Politics behind the picture

The Milk Issue: Would Harvey Milk be happy with San Francisco today?


The new Harvey Milk movie, which opens later this month, begins as a love story, a sweet love story about two guys who meet in a subway station and wind up fleeing New York for San Francisco. But after that, the movie gets political — in fact, by Hollywood standards, it's remarkably political.

The movie raises a lot of issues that are alive and part of San Francisco politics today. The history isn't perfect (see sidebar), but it is compelling. And while we mourn Milk and watch Milk, we shouldn't forget what the queer hero stood for.

Milk started out as something of a pot-smoking hippie. "The '70s were a hotbed of everything," Sup. Tom Ammiano remembered. "Feminism, civil rights, antiwar." Milk's early campaigns grew out of that foment. "Sure, he wanted to be elected," Ammiano told us. "But the main ingredient was courage. He was fighting with the cops when they raided the bars ... what he did was dangerous."

Milk never would have been elected supervisor without district elections — and the story of district elections, and community power, ran parallel to Milk's own story, for better and for worse.

Milk tried twice to win a seat on the at-large Board of Supervisors and never made the final cut. But in the mid-1970s, a coalition of community leaders, frustrated that big money controlled city policy, began organizing to change the way supervisors were elected. The shift from an at-large system to a district one in 1976 was a transformational moment for the city.

"I think that San Francisco doesn't always appreciate the sea change that district elections brought," Cleve Jones, a queer activist and friend of Milk who helped Dustin Black write the script for Milk, told us. "It wasn't just important to the various communities that had been locked out of power at City Hall — it was the glue that began to grow the coalitions."

Milk was elected as part of what became the most diverse board in the city's history, with Asian, black, and gay representatives who came out of community organizations. The board, of course, also included Dan White, a conservative Irish Catholic and former cop. And it was the assassination of Milk and Mayor George Moscone by Sup. White — and the civic heartbreak, chaos, and confusion that followed — that allowed downtown forces to repeal district elections in 1980. That gave big money and big business control of the board for another 20 years, a reign that ended only when district elections returned in 2000.

Milk was a gay leader, but he was also a tenant activist, public power supporter, advocate for police reform, supporter of commuter taxes on downtown workers, and coalition-builder who helped bring together the labor movement and the queer community. It started, ironically, with the Teamsters.

"Those of us who came out of the antiwar movement remembered that the Teamsters supported Richard Nixon until the very last moment," Jones said. "And they were seen as one of the most homophobic of all the unions."

But in the 1970s, the Teamsters were at war with the Coors Brewing Company, and trying to get San Francisco bars to stop serving Coors beer. Allan Baird, a Teamsters leader who lived in the Castro District, saw an opportunity and contacted Milk, who agreed to help — if the Teamsters would start hiring gay truck drivers.

"It wasn't just San Francisco and California," Jones recalled. "We got Coors beer out of every gay bar in North America." And gays started driving beer trucks.

Today, the queer-labor alliance is one of the most powerful, effective, and lasting political forces in San Francisco.

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