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Harvey Milk: Child Molester?

James White recently devoted all or part of several episodes of his podcast The Dividing Line to Michael Brown and his new book A Queer Thing Happened to America [e.g. link] and during the episode linked mentioned as a matter of course that Harvey Milk, the late San Francisco Supervisor and gay political icon, was a child molester. A little research suggests that this is taken as fact among conservative Christians, and fits into a broader narrative in conservative Christian circles that has shaped our relationship with the homosexual community since the Seventies, namely that gay men molest boys as a matter of course.

I am not entirely sure why we frame the discussion this way; maybe it’s because of the way we interpret 1 Corinthians 6:9-10 relative to its historical context and draw from it instructions for our own time. I don’t know. It’s worth noting that this narrative is showing some wear; it’s similarly received in the gay community that child molesters are more likely (both in total numbers and as a proportion of their communities) to be heterosexual. I really don’t know either way; the handful of child molesters I’ve known personally or by trustworthy anecdote were all heterosexual, but I don’t, as they say, know enough to know.

But the allegations regarding Milk apparently stem from his relationship with Jack Galen McKinley [link]. According to Randy Shilts, author of The Mayor of Castro Street [link], Milk was 33 and McKinley 16 when they began their relationship; it continued for several years and ended when Milk moved to San Francisco from New York and then McKinley took a role in a New York-based production of the musical Hair. The age of consent in New York is 17 today [link]; I have to assume it was the same in the early Seventies.

I am a big fan of Shilts’s 1987 book And The Band Played On, about the early days of the AIDS epidemic; it’s a monumental piece of investigative journalism; it’s well-written; it has well-drawn characters; and it tells a sad and painful story well. I respect Shilts for arguing that city officials should have made more of an effort to stop the spread of AIDS in San Francisco; I think in retrospect he was probably harder on the scientific community and the Reagan Administration than the facts support. Still, I wish every 600-page nonfiction book about a difficult subject was written this well.

The Mayor of Castro Street, on the other hand, is an earlier piece of hagiography by Shilts, is written in a racier style, etc. He is honest about McKinley’s age, but frames the Milk-McKinley story as a by-the-numbers early-Seventies gay love story. He notes that McKinley was a runaway from Maryland, was living on the streets in New York City, and was making ends meet by “hustling:” by having sex with older men for money and other means of support. This is not really the point of Shilts’s description of this part of Milk’s life; he focuses more on the treatment of men in the gay cruising scene in the parks in Greenwich Village in the pre-Stonewall era, rather than whether Milk’s treatment of McKinley would qualify as statutory rape. Let’s just note that all of this gets summarized away in e.g. Milk’s Wikipedia entry [link]; McKinley is important in Milk’s story, but the details are somewhat inconvenient. It’s worth noting that Shilts mentions Milk having relationships with a handful of younger men, of which McKinley is the only one who was underage at the time. It is my understanding that the typical child molester abuses more than 100 children; I have no idea how solid that number is.

If I had to make a contemporary heterosexual comparison here, and I’m not sure it’s fair, I’d suggest looking at former NFL star Lawrence Taylor, who was sentenced in March to probation for sexual misconduct and having sex with an underage prostitute [link]. It’s worth noting that the prostitute in this case was also 16 at the time of Lawrence’s arrest. And while Lawrence is now a registered as a sex offender and is regarded as a tragic figure and a cautionary tale I do not hear him commonly called a child molester.

I have no idea if the world Shilts describes still exists, or if it collapsed under the weight of HIV/AIDS; as White and Brown discussed, cultural attitudes toward homosexuality and behavior in the homosexual community have changed a lot in the last generation or so. I have no idea if corresponding behaviors have changed, too, or if e.g. McKinley’s behavior is typical for a young urban gay male today.

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