Harvey Bernard Milk (May 22, 1930 – November 27, 1978) was an American politician and the first openly gay elected official in the history of California, where he was elected to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors.
After graduation, Milk joined the United States Navy during the Korean War. He served aboard the submarine rescue ship USS Kittiwake as a diving officer. He later transferred to Naval Station, San Diego to serve as a diving instructor. In 1955, he was discharged from the Navy at the rank of lieutenant, junior grade.
In 1972, Milk moved from New York City to the Castro District of San Francisco amid a migration of gay and bisexual men. He took advantage of the growing political and economic power of the neighborhood to promote his interests and unsuccessfully ran three times for political office. Milk’s theatrical campaigns earned him increasing popularity, and in 1977 he won a seat as a city supervisor.
Milk served almost eleven months in office and was responsible for passing a stringent gay rights ordinance for San Francisco. On November 27, 1978, Milk and Mayor George Moscone were assassinated by Dan White, who was another city supervisor. White had recently resigned to pursue a private business enterprise, but that endeavor eventually failed and he sought to get his old job back. White was sentenced to seven years in prison for manslaughter, which was later reduced to five years. He was released in 1983 and committed suicide by carbon monoxide inhalation two years later.
Milk and his lover at the time, Scott Smith, opened a camera store on Castro Street. Milk became more interested in political and civic matters when he was faced with civic problems and policies he disliked. In 1973, Milk decided that the time had come to run for city supervisor. At first, his inexperience showed, but Milk’s fiery, flamboyant speeches and savvy media skills earned him a significant amount of press during the 1973 election. He earned 16,900 votes—sweeping the Castro District and other liberal neighborhoods and coming in 10th place out of 32 candidates.
From early in his political career, Milk displayed an affinity for building coalitions. Milk found a strong political ally in organized labor, and it was around this time that he began to style himself “The Mayor of Castro Street”. Milk and a few other gay business owners founded the Castro Village Association, with Milk as the president. Milk organized the Castro Street Fair in 1974 to attract more customers to the area.
Milk again ran for supervisor in 1975, earning the support of the teamsters, firefighters, and construction unions. Milk came in seventh place in the election, only one position away from earning a supervisor seat.
Newly elected Mayor George Moscone appointed Milk to the Board of Permit Appeals in 1976, making him the first openly gay city commissioner in the United States. Milk spent five weeks on the Board of Permit Appeals before Moscone was forced to fire him when Milk announced he would run for the California State Assembly. Milk’s campaign was run from the storefront of Castro Camera. The race was close, and Milk lost by fewer than 4,000 votes. In the wake of his loss, Milk co-founded the San Francisco Gay Democratic Club.
In November 1976, Milk qualified as the leading candidate for supervisor in District 5, surrounding Castro Street. On election day, November 8, 1977, Milk won by 30% against sixteen other candidates. Since the race for the California State Assembly, Milk had been receiving increasingly violent death threats. Concerned that his raised profile marked him as a target for assassination, he recorded on tape his thoughts, and whom he wanted to succeed him if he were killed, adding:
“If a bullet should enter my brain, let that bullet destroy every closet door”.
Milk’s swearing-in made national headlines, as he became the first non-incumbent openly gay man in the United States to win an election for public office. Milk was often willing to vote against the more tenured members of the board. In one controversy early in his term, Milk agreed with fellow Supervisor Dan White, whose district was located two miles south of the Castro, that a mental health facility for troubled adolescents should not be placed there. After Milk learned more about the facility, he decided to switch his vote, ensuring White’s loss on the issue—a particularly poignant cause that White championed while campaigning. White did not forget it. He opposed every initiative and issue Milk supported.
Milk began his tenure by sponsoring a civil rights bill that outlawed discrimination based on sexual orientation. Only Supervisor White voted against it; Mayor Moscone enthusiastically signed it into law with a light blue pen that Milk had given him for the occasion.
On November 10, 1978 (10 months after he was sworn in), White resigned his position on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, saying that his annual salary of $9,600 was not enough to support his family. Within days, White requested that his resignation be withdrawn and he be reinstated, and Mayor Moscone initially agreed. However, further consideration—and intervention by other supervisors—convinced Moscone to appoint someone more in line with the growing ethnic diversity of White’s district and the liberal leanings of the Board of Supervisors.
Moscone planned to announce White’s replacement on November 27, 1978. A half hour before the press conference, White avoided metal detectors by entering City Hall through a basement window and went to Moscone’s office, where White shot Moscone in the shoulder and chest, then twice in the head. White then found Milk and shot him five times, including twice in the head. Moscone was 49. Milk was 48 years old.
Many people left flowers on the steps of City Hall, and that evening 25,000 to 40,000 formed a spontaneous candlelight march from Castro Street to City Hall. The next day, the bodies of Moscone and Milk were brought to the City Hall rotunda where mourners paid their respects
Dan White was charged with two counts of murder and held without bail, eligible for the death penalty owing to the recent passage of a statewide proposition that allowed death or life in prison for the murder of a public official. His arrest and trial caused a sensation and illustrated severe tensions between the liberal population and the city police. The San Francisco Police were mostly working-class Irish descendants who intensely disliked the growing gay immigration as well as the liberal direction of the city government. After White turned himself in and confessed, he sat in his cell while his former colleagues on the police force told Harvey Milk jokes; police openly wore “Free Dan White” T-shirts in the days after the murder. White showed no remorse for his actions, and exhibited vulnerability only during an eight-minute call to his mother from jail.
