"The fact is that more people have been slaughtered in the name of
religion than for any other single reason. That, THAT my friends, is true
- Harvey Milk at a 1978 Gay Freedom Day rally. He was shot and
killed later that year by Dan White.
Harvey Bernard Milk was born May 22, 1930
in Woodmere, Long Island, New York. His given name, was Glimpy Milch. He attended college at Albany State
College in upstate New York and graduated in 1951 with a minor in History and
Major in Mathematics. He joined the Navy upon graduating and served on the U.S.S.
Kittyhawk. He was discharged, after four years in the navy, achieving the rank
of chief petty officer. There is dispute as to whether or not the disclosure of
his homosexuality led to his discharge - while many say he was dishonorably
discharged others say there was no evidence of this.
After the Navy he went back to New York and taught high school history and
math on Long Island, then worked in a finance firm on Wall Street as a
successful investment analyst. His first foray into the political stage was in
1964 when he campaigned for Barry Goldwater for president.
In the late 60's he began to work with his then boyfriend, Jack McKinley, in
the Broadway production of the musical, Hair. This exposure to the late 60's
counterculture began to make him take more notice of political issues, the gay
community, and began to erode his conservative background. He traveled with the
company, eventually taking a job in San Francisco as an analyst until 1969 when
his relationship with McKinley ended. He returned to New York.
He returned to the Broadway environment and eventually began seeing Joseph
Scott Smith. He and Smith moved to San Fransisco in 1972 where they opened up a
"Castro Camera" at 575 Castro Street. At the time the area was more
known for cheap housing than the Gay Mecca as it is more commonly referred to
He began his political career in 1973 when he ran for the Board of Supervisors. This first attempt was unsuccessful, but he did pull 17,000
and this encouraged him to continue.
Milk started his political campaigning as an openly gay man during a time
when homosexuality was still considered a mental illness and a "crime
against nature" by many. Admitting to it could, depending on the area,
entitle one to public humiliation, institutionalization, or up to ten years imprisonment under backward city and state laws. He was
out to make a point.
His dealings had taught him that, despite the sanctioned discrimination
against gay Americans at the time, political power could come by unifying groups
under a fiscal banner. Local merchant organizations wielded political clout in
many ethnic neighborhoods in San Francisco so he used this as a template for
building the CVA (Castro Village Association of local merchants). This united
front allowed them to become a force of some influence. His work led to people
calling him "the Mayor of Castro Street" - a title that he used
abundantly to make himself thought of as an integral part of the political
spectrum in San Francisco.
Milk believed strongly that coming out was the responsibility of every gay
man and woman. He knew that, by staying in the closet, gay Americans were giving
the government and populace the power to keep them there. By showing the public
that homosexuals were in all parts of the social structure he knew that, by
coming out, homosexuals would cease to be an invisible minority. His thought was
not to force people to respect homosexuals but to respect the right to be
homosexual. He saw the incongruity of the constitution guaranteeing "life,
liberty and the pursuit of happiness" and separation of church and
while sanctioning discrimination and persecution of Gay Americans - simply
because they were gay.
As a politician he went from being a "gay politician" to a
politician who just happened to be gay - and that was a huge step for the time.
He ran unsuccessfully again in 1975 and finished seventh. This did not stop
his ambitions. Milk's words and political clout among San Francisco associations
eventually led to his appointment in 1976 to the Board of Permit Appeals by
Mayor George Moscone and made him the first openly gay city commissioner in the
He was fired when he ran for a vacant State Assembly position against the wishes of
the state democratic party and lost the election to Art Agnos.
In 1977 he ran again for City supervisor and won.
He is credited for a few ordinances the most notable being the passage of an
ordinance protecting people from being fired from their jobs simply for the "crime" of being homosexual. It passed by a vote
of 9 to 1 with the one dissenting vote coming from Dan White who fought it vehemently.
In 1978 he also worked successfully to fight California Proposition 6 that
would require the state of California to fire any teacher found guilty of
"public homosexual conduct". The proposition was rejected.
Milk's conflicts in with fellow supervisor Dan White eventually lead to Dan's
resignation from the board of supervisors with the excuse that he could not live
on the salary allotted to City Supervisors. The Police Officers association and
Board of Realtors encouraged Dan to reconsider his resignation and offered to
help him financially. White returned to George Moscone and asked him to re-appoint
him to the board. Moscone made it little secret that he did not intend on
reappointing White to the position.
On Monday, November 27th, 1978, Dan White loaded a .38 revolver and snuck in
through a basement window into City Hall. He shot George Moscone in the chest,
then in the head while he lay on the floor. He then went to Harvey Milk's
office, asked him to speak privately, then shot Milk in the chest and the head
as he had done Mayor Moscone.
White's defense, now called "The Twinkie Defense", was that he
suffered from depression and had eaten too much junk food that clouded his
reason- causing temporary insanity. The jury, swayed by his ex-cop status, good
qualities and "moral" standings, accepted this defense and came back
with a verdict in less than a half hour.
White was convicted of manslaughter, a far cry from the first-degree murder
On May 21, 1979, the manslaughter conviction and sentence -seven years and
eight months in Soledad State Prison- turned a protest at City Hall into a
riot. The White Night Riot was the first gay riot since the Stonewall Riots
in New York ten years before. The police retaliated with an unprovoked attack on
the Castro district. They injured many gay people and the Elephant Walk bar was
nearly destroyed. Its owners sued the city and were reimbursed for all damages
White killed himself on October 21, 1985, less than two years after being
Harvey Milk was the first openly gay man to hold an influential public office,
but he was more than a public official- that just happened to be gay. He was not
naïve about the world or of his status in it, and understood the need for
homosexuals to become a visible force to influence their own destinies, only
from a visible place could they become a voice for change. They must come out -
for the sake of all, not just the individual. The closeted life was a lie that
had to be shattered.
He wanted the simple acknowledgement that homosexuals were human beings -
not deviants, not perverts, potential child molesters, or a people undeserving
of the same freedoms and rights enjoyed by their straight counterparts. He
strove to show that being gay was as much of a choice as skin color or eye
color. Being gay was something that one was, not what one had chosen. He wanted
all closet doors shattered and the truth to come out for the good of
all. This was how he lived his life and this was the life he envisioned
for those that would follow.
The man appointed to replace Harvey Milk, Harry Britt, was the only
incumbent to win in the City election after the killings. He too was a
politician who just happened to be gay.
...Every gay person must come out. As difficult as it is, you must
tell your immediate family. You must tell your relatives. You must tell your
friends, if indeed they are your friends. You must tell your neighbors. You must
tell the people you work with. You must tell the people in the stores you shop
in. Once they realize we are indeed their children, we are indeed
every myth, every lie, every innuendo, will be destroyed once and for all. And
once... once you do, you will feel so much better.
References and further reading:
Randy Shilts, (1982), The Mayor of Castro Street: The Life and Times of Harvey Milk , New York: St. Martin's Press
http://www.hicom.net/~oedipus/milk.html ("The Forgotten Populist" This is an amazing reference describing Milk's political views and processes- great info here)