Harvey Milk would’ve turned 90 years old this week, although the pioneering LGBT activist and politician probably wouldn’t have reached that age even if he hadn’t been assassinated. While his death and the subsequent leniency a homophobic jury granted his killer remain painful four decades later, the richest gift Milk received in his life was his murder.
Most birthday tributes won’t contemplate the benefits of Milk’s killing, and the mere suggestion seems to disturb his legacy and its importance to LGBT history. Some of that reflects queer folks settling on a convenient narrative offered by events as they occurred, and in fairness, most non-LGBTQ people would also struggle to see the bright side of being executed at point-blank range by a demented colleague.
Milk himself had a lifelong fatalism that convinced him he would not age into his golden years, according to biographer Randy Shilts, who quoted Milk as telling a friend: “I’ve known it since I was a kid. I’ll never make it to 50. There’s just something sinister down the road. I don’t know what it is, but it’s there.”
Rather than fear what felt to him inevitable, Milk used his hyper-awareness of the limited time we all have on this earth to abandon his “pretend” life as a closeted Wall Street Republican for a more authentic one where he shed guilt over his desires and became a warrior for queer dignity and liberation. That his captivating voice and viewpoint were snuffed from this world prematurely at age 48 is terribly sad—until you consider the alternative.
Had Dan White never gone berserk and gunned down Milk and San Francisco Mayor George Moscone in 1978, the “something sinister” Milk had worried about would have come a few years later in viral form. History has tended to treat assassinated freedom fighters with more reverence than it has shown the earliest waves of AIDS patients, and it is likely our plague would have swallowed Milk’s achievements and memory as greedily as it devoured so many others of his generation.
Becoming a martyr has more lasting power than becoming a medical statistic, which someone with Milk’s tenacity for attention would undoubtedly appreciate. None of this lessens the grief felt from the violence perpetrated against one of our icons, but it illustrates how easily lore overwhelms nuance.
I thought about Harvey Milk when pondering whether there is a Michael Jordan of the LGBTQ movement. This curiosity was sparked by ESPN’s “The Last Dance” docuseries chronicling No. 23’s final year with the Chicago Bulls. The program exalts Jordan as the greatest professional athlete of all time, while delving into the darker side of his competitiveness that led to violence against teammates and gambling losses in the tens of thousands.
Only in fairy tales are heroes and endings uncomplicated, which is worth keeping in mind when dealing with peers, partners or parents who inevitably veer from the storyline we expect. Some of my more loving friends express affection and gratitude by deifying me as the embodiment of certain ideals—perseverance and authenticity, for example–and it feels vital to remind them that I can be as selfish and confused and contradictory as people they think they despise.
Milk’s story is also a valuable reminder, especially during these confusing times, that silver linings can be mined from every struggle, no matter how dark or hurtful things initially feel. The slain leader’s mantra—“You gotta give ‘em hope”—is his richest, eternal gift to us.