By Ben Gladstone
Harvey Milk’s impact on the gay community, not only in San Francisco, where he became one of the first openly gay men to hold public office in the United States, but also nationally and internationally, was nothing short of revolutionary.
His underdog story, his vision for gay liberation, and his eventual martyrdom at the hands of fellow City Supervisor Daniel White serve today as inspiration for a global LGBTQIA+ rights movement. In college, however, Milk was not involved in the gay rights cause – instead, according to his friend and biographer Randy Shilts, “his social life centered on Jewish activities” at the New York State College for Teachers at Albany. One such activity was occasional participation in the Intercollegiate Zionist Federation of America. During his formative college years, then, it was Zionism that would have served as an example to Milk of what a revolutionary movement looked like, and, perhaps, it was Zionism that Milk used as a model for his Gay Revolution a few decades after the founding of the State of Israel (which occurred during his time on campus).
While Milk is not recorded as having expressly declared a Zionist-style paradigm for the movement he started, the commonalities between the revolutions are undeniable, and are especially significant because Zionism and gay liberation ostensibly have very different goals: one is a nationalist movement and the other a civil rights struggle. Despite their vastly different objectives, both revolutions were driven by the marginalization of a minority community; both galvanized the Holocaust in particular as an example of the dangers of marginalization and as a motivating force to unite the community; both responded to oppression by reexamining the ways in which the community saw itself, calling on its members to exhibit strength, resilience, and pride; both gathered widely dispersed members of the community around a territorial claim (the Land of Israel and Castro Street, respectively); both made a conscious effort to transform that geographic concentration of people into a unified and politically effective constituency; and both made a claim to represent a wider imagined community beyond its declared territorial bounds. Whether by intentional decision or by strange coincidence, Harvey Milk’s Gay Revolution exhibited extensive parallels to the Zionist Revolution in which he was involved as a college student.
Milk’s revolution stemmed from his recognition of the very real marginalization and oppression of gay people in American society. In a 1974 note to the Advocate, a publication focused on LGBT issues, he identified homosexuals as, “the longest and most deeply suppressed of all groups,” reminding his readers that, “oppression, real oppression, remains rampant and we remain ‘criminals’ under the law.” He referenced the infamous events at the Stonewall Inn (an “iconic” moment in the gay rights struggle, when gay bar customers rioted against police harassment) in other public addresses. Indeed, gay people before, during, and even after Milk’s time were often targeted in police raids on bars or were even arrested in public parks, particularly after the United States government labeled homosexuality a “national security threat.”
Gay people faced discrimination at the hands of postal services as well, and often lost their jobs due to their sexual orientations. It was those forms of oppression against which Milk launched his revolution, reacting to and capitalizing on his own frustrations and those of his gay friends, acquaintances, and lovers. He railed against police brutality, publicly defended the right of gay people to teach in public schools, and orchestrated massive protests against anti-gay legislation. His revolution emerged as a means by which to resist the marginalization of a minority community that was suffering from discrimination and oppression all over America.
The Zionist Revolution was certainly similar to Milk’s in that way. Like gay people in the United States, Jews in Europe had been suffering under all manner of oppression for millennia, and particularly in the decades preceding the First Zionist Congress. In Eastern Europe, pogroms had become increasingly vicious. Supported by the Russian government and law enforcement officers, and meeting with no resistance from even the most liberal of non-Jewish Russians, these violent anti-Semitic riots caused, according to Anita Shapira of Tel Aviv University, “the radicalization of the Jewish masses.” Moments such as the Kishinev Pogrom in 1903, a traumatic anti-Semitic attack that cost the lives of nearly 50 unarmed Jewish civilians, were formative in Zionist ideology and in the contemporary conception of Jews’ place in the world.
Meanwhile, in Western Europe, anti-Semitism was taking on newer and more absolute forms, shifting from its traditional paradigm of religious discrimination, which had at least offered Jews a path to survival and assimilation through conversion to Christianity, to one of racism, which categorized Jewish people, as opposed to Jewish practice, as inherently tainted and lesser. These conditions in Europe constructed a Jewish experience that was fraught with fear of, and mistrust for, non-Jewish Europeans, and was thus prone to Jewish nationalism. In the words of Benny Morris at Ben-Gurion University in the Negev, Zionism’s, “emergence as a mass political movement was triggered by the outbursts of anti-Semitism” in Europe. Just as Milk and his supporters were motivated by the oppression of gay Americans, the first Zionists drew their motivation from the oppression of Jews in Europe.
