The Religious Body Imagined - Pamela D. Winfield

The Religious Body Imagined - Pamela D. Winfield

3. Harvey Milk’s (Sexual and Sacred) Body

The Religious Body Imagined - Pamela D. Winfield

William Gilders [+-]
Emory University
William K. Gilders is an Associate Professor in the Department of Religion and the Rabbi Donald A. Tam Institute for Jewish Studies at Emory University, Atlanta, Georgia. He received his B.A. from the University of Toronto, his M.A. from McMaster University, Hamilton, Ontario, and his Ph.D. in Religious Studies (Judaism in Antiquity) from Brown University. His research and teaching deal with cultural history, especially its religious dimensions, ranging geographically and chronologically from the ancient Mediterranean world to 21st century North America, with special attention to collective memory and the deployment of images and constructions of the past. He is the author of Blood Ritual in the Hebrew Bible: Meaning and Power (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2004) and several articles on ancient Israelite religious practice interpreted from the perspective of anthropology and ritual theory. In addition to his work on ritual and sacrifice, he has a strong interest in gender and sexuality, particularly cultural agency and creativity in North American LGBTQ communities. He is currently working on a project that examines how the assassinated gay activist Harvey Milk (May 22, 1930–November 27, 1978) has become an iconic figure who is honored and memorialized and whose legacy is claimed and contested.


Harvey Milk, assassinated over forty years ago on November 27, 1978, is a queer saint. This paper, in the self-identifying voice of a gay man, will explore the significance of Harvey Milk’s cultural sanctity in relation to his sexual embodiment. It emphasizes that “Saint Harvey” was a leading figure in a movement of sexual liberation and was himself a strongly sexual being. These facts are sometimes downplayed in his representation as a sacred figure, which often focus on his dead body and its “relics” (such as his blood-stained clothing), over against his vitally sexual pre-assassination body. Examining the phenomenon of the “canonization” of a sexually embodied gay (Jewish) agnostic, this paper specifically asks “what happens when Milk’s sacralization is explicitly tied to his sexuality? Can a saint be a sexual being, not peripherally or incidentally, but centrally and essentially?”

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Gilders, William. 3. Harvey Milk’s (Sexual and Sacred) Body. The Religious Body Imagined. Equinox eBooks Publishing, United Kingdom. p. 59-79 Jul 2024. ISBN 9781781799727. Date accessed: 19 Jul 2024 doi: 10.1558/equinox.39647. Jul 2024

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