their messages/agendas and then if they cannot connect to mainstream communities they blame communities of color including LGBT people of color for losses which affect LGBT people of color as well. The aftermath of prop 8 should have been a lesson for gay orgs to become more diverse and "tolerant" of communities of color. Yes we preach for human rights and tolerance and equality before implementing those very human rights at home.

"colored queer" , what would be your wish list for services for or issues affecting elder LGBT POC?

Bear in mind, I don't know what services SAGE does currently, other than some efforts to educate long-term care workers. Concerning SAGE: Is there a lack of outreach with existing services? Is there a mismatch of service with specialized needs?

I'm one of the survivors, and lived in SF and Berkely in Harvey's time. Then he was a good leftist, like me, but also a cunning politician. I don't know how he would have changed. But after seeing the Clintons' practical successes, and watching the left give the presidency to W in 2000, and listening for 30 years to leftists' canned ideology and circular logic, I've become a liberal. Harvey had a a practical streak a mile wide, and I like to think he'd have learned and changed as I have.

POC is one issue, seniors are another. I don't think SAGE would turn any senior away because of their skin color. AS a matter of fact they would welcome them and be kind to them perhaps over caucasians. The black/white discrimination argument on Bilerico gets very tiring. It's SO 1960's.

Because no gay org has ever ever discriminated, amirite?

Sweety, nobody knows how to oppress like a population that has social and economic clout and an esteem and acceptance problem.

If a poc says that there is discrimination, the burden of proof needs to be placed where it belongs.

And it ain't on the poc. Deal.

One of the things we wondered about as we left the theater was "What would have happened to Harvey? Would he have died of AIDS during the beginning swell of deaths?"

My experience with the "Gandhi gays" has been this: even being a smartass to my opposition isn't considered "nonviolent" to them. You know, since words includes physically attacking somebody.

Are you sure his name wasn't "Mahatma Milquetoast"?

Plus Gandhi hated gay people. I refuse to follow Hitler, as I refuse to follow Gandhi.

coloredqueer, if you visited SAGE's website, you would learn that SAGE has robust and important programming in Harlem with a focus on reaching out, advocating and serving a colored community. SAGE's staff is also diverse and their ad campaign featured people of color and Hispanics, as well as donors, volunteers and constituents. I agree that Mr. Adams could have "substantially discussed issues of LGBT seniors of color who experience discrimination in employment on two fronts", but I believe this is one post out of many yet to come. In fact, the first event listed on SAGE's homepage today is "SAGE Harlem Women / Women's History Month Event with Lesbian Herstory Archives" and you can check out the diversity of their ad campaign here.

You throw around the phrase LGBT and gaywash away the deep sense of hatred of trans women, and invisibility of trans men of the time.

I think the commenter who compared Milk to Barney Frank had the right idea.

Trans people might be extinct in a world which had two Barney Franks. Not that woyld bother anybody who uses LGBT to gaywash history.

colored queer makes some very good points. As one of the posts points out, SAGE is committed to serving all people within the LGBT community and has excellent people of color programs in Harlem, bilingual social services and training, and people of color in positions of leadership and responsibility on our Board of Directors and Staff. But there is no question that there is still much more to be done. We can't do it alone, and SAGE is fortunate to have great people of color LGBT aging organizations like GRIOT Circle and the Azteca Project as our partners. We're also building an exciting coalition with other national aging organizations who represent this country's "emerging majority," including the Nat'l Center & Caucus on Black Aged, the Nat'l Hispanic Council on Aging, and the Nat'l Center on Asian Pacific Aging, each of whom played an important role in SAGE's 4th Nat'l Conference last fall. I look forward to more posts on this important work. Michael Adams

Other than misuse LGBT to mean 'nontrans homosexuals who want to play at being inclusive,' have they done any of this for trans elders?