Another common point of emphasis in both Milk’s Gay Revolution and the Zionist Revolution was the Holocaust. Milk did not become involved in gay rights activism until some thirty years after the Nazi massacre of six million Jews and five million other people, but he referenced the events with some frequency, comparing anti-gay American politicians to Hitler and their plans to Nazist racial extermination.
In a 1974 public letter to the City of San Francisco Hall of Justice, for example, Milk compared police violence against gay Americans with the Nazi police state, equating the failure of mainstream heterosexual American society and mainstream non-Jewish German society to act on behalf of oppressed minorities. In his famed 1978 Gay Freedom Day Speech, he called out California State Senator John Briggs and ultraconservative singer and anti-gay activist Anita Bryant by name for their Nazist ideas in relation to gay issues and defiantly promised that, “we are not going to sit back in silence as 300,000 of our Gay sisters and brothers did in Nazi Germany. We are not going to allow our rights to be taken away and then march with bowed heads to the gas chambers.” In a 1977 interview with George Mendenhall of the Bay Area Reporter, Milk even explicitly declared: “The Briggs’ are the Hitlers,” and warned that, “it can still happen here as it did in Germany.” While gay rights activists had referenced the Holocaust before Milk, the World War II genocide occupied a special place in Milk’s public addresses that should not be discounted.
In much the same way, the memory of the Holocaust plays a crucial role in Israeli and Zionist thought. Since the news of what was happening in Europe reached the Yishuv (pre-statehood Jewish society in the Land of Israel), it has penetrated deep into the collective consciousness of the Zionist movement. Because the vast majority of Zionists who had settled the Land came from Europe and had connections to the Jews still there (including, in most cases, family members), the trauma of the obliteration of European Jewry was widespread. Moreover, some two thirds of those who survived the Holocaust immigrated soon afterward to the new State of Israel, so that their personal experiences became an integral part of life in the nascent country. The Holocaust also became part of the Zionist narrative, and in fact served as a final and powerful argument for Jewish statehood, which was granted by the United Nations only a few years after World War II ended. According to Shapira, “Israel…embraced the Holocaust as a formative myth of the state.” Milk’s interpretation of the Holocaust as evidence that gay people in the United States should stand up for themselves and form a politically significant constituency was notably similar, and may well have had its origins in parallel Zionist ideas about modern Jewry.
One foundational tenet of Milk’s ideology, in many ways a response to the Holocaust and other forms of marginalization in gay history and contemporary life, was a revolution in the way that gay people viewed themselves. Milk’s call was for gay people to stop being ashamed of their identities and instead to exhibit pride and then power: “We must first assert our full existence and then its strength.” Milk frequently discussed “gay power,” choosing words that evoked images of war (“the battle must be fought now”) and calling for “a fast awakening of consciousness.”
Even in his references to the Holocaust, he not only condemned those who oppressed gay people but also urged gay people to stand up for themselves, and not to, as a speech quoted earlier described, “sit back in silence” and “allow our rights to be taken away.” He asked those who worked on his campaign to come out of the closet to their friends and families, stressing the importance of personal pride. One essential aspect of Milk’s political strategy and revolutionary platform, then, both as a means of achieving gay civil rights and as an important end in and of itself, was gay liberation through pride, strength, and a general, widespread imposition of “gay power.” His goals were not limited to practical and legal changes, but included cultural and philosophical changes in the national gay community as well.
The Zionist ideological equivalent of Harvey Milk’s “gay power” was the “new Jew,” who was “a free, proud individual ready to fight for his or her own and the nation’s honor.” While this idea took a different form in Zionist mythology than did “gay power” in Milk’s movement, there is a marked similarity in the call for members of the relevant group (whether Jews or gay Americans) to re-envision what it meant to be a member of that group, and to construct a new image of self as one prepared to fight for the revolutionary cause. Both the empowered gay American and the new Jew would take their fate, and that of their people, into their own hands, in deliberate contrast with the perceived weakness of generations before them.
