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June 17, 2010 Print

The Life and Times of Harvey Milk

by Jeff Johnston

Authored by Jeff Johnston

Warning – Adult Sexual Content

Young Harvey Milk loved to listen to the New York Metropolitan Opera on the radio. When he was only 11, he asked his mother for money to attend. There he encountered, in the Met’s standing section, what Randy Shilts, author of The Mayor of Castro Street: The Life and Times of Harvey Milk, describes as “wandering hands.” There he met and engaged with grown men in “brief trysts after the performances.”

Over the next couple years, while Harvey was still in junior high, he “dove headfirst into the newly discovered subculture.” “Rarely were there better years and a more fortuitous locale for a teenager discovering sexuality,” writes Shilts. It’s monstrous and appalling that Shilts and, apparently, Milk, consider sexual abuse of a young boy by adult men an acceptable and healthy way of “discovering sexuality.” By the age of 14, Milk was “leading an active homosexual life.”

Later, Shilts describes the Milk family’s move to Bayshore, New York, when Harvey was 15 and still in high school. Shilts writes that “this new location proved Harvey’s luckiest break since his first trip to the standing section.”  Evidently, getting introduced to sexual activity by grown men when you’re only 11 is a lucky break. Try teaching that to your fifth-grade class on the proposed Harvey Milk Day in California. 

And why was this move so “lucky”?  Because the now-15-year-old Milk can “skip the opera and catch the last ferry to Fire Island’s Ocean Beach, striking up friendships with some of the older men.” His mom doesn’t worry too much if he spends Saturday nights away with his new friends – after all he’s a junior varsity linebacker, a model kid and works hard at school. Besides, Shilts reports, she had her own wild streak as a youngster.

Sexual Abuse? Or Discovering an Identity?

Reading Shilts’ biography, I’m amazed at how obtuse he is in his portrayal of Milk’s induction into homosexuality.

Not only does Shilts casually describe Milk’s childhood sexual abuse, he also writes about the abuse suffered by several of Milk’s sexual partners – but he never calls it sexual abuse. Instead, he describes these boys as “discovering” their homosexuality – through adult sexual encounters. 

Sadly, Milk and his many partners could be poster boys for an analysis produced by authors from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that shows the widespread degree to which men who have sex with men were abused as children.

Shilts also conveniently ignores the fallout that can follow when adult sexuality is imposed on children. Milk and his partners live tumultuous, painful lives, rife with anonymous sex, public sex, bathhouses, prostitution, drugs, depression, alcohol abuse, suicide attempts and multiple partners. The pain and confusion of childhood sexual abuse festers on as their lives unfold

Where the Boys Are

Milk is not the only one who was wrongly sexualized – er, had a “sexual awakening” – at an early age. Shilts writes about Joe Campbell, one of Milk’s early relationships, “wending his way toward the gay subculture in 1945 amid the tattered seats of the Southland Theater on Chicago’s south side.” Campbell was only nine years old, selling himself to grown men for a quarter. 

Raised by his mother with four other siblings, Campbell’s father died when he was only a year old. At 14, Campbell started hanging out with gay-identified teens and men in Greenwich Village. He dropped out of school at 15 and “learned about the hustling scene where boys his age could earn far more than a quarter for their efforts.” Milk was 26 and Joe Campbell was19 when they start a relationship that lasted about 6 years – Milk’s longest partnership.

Milk was ten years older than his next partner, Craig Rodwell. And – you guessed it – Rodwell’s sexual experiences started in “childhood in a private boys’ school playing doctor.” By the time Rodwell was 14, he was prostituting himself and getting stopped by the police – along with the 40-year-old Italian man that was paying to perpetrate against him. 

But really, homosexuality is an innate, essence-based identity, something that’s good – not something learned from repeated experiences or that develops out of brokenness. At least this is what gay advocates tell us. Shilts writes that the police and society were at fault for Rodwell’s growing anger – not the “gentle Italian man” who has to “go to prison for four years, his life destroyed.” Imagine, just for paying a 14-year old boy to have sex. 

