Who Was Harvey Milk?

Harvey Bernard Milk was born May 22, 1930, on Long Island, N.Y. He attended college in his home state before joining the Navy during the Korean War. After the war, Milk was discharged, returning to New York and working at various jobs, from teaching to insurance to investment.

Milk moved to San Francisco in 1969 for a short time as the city was undergoing demographic change. Years earlier, Haight-Ashbury had been invaded by hippies and the once working-class Castro Street area was giving way to an increasing population of gay men. San Francisco is a major port, and gay men who had left the military had long lingered in the city. In the 1960s and beyond, this group’s numbers were bolstered by gay migrants from other parts of the United States. After moving around the country for a while, Milk returned to San Francisco, opening a camera shop on Castro Street in 1973.

Gay rights groups were gaining influence in the city, but corruption and codified discrimination still existed. A constellation of frustrating events impelled Milk to run for office as a supervisor. San Francisco has a consolidated city-county government. A supervisor is similar to city councilperson. During his campaign, Milk ran afoul of the gay political establishment, but he soon caught his stride, building coalitions, making speeches and consolidating influence in the Castro.

Although Milk lost his first few elections, he gained political experience and allies, including Mayor George Moscone. In 1976, San Francisco reorganized its supervisor elections so that supervisors were elected by districts rather than from the city as a whole. Milk ran for the Castro-area District 5 seat and won. He sponsored a civil rights ordinance that outlawed discrimination based on sexual orientation, and it passed. He was also well-known for his slick political promotion of the pooper-scooper law.

In 1978, Californians were presented with the Briggs Initiative, a statewide ballot measure that proposed making the firing of gay teachers – and any public school employees who supported gay rights – mandatory. At the same time, conservative singer Anita Bryant was also doing her worst to fight against gay rights in Florida. Milk’s speeches encouraged every homosexual to “come out” and fight for his rights. Politicians Ronald Reagan, Jimmy Carter and Jerry Brown opposed California’s initiative. It lost on Nov. 7, but many were still chilly to the idea of gay liberation.

One of Milk’s fellow supervisors was Dan White; both men won office in 1977. White had been elected from a district where many constituents were opposed to gay residents’ growing influence in the city. White and Milk worked well together on several issues, although White had a mixed record on gay rights. White had been a police officer and firefighter, but he was forced to resign as a firefighter after winning his seat on the board. His board proposals were largely pro-business development, while Moscone and Milk’s were neighborhood-oriented.

White became dissatisfied with city politics and his low salary as a supervisor, and he resigned from the Board of Supervisors on Nov. 10, 1978. This meant that Mayor Moscone would appoint his successor and Moscone and Milk’s proposals would soon find majority support. Thinking better of his resignation, White soon asked for it to be rescinded. However, Moscone decided to appoint someone else, rather than return White to his position.

On Nov. 27, 1978, White slipped into City Hall with his police-issued service revolver, meeting Moscone in a private lounge adjacent to his office. There White killed Moscone and exited to the hallway. Encountering Milk in the hall, White persuaded Milk to accompany him to his former office space. White then shot Milk dead behind closed doors and fled the building. Dianne Feinstein, president of the Board of Supervisors, announced the double assassination to the public and named White as the suspect.

The Castro held vigil as White turned himself in to authorities. His defense attorneys used a diminished-capacity argument derisively termed by the press as the Twinkie Defense. The jury accepted that White’s mental state hadn’t afforded him the ability to premeditate the killings, He was found guilty of voluntary manslaughter, rather than first-degree murder.

The city erupted after the verdict, and the White Night Riots ensued on May 21, 1979. There was civilian violence at City Hall, and the Police Department retaliated with brutality in the Castro. Eventually, peace returned to the city and Milk’s memory was invoked in the furtherance of LGBT rights.

After serving five years in prison, White was released. Reviled by his family and fellow citizens, he committed suicide a year and a half later.

Milk is revered as a gay icon, and the anniversary of his birth is celebrated each May 22 in California’s public schools. Tributes to him and his legacy include the biography The Mayor of Castro Street, and the films The Times of Harvey Milk (1984) and Milk (2008). In August 2009, President Barack Obama posthumously awarded Milk the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Milk’s nephew Stuart accepted the award and soon co-founded the Harvey Milk Foundation to honor his uncle and continue his work.

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