The jury for White’s trial consisted of white middle-class San Franciscans who were mostly Catholic; gays and ethnic minorities were excused from the jury pool. White’s defense attorney argued that his client was not responsible for his actions, using the legal defense known as diminished capacity, arguing that “Good people, fine people, with fine backgrounds, simply don’t kill people in cold blood” and tried to prove that White’s anguished mental state was a result of manipulation by the politicos in City Hall . He also argued that White’s mental deterioration was exacerbated by his junk food binge the night before the murders, since he was usually known to have been health-food conscious. Area newspapers quickly dubbed it the Twinkie defense. (The “Twinkie defense” has entered American mythology, popularly described as a case where a murderer escapes justice because he binged on junk food.)
White was acquitted of the first degree murder charge on May 21, 1979, but found guilty of voluntary manslaughter of both victims, and he was sentenced to serve seven and two-thirds years. With the sentence reduced for time served and good behavior, he would be released in five. When the verdict was announced, a surge of people from the Castro District walked to City Hall, chanting “Avenge Harvey Milk” and “He got away with murder”. Pandemonium rapidly escalated as rocks were hurled at the front doors of the building. The mob of more than 3,000 lit police cars on fire and shoved a burning newspaper dispenser through the broken doors of City Hall. The White Night riots, as they became known, lasted several hours. Later that evening, several police cruisers filled with officers wearing riot gear arrived at the Elephant Walk Bar on Castro Street. Officers stormed into the bar and began to beat patrons at random. After a 15-minute melee, they left the bar and struck out at people walking along the street. The chief of police finally ordered the officers out of the neighborhood. By morning, 61 police officers and 100 rioters and gay residents of the Castro had been hospitalized. City Hall, police cruisers, and the Elephant Walk Bar suffered damages in excess of $1,000,000.
Dan White served a little more than five years for the double homicide of Moscone and Milk. On October 21, 1985 (a year and a half after his release from prison), White was found dead by carbon monoxide poisoning in a running car in his ex-wife’s garage. He was 39 years old.
In the last year of his life,
Milk emphasized that gay people should be more visible to help to end the discrimination and violence against them. Although Milk had not come out to his mother before her death many years before, in his final statement during his taped prediction of his assassination, he urged others to do so:
“I cannot prevent anyone from getting angry, or mad, or frustrated. I can only hope that they’ll turn that anger and frustration and madness into something positive, so that two, three, four, five hundred will step forward, so the gay doctors will come out, the gay lawyers, the gay judges, gay bankers, gay architects … I hope that every professional gay will say ‘enough’, come forward and tell everybody, wear a sign, let the world know. Maybe that will help.”
The City of San Francisco has paid tribute to Milk by naming several locations after him. Where Market and Castro streets intersect in San Francisco flies an enormous Gay Pride flag, situated in Harvey Milk Plaza. The San Francisco Gay Democratic Club changed its name to the Harvey Milk Memorial Gay Democratic Club in 1978 (it is currently named the Harvey Milk Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender Democratic Club) and boasts that it is the largest Democratic organization in San Francisco. In New York City, Harvey Milk High School is a school program for at-risk youth that concentrates on the needs of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender students and operates out of the Hetrick Martin Institute.
In 1982, freelance reporter Randy Shilts completed his first book: a biography of Milk, titled The Mayor of Castro Street.
The Times of Harvey Milk, a documentary film based on the book’s material, won the 1984 Academy Award for Documentary Feature.
Milk’s life has been the subject of a musical theater production; an eponymous opera; a cantata;a children’s picture book; a French-language historical novel for young-adult readers; and the biopic Milk, released in 2008 after 15 years in the making. The film won two Academy Awards for Best Original Screenplay and Best Actor. It took eight weeks to film, and often used extras who had been present at the actual events for large crowd scenes, including a scene depicting Milk’s “Hope Speech” at the 1978 Gay Freedom Day Parade.
Milk was included in the “Time 100 Heroes and Icons of the 20th Century” as “a symbol of what gays can accomplish and the dangers they face in doing so”.
The Advocate listed Milk third in their “40 Heroes” of the 20th century issue.
Since 2003, the story of Harvey Milk has been featured in three exhibitions created by the GLBT Historical Society, a San Francisco–based museum, archives, and research center, to which the estate of Scott Smith donated Milk’s personal belongings that were preserved after his death.
In August 2009, President Barack Obama posthumously awarded Milk the Presidential Medal of Freedom for his contribution to the gay rights movement stating “he fought discrimination with visionary courage and conviction”. Milk’s nephew Stuart accepted for his uncle. Shortly after, Stuart co-founded the Harvey Milk Foundation with Anne Kronenberg with the support of Desmond Tutu, co-recipient of 2009 Presidential Medal of Freedom and now a member of the Foundation’s Advisory Board. Later in the year, California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger designated May 22 as “Harvey Milk Day”, and inducted Milk in the California Hall of Fame.
In 2012, Milk was inducted into the Legacy Walk, an outdoor public display which celebrates LGBT history and people.
On May 22, 2014, the United States Postal Service issued a postage stamp honoring Harvey Milk, the first openly LGBT political official to receive this honor. The stamp features a photo taken in front of Milk’s Castro Camera store and was unveiled on what would have been his 84th
In July 2016, US Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus advised Congress that he intended to name the second ship of the Military Sealift Command’s John Lewis-class oilers, USNS Harvey Milk. All ships of the class are to be named after civil rights leaders.