Rodwell, an early member of gay activist groups, gets arrested for public cruising for sex, and the relationship with Milk started to fall apart as “Harvey Milk shifted his attentions to other young men.” In what was to become a sad pattern for several of Milk’s partners, Rodwell tried to kill himself. 

Teach Your Children Well

Milk was 33 when he got together with his next partner – 16-year old Jack McKinley. At one point, Milk tried to “open an investment account as a guardian for a younger man who [he tells the broker] was his ward” – McKinley. The investment broker looks at Milk and says, “What you’re really talking about is opening an account for the boy you’ve got living with you. Right?”

Call me crazy, but I think the law typically frowns upon “guardians” sleeping with their underage “wards.” 

McKinley struggled with depression and turned to drugs, alcohol and “sexual promiscuity.” He threatened suicide numerous times and was diagnosed by a psychiatrist as manic-depressive. He attempted to hang himself, but Milk arrived in time to cut him down from the rafters. Another time, he threw himself in front of an oncoming taxi; it’s a sad story of hurt and insecurity.

Milk’s business transferred him from New York to Dallas in 1967. Milk was now 37, and McKinley moved back to Greenwich Village. So Milk turned his attention to Joe Turner, (surprise!) “a handsome, blond twenty-one-year-old.” Shilts writes as if this fixation on youth and litany of partners were normal and healthy.

Where the Movie Picks Up

On the outside, Milk had been a buttoned-up businessman for a number of years – albeit with a penchant for young men in their teens and early twenties. But in his thirties, he moved into the theater world and joined the hippie movement. On his 41st birthday, he hooked up with 22-year-old Scott Smith and they begin a relationship and move to San Francisco. 

Campbell, Rodwell, McKinley, Turner, Smith….the list grows as Milk continued to help “troubled young gay men.” If you’re paying attention, you’ll note that Harvey’s partners stayed the same age while he grew older.

Shilts describes Milk as having “a fondness for helping the young gay refugees who were pouring into the neighborhood.” No doubt. Later, he writes about “the young waifs Harvey had always found so appealing” and says “the candidate liked thin, young blond men.”   

Perhaps this is why the recent biopic with Sean Penn, Milk, skipped over the first forty years of Milk’s life. Keeping up with the ever-growing list of young men that Milk gets involved with is confusing in a book – and probably even more confusing in a movie. So the movie telescopes Milk’s dozen or so relationships into a couple. The film ignores his sexually-addicted forays into bathhouses and public parks, and it doesn’t attempt to deal with his childhood sexual abuse. 

Or maybe the screenwriters knew that mainstream audiences weren’t ready for such driven and compulsive sexual behavior – especially in someone being touted for special recognition in public schools in California. And for a Presidential Medal of Freedom by the Obama Administration. 

Later in life, Milk condemned child predators. But he evidently never made the connection with his own childhood sexual abuse or that of his partners. Nor does he ever question the brokenness that surrounds him – drugs, risky sexual behavior, alcohol abuse, depression and suicide – except to blame society. 

Instead, in classic and lamentable sex-addict fashion, he defends his promiscuity, “ ‘As homosexuals, we can’t depend on the heterosexual model….We grow up with the heterosexual model, but we don’t have to follow it. We should be developing our own life-style. There’s no reason why you can’t love more than one person at a time. You don’t have to love them all the same. You love some less, love some more – and always be honest with everybody about where you’re at. They in turn can do the same thing and it can open up a bigger sphere’….A sphere of love, always growing.” 
All quotes from:  Randy Shilts, The Mayor of Castro Street: The Life and Times of Harvey Milk, (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1982). 

Jeff Johnston is a research analyst at CitizenLink, an affiliate of Focus on the Family.

This article was originally published on 30 July 2009.

Recommended Resources

For help with sexual addiction or issues of homosexuality:   Pure Intimacy website.

Help for those suffering from childhood sexual abuse:  Focus on the Family Counseling Department

The Wounded Heart: Hope for Adult Victims of Childhood Sexual Abuse
By: Dan Allender, Ph.D.