Harvey Milk, Secular Gay Saint and Modern Martyr

In California, May 22 is officially recognised as “Harvey Milk Day“. The reasons for this secular honour are well-known, and recorded in several books and notable movies.  In 1977, he became the first openly gay man elected to public office as a gay man, but served for only a short term before he was assassinated on  Nov. 27, 1978. Even in that brief term of office, he made his mark with his contribution to San Francisco’s landmark Gay Rights Ordinance, and to the defeat of the Briggs initiative, which would have required California school districts to fire openly gay and lesbian teachers, but was defeated in the November election shortly before Milk’s assassination. Rather than rehashing the bare facts of Harvey Milk’s life and career, which can be read elsewhere, I want to reflect a little on the symbolism and lessons that these have acquired, three decades later.

Although he is best known for his unique position as a trailblazer for out gay politicians, his work was not limited to queer advocacy, as Kittredge Cherry reminds us at Jesus in Love:

Milk (1930-1978) served only 11 months on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors before he was killed, but in that short time he fought for the rights of the elderly, small business owners, and the many ethnic communities in his district as well as for the growing LGBT community.


Freedom is indivisible. As a marginalized minority, we cannot expect to achieve the full equality and inclusion we seek without the help and support of straight allies. If we seek their support, we must equally be prepared to be allies ourselves to other marginalized and disadvantaged groups – women, ethnic minorities, the elderly, the impoverished. “Queer” is not simply a term for sexual or gender minorities, but references also all those who by choice, biology or circumstances find themselves outside the privilieges of the social mainstream.
In politics, we’ve come a long way. The election of a solitary gay man or lesbian to city office is no longer mainstream news – hundreds more gay, lesbian and trans candidates have been elected to city office, and to many state legislatures. In the US, there are four out members of Congress, and next year could conceivably see the election of the first out US Senator. In Europe, out politicians are old hat. Iceland and Germany have a lesbian Prime Minister and gay Vice-Chancellor respectively, while Italy has a credible possibility of electing a gay Prime Minister within the next few years. In the UK, the proportion of out Members of Parliament is comparable with that of the general population. Harvey Milk’s Gay Rights Ordinance was a trailblazer in 1978, but similar or more extensive protections have since been written into national constitutions or specific laws in numerous countries, state or provincial governments and local ordinances of cities large and small, on all continents.
There is a long way to go yet, but we can take courage from the rapid growth in LGBT political equality. If this is how far we have come in three decades, how much further can we expect to progress in the next three or four?
So, there good secular reasons for reflecting on the legacy of Harvey Milk. But numerous queer Christian writers also take note of Harvey Milk day, and suggest that we include him in any listing of LGBT saints. What are the theological reasons for doing so?
Donald Boisvert, in Sanctity and Male Desire, describes three categories of saints, martyr, confessor, and doctor. The word “martyr” derives from the Greek for “one who bears witness”. Harvey Milk bore witness, in the full knowledge of the dangers that he faced, to the truth of gay lives and the importance of justice and equality for all.

“If a bullet should enter my brain, let that bullet destroy every closet door in the country,” Milk said. Two bullets did enter his brain, and his vision of queer people living openly is also coming true.

Haunted by the sense that he would be killed for political reasons, Milk recorded tapes to be played in the event of his assassination. His message, recorded nine days before his death, included this powerful statement:

“I ask for the movement to continue, for the movement to grow, because last week I got a phone call from Altoona, Pennsylvania, and my election gave somebody else, one more person, hope. And after all, that’s what this is all about. It’s not about personal gain, not about ego, not about power — it’s about giving those young people out there in the Altoona, Pennsylvanias, hope. You gotta give them hope.”

In his introductory textbook on queer theology,  “Radical Love“, Patrick Cheng discusses queer saints in the chapter that deals with the Holy Spirit, in which he argues that the Holy Spirit is all about a return to radical love. (Earlier, he discussed God as the sending forth of radical love, and Jesus Christ as the recovery of radical love).  The Church he sees as an external community of this, in what he describes as an act of subversion, creating a new family that transcended conventional family relationships.
The church was a new community that traditional boundaries that kept people apart such as biological relationships, social class and physical attributes.
In some ways, the families of choice that queer people have created (such as same – sex and gender variant marriages, domestic partnerships, polyamourous relationships, and broader friendship networks) can be viewed as examples of radical love.
-Cheng, Patrick S: Radical Love:
From this, it is easy to see that the early pioneers of the movement to LGBT consciousness, pride and equality, even where not specifically identifying as Christian, were in some ways promoting a fundamental Christian ethic which has been ignored, or actively opposed, by many who sanctimoniously but erroneously promote a narrow, modern interpretation of the “traditional” family that has no foundation in either Biblical practice, or that of the early Christian church.

Cheng goes on to describe the importance of saints as examples of the breaking through of radical love.

The doctrine of saints is highly queer because the saints dissolve all kinds of fixed boundaries….. By venerating the saints, we affirm the radical love of God that dissolves all boundaries, including (but not limited to) sexuality and gender.

Cheng, Patrick S: Radical Love
For his contribution to dissolving boundaries, in remaining true to his task while understanding the dangers that he faced, and for his work for justice for all, Harvey Milk must be acknowledged as a secular modern gay saint, a clear example of a gay man who was was martyred for his sexuality, and for his witness.



Cleary, Richard: Know My Name


Related articles at Queering the Church / Queer Saints and Martyrs

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