In addition to the similar ideological aims of empowering a marginalized minority group, the common historical emphasis on the Holocaust, and the parallel calls for gay people on the one hand and Jews on the other to re-imagine their identities in ways that exerted power and pride, Harvey Milk’s Gay Revolution and the Zionist Revolution shared another key tenet: a territorial claim. Milk was often called the “Mayor of Castro Street” (a commercial neighborhood where he opened a small business with his lover, Scott Smith, in 1972), and, indeed, it was on Castro Street that he made a home for his revolution. Castro Street was not merely the location where the revolution unfolded – it was a fundamental part of Milk’s rhetoric and vision as both a physical and an imagined space where he centered his movement. Shilts wrote that, “Milk tirelessly promoted the neighborhood as America’s gay Main Street,” and, according to John D’Emilio at the University of Illinois at Chicago, San Francisco soon became “a liberated zone for lesbians and gay men.”
While the city had long had a significant gay presence, it was Milk who turned it, and in particular its Castro Street neighborhood, into a symbolic gathering place that attracted gay visitors from all over the nation, a story famously told in Gus Van Sant’s biographical film, Milk (2009). That film, however, doesn’t quite capture the intentionality with which Milk constructed his Castro Street space and community. One example of this deliberate effort was Milk’s response to the events of Labor Day, 1974, when scores of gay men were beaten and fourteen arrested in a single incident of police brutality. In Shilts’s words, “Milk used the fracas to underscore the need for building a tight neighborhood political base,” and, in doing so, “sealed the neighborhood’s reputation as the new homosexual hot spot.” This strategy, of beginning a revolution by intentionally constructing a symbolic space out of a geographic territory, resonates strongly with Zionist thought. While it is common for a nationalist movement, like Zionism, to emphasize territory, it is a somewhat unique method for a civil rights movement, especially coming on the heels of the geographically decentralized black civil rights and feminist movements of the 1960s. This may indicate that Milk was indeed using a nationalist and, more specifically, a Zionist paradigm for his own revolution.
The Zionist Revolution, of course, also used a geographic territory as a symbolic and practical gathering place. According to Eyal Chowers of Tel Aviv University, “while Jews in the Diaspora were characteristically ambivalent about their attachment to their place of residence, Zionists…wished to bind themselves to a particular landscape, and they presented this bond as the heart of their identity.” Zionism, like Milk’s Gay Revolution, chose a land to serve as a symbol, and that land became the focal point of Zionist ideology – it was in the Land of Israel that “new Jews” could distinguish themselves from their Diaspora past and build an independent nation. Castro Street, in effect, served the same purpose for Milk and his supporters.
Once Milk had constructed a gay space on Castro Street, he was able to mobilize the community there into a unified and effective political constituency. Zionism’s ultimate goal was not only to gather Jews in a central location, but also to politicize them as a single body that could elect Jewish leaders to represent them on the world stage – Milk’s intention was the same. In a 1974 article, Milk wrote about the need of the gay community to, “show our POLITICAL POWER. POLITICAL POWER can be shown only in a real vote – a joint vote of all gays.” Milk made voter registration in particular a priority, pressing the customers at his camera shop to register and asking his friends and supporters to campaign with him. Milk’s campaign was so effective that, by 1978, the community was visible and influential enough to initiate a California Gay Caucus, hosting politicians who wanted to appeal to the gay vote. Thus Milk used the territory of Castro Street not only to build a centralized gay community, but also to build a political power base, one that eventually allowed him to win a City Supervisor election and, from that position, to fight boldly for gay rights across the nation. A formerly disparate and marginalized community was thus concentrated and politicized in such a way as to give its members the opportunity to elect their own representative and advocate to the national stage.
