Even If It’s Hopeless
Excerpted from The Mayor of Castro Street: The Life and times of Harvey Milk by Randy Shilts, ©1982:
Harvey himself never talked much about his childhood in Woodmere and Bayshore, except for two stories. First, the August afternoon a few weeks after his graduation when he was briefly picked up by police for indecent exposure. And then, there was the day his parents sat him down in 1943 to tell him about the brave Jews of Warsaw who were hopelessly outnumbered and surrounded by Nazi troops. But they fought on anyway, not because they thought they could win, but because when something that evil descends on the world, you have to fight. Even if it’s hopeless.
By the time Harvey took his high school diploma, news of the Nazi Holocaust had shocked the world, especially the millions of American middle-class Jews who had grown to feel so secure. The Holocaust touched Milk doubly, in a way that he could not have imagined at that time.
Before Hitler’s rise, Germany had an active gay liberation movement that pressed for legal demands and collected hundreds of thousands of signatures on petitions asking for homosexual equality. But in 1936, Reichsfuhrer SS Heinrich Himmler issued the following decree:
Just as we today have gone back to the ancient German view on the question of marriages mixing different races, so too in our judgment of homosexuality– a symptom of degeneracy which could destroy our race– we must return to the guiding Nordic principle, extermination of degenerates.
About a year later, Himmler ordered that gays be rounded up and sent to Level 3 camps– the death camps. Gays wore pink triangles, so they would not be confused with Jews who wore yellow stars of David. Some estimates put the number of gays exterminated at over 220,000, the second largest category of Nazi genocide victims after Jews.
This attempt at genocide efficiently squashed the only gay political movement in the Western world. Harvey Milk, meanwhile, was seven years old then, playing in the aisles of grandfather Morris’ dry goods store. It would be years before ideas of gay equality rumbled again, this time in the United States.
The “indecent exposure,” by the way, was a trumped-up charge the police used to harass gays at the time. He had merely taken his shirt off in a park.