The Children of Harvey Milk: How LGBTQ Politicians Changed the World, by Andrew Reynolds

Discourse has been altered only by minority groups being ‘at the table’, something enabled by ground-breaking activists, writes Charlie Pullen

January 31, 2019
Source: Shutterstock
Transformative figure: the pioneering political career of Harvey Milk was portrayed cinematically by Sean Penn

When Harvey Milk died in 1978, he did not leave behind any children. In Gus Van Sant’s 2008 film Milk, which recounts the life of the pioneering gay politician, he is asked by the man who would eventually kill him, fellow San Francisco city supervisor Dan White, if two men can reproduce. “No,” Milk (Sean Penn) concedes, before quipping, “but God knows we keep trying.” What he did father, however, as Andrew Reynolds shows in The Children of Harvey Milk, is a line of out and proud LGBTQ politicians who have transformed governments and communities around the world.

Offering a much-needed survey of the current LGBTQ political landscape, Reynolds tells the stories of the politicians and activists who have come after Milk, the first openly gay person elected to office in California. He covers a lot of ground, having conducted interviews with a long list of “characters” from across the globe: in the UK, Angela Eagle, Simon Hughes and Waheed Alli, “the most important gay rights activist you have never heard of”; the only out black African politician, Zakele Mbhele from South Africa; Coos Huijsen in the Netherlands, who in 1972 became the first government official in the world to come out; and New Zealand’s Georgina Beyer, a Māori politician who is also the first transgender MP ever elected.

These politicians are important, for Reynolds, because they constitute “a highly visible part of the tapestry of out gay people in society”. His book describes in great detail a “compelling web of personal stories of individual gay men and women transforming the views and votes of those around them”. All adhere to what he calls the Milk Principle, the idea that the presence of LGBTQ figures in political discourse is fundamental to how real change is engendered in society. By “being at the table”, just as Milk was, out politicians have changed laws, won rights and altered attitudes. Visibility, in Reynolds’ view, “is almost everything”.

Demonstrating a real gift for storytelling, he allows the personal as well as the professional aspects of his subjects’ lives to shine through. In the case of the great activist Peter Tatchell, for instance, we read about his experiences running for Parliament, the work of his rights group OutRage! and his “secret romance” with footballer Justin Fashanu. It is a strength of the book that it focuses not only on the impact out politicians have had on legal and constitutional change, but also on wider cultural developments. Thus, in his discussion of the actor and Labour Party peer Michael Cashman, Reynolds is just as interested in the significance of Cashman’s performance of the first gay kiss in a British soap opera (on EastEnders in 1987) as he is in his role as Labour’s international LGBT rights envoy.

The Children of Harvey Milk is a welcome analysis of the important function played by LGBTQ people in politics since the 1970s. For Reynolds, Milk’s spiritual offspring “influence not only their colleagues but also the conversation in courtrooms, media outlets, national government offices, and family dining tables”. Above all, they are figures who can still “change hearts and minds in a powerful way”.

Charlie Pullen is a PhD candidate and teaching associate in English at Queen Mary University of London.

The Children of Harvey Milk: How LGBTQ Politicians Changed the World
By Andrew Reynolds
Oxford University Press, 376pp, £22.99
ISBN 9780190460952
Published 1 November 2018

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