Leslie Hindman to auction letters of gay rights activist Harvey Milk

Letters handwritten by gay rights activist Harvey Milk, to be auctioned July 28, 2009. Courtesy Leslie Hindman Auctioneers.

Letters handwritten by gay rights activist Harvey Milk, to be auctioned July 28, 2009. Courtesy Leslie Hindman Auctioneers.

CHICAGO – On July 28, 2009, Leslie Hindman Auctioneers will sell two revealing letters written during the 1950s by Harvey Milk, who 20 years later would become a San Francisco icon and early champion of gay rights. Internet live bidding will be available through www.LiveAuctioneers.com.

The two letters to be auctioned are from Milk to his good friend Patrick Mormon, whom he befriended while serving in the navy. Although written more than 50 years ago, the letters are of great relevance to today’s social and political movements, addressing “gay marriage” and the military’s ban on gay servicemen and servicewomen. The letters are the highlight of Hindman’s Fine Books and Manuscripts auction.

Milk became the first openly gay man to hold public office in the state of California. He was rarely open about his homosexuality or political involvement until after the countercultural movements of the 1960s. Conversely, in his private communications, such as his letters to Mormon, the younger Milk is placed at the forefront of two of the most controversial civil rights issues of today – the acceptance of gays in the military, and the legalization of same-sex marriage.

Milk joined the navy during the Korean War and served aboard the submarine rescue ship U.S.S. Kittiwake as a diving officer. In 1955, he was discharged for undisclosed reasons. During his campaign in San Francisco in the 1970s, a rumor circulated that Milk had been dishonorably discharged from the navy due to reports of his homosexuality. Milk denied this, but allowed the rumor to propagate for political purposes. The first of the two letters to be auctioned sheds light on the history of Milk’s navy discharge and the ethics of outing homosexuals in the military during the 1950s. In a letter accompanied by an envelope postmarked Dec. 15, 1954, Norfolk, Va., Milk writes:

Pat –
Don’t say or do anything. I’ve been turned in by Johnny Teynel and Marty ‘Kid’
(illegible) and a third party. Harvey

During the Korean War, there were five types of discharge from the navy: honorable, general, undesirable, bad conduct and dishonorable. Gay servicemen found guilty of engaging in homosexual acts were issued a dishonorable discharge. However, gay service members were frequently issued undesirable discharges for allegations of homosexual tendencies without proof of engagement in sexual acts. The reasons for Milk’s discharge are debatable, but scholars today have generally agreed they were unrelated to his homosexuality. Yet, the short, cautious tone of the letter to Pat Mormon, wherein Milk does not even disclose a return address, suggests that even if his fellow servicemen’s allegations did not lead to an undesirable discharge, the threat was at one point very real to Harvey.

In the second letter, postmarked U.S.S. Kittiwake, New York, N.Y., with a specific date unknown, Milk reveals to Mormon his intentions to be “married” to an unnamed lover and move to Dallas. Milk writes:

I’m just starting 10 days leave (in 5 min.) and I’m on my way to Dallas, Texas to
see someone. If things work out as I want I may be a happily married man by the
end of this year. ‘Gay marriage,’ that is. I think I wrote you about him – well we
wrote each other and before long he wanted me to come to Texas – here I come.
Will let you know how things work out …

In the summer of 1956 at Riis Park Beach, Queens, New York, Milk met and fell in love with Joe Campbell. They moved to Dallas in 1957, where they enjoyed a fairly safe middle-class “marriage” for seven years. Milk’s “gay marriage” to Joe Campbell stands in sharp contrast to the anti-marriage sentiments of the 1960s/70s. However, for a short while, “marriage” offered Milk and Campbell a sense of structure and stability that a closeted life would not allow.

The autographed letters will be offered at auction at Leslie Hindman Auctioneers on July 28, 2009 and will be on public exhibition Sunday, July 26 and Monday, July 27. For additional information, call 312-280-1212.

View the fully illustrated catalog and sign up to bid absentee or live via the Internet through www.LiveAuctioneers.com.