In the same manner, the Zionist movement mobilized and politicized the collection of Jews in the Land of Israel to create a state. As Theodor Herzl, regarded as the father of modern political Zionism, wrote in his 1896 pamphlet, The Jewish State, “The Jewish people are at present prevented by the Diaspora from conducting their political affairs themselves.” One of Herzl’s goals was to empower Jews to govern themselves through geographic unity, but also through political mobilization of the Zionist community, hence the emphasis on the “State” as opposed to merely the “Land.” A few years earlier, in 1882, Leon Pinsker had lamented the same issue in his pamphlet, Auto-Emancipation, writing that, “The Jews are aliens who can have no representatives, because they have no country.” Like Harvey Milk’s Gay Revolution, Zionism sought to ground a traditionally disparate community in a single territory at least in part as a means of enabling that community to elect its own representatives.
Finally, one more ideological similarity between Harvey Milk’s Gay Revolution and the Zionist Revolution is the claim that both made to represent imagined communities that extended beyond their official legal jurisdictions. In Milk’s case, that meant taking responsibility for the national gay community, not just the San Franciscan or even Californian ones. He expressed hope for “our own nationwide convention” and even suggested fielding a third-party presidential candidate if neither Democrats nor Republicans were willing to cater to the gay vote.
Furthermore, Milk made a personal enemy and something of a symbolic villain out of Anita Bryant, an Oklahoma native against whom he had rallied his supporters well before her anti-gay campaign arrived in California in the form of the Briggs Initiative. In his Gay Freedom Day Speech, for example, he decried Bryant’s efforts to “twist the language and the meaning of the Bible,” and, moreover, he criticized “the religious leaders of this nation” as a whole for failing to stand up to her. That is to say, Milk projected himself as a defender of gay Americans in general, advocating for nation-wide change and confronting nation-wide anti-gay forces.
Just as Milk claimed a leadership role in relation to gay people all over America, and not just in San Francisco, so have Zionist (and now Israeli) leaders claimed a similar role in relation to the international Jewish community. According to Shapira, “The ideology of Zionism…saw itself as the legitimate representative of the entire nation,” and therefore claimed ownership, for example, of Holocaust survivors who were not Israeli citizens. In 1962, the Israeli government hanged Nazi leader Adolf Eichmann (the only death sentence that Israel has ever carried out), after he was captured by Mossad agents and tried in Jerusalem. The crimes for which Eichmann was punished were perpetrated against Jews, but not against Israelis (Israel did not even officially exist until after World War II), but by trying and executing him, the leaders of the Zionist Israeli establishment sent a message that they planned to defend (and avenge) not only those who held Israeli citizenship but also Jews more broadly. In the 1980s, after Harvey Milk’s death (but still illustrative of Zionism’s characteristic claim of representing global Jewry), the Israeli government embarked on a massive project to transport and naturalize the Jews of Ethiopia to Israel (for their protection), another example of the Zionist State going out of its way to assert ownership of Jews outside its borders. While both Harvey Milk’s revolution and Zionism highlighted a particular territory and built a geographically bounded power base, each also used that territory and constituency as a launching point to claim representation and ownership of a larger imagined community.
The similarities between Harvey Milk’s Gay Revolution and the Zionist Revolution are striking. Milk chose a paradigm of movement-building that was much closer in style and strategy to Zionism than to the other civil rights and liberation movements of his time in the United States. He empowered a minority community by highlighting incidents of its oppression, particularly the Holocaust; he called that community to action with a revolution in self-perceptions; he claimed a territory as a gathering point and politically mobilized those who converged there into an influential constituency that could elect its own representatives; and, finally, he inspired the territorially based community he had generated to fight a larger battle on behalf of the minority group as a whole. Perhaps Milk was consciously inspired by Zionist methodology, perhaps the influence was subconscious, and perhaps these parallels are only a coincidence, but, whatever the reason, the commonalities between the Zionist Revolution and the Gay Revolution run deep.
Ben Gladstone is a sophomore at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, planning to concentrate in Middle East Studies and Political Science with a focus on International and Comparative Politics. He is most involved with advocacy for Israel, the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, and LGBTQIA+ rights. For non-political fun, he also swing dances and co-runs the super nerdy Brown/RISD Lovecraft & Welcome to Night Vale Fan Club. He grew up in Boston, Massachusetts.
Cover photo : Harvey Milk in 1977. (Photo: Archive) via biography.com