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above: Harvey Milk celebrates his election as a San Francisco Supervisor on election night Nov. 8, 1977 (Robert Clay / Alamy Stock Photo)

Editorials

The Making of a Gay Saint

The U.S. Navy launched a new ship, an oiler christened the USNS Harvey Milk, on Nov. 6, 2021, at Naval Base San Diego, home port of the Pacific Fleet. Younger readers of this magazine may be forgiven if the significance of the name eludes them. Yet it is no exaggeration to say that Harvey Milk is the most celebrated activist in the history of the American gay rights cause.
 
The American gay rights movement dates from 1950, when the so-called Mattachine Society sought, in the words of Cured, a new PBS documentary,  “to assimilate homosexuals into mainstream society and to promote an ‘ethical homosexual culture.’” The commissioning of the USNS Harvey Milk signals just how far that process of assimilation has come, though what an “ethical homosexual culture” might be remains elusive.
 
In fact, Milk’s career as a gay activist was relatively short-lived. He was already 42 when he “came out” and moved from New York to San Francisco’s Castro District, where he ran a camera shop and began to seek public office as the voice of the district’s burgeoning gay population. After two failed campaigns, he was elected to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors in 1977. Eleven months later he,...

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