News & Politics

Milk on Milk: A Family Member Previews Gus Van Sant’s Harvey Milk Bio

Milk is not a common name. But people are always surprised to discover that my husband is related to “that Milk”—Harvey Milk, the gay member of San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors who in 1978 was gunned down by a crazed former supervisor named Dan White.

Harvey was the first openly gay person elected to a major office in the United States. He was also my husband Benjamin’s first cousin. So we were eager to see Milk, the new Gus Van Sant movie starring Sean Penn as Harvey, which opens this week.

Benjamin and Harvey grew up in Woodmere, New York, where their grandfather Morris opened the first department store on Long Island in 1898, aptly named Milk’s. The store failed in the 1950s, but it was a big deal when they were growing up. In the movie, when Harvey opens his camera store in San Francisco’s Castro neighborhood, he says, “If Morris and Minnie could see me now.”

Harvey was eight years older than Benjamin, so they weren’t close. He taught Spanish at Hewlett High School the year after Benjamin graduated. When I married into the family in 1968, Harvey was working on Wall Street and still in the closet. Certainly, his extended family had no idea he was gay. I remember how we all found out—we read about it in the New York Times. Harvey was mentioned in a story about Tom O’Horgan, the creative genius behind the musical Hair.

I never heard a negative word about Harvey’s sexuality. I think somebody said, “So that’s why he never married.” They thought he just hadn’t found the right girl.

The family was very proud of all Harvey achieved in San Francisco, and the movie captures that part of his life very well. Van Sant interweaves news footage to recreate the tenor of the times, but Penn is in nearly every scene and, according to Benjamin, even sounds like Harvey.

What most impressed me was how much Harvey calls to mind Barack Obama, calling for change and championing human rights. Like Obama, he was driven and a master of campaign strategy. Unlike Obama, he was never cool. Harvey was a talker, a hugger, a lover in every sense. I wish I had known him.

His brother Robert went to San Francisco for the candlelight march of mourners that brought thousands of people into the streets. Harvey’s family thought he had a brilliant future. He could have been mayor of San Francisco. And from there . . . .

Milk is a terrific tribute to both the public and the private Harvey. Penn should earn an Oscar for his performance. Like the opera he loved, Harvey was dramatic, charismatic, and larger than life. He deserves to be remembered that way.

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