Harvey Milk, the first openly gay elected official in the history of California, takes his place on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors on January 8, 1978. The first and, for years, most visible openly gay politician in America, Milk was a longtime activist and pioneering leader of San Francisco’s LGBT community.
After serving in the Navy during the Korean War, Milk held several white-collar jobs in New York City. Initially conservative and reluctant to advocate for gay rights, Milk’s views changed around the time he and his then-partner opened a camera shop on Castro Street, the heart of the San Francisco’s LGBT community, in 1973.
Like many business owners and citizens of the largely-gay Castro District, Milk was harassed by police and local officials. Realizing the community’s burning desire to challenge the status quo, he decided to run for the city’s Board of Supervisors shortly after opening his store. Despite alienating many Democrats, including other gay activists, with his bombastic language and flower-child persona, he won the Castro district handily and came in 10 out of 32 candidates. Though he did not win his race, Milk established himself as a highly effective speaker and organizer. Over the next several years, he partnered with unions and other marginalized groups, creating coalitions that fought for everyday San Franciscans and educating the public about the plight of the LGBT community. Due to these efforts, as well as his own talent for self-promotion, Milk became known as the Mayor of Castro Street.
Milk cleaned up his image, started wearing suits, and swore off marijuana as his political ambitions grew. He argued in favor of free public transportation, public oversight of the police, and other street-level political causes. Still, Milk and the Castro’s rise to power coincided with the rise of anti-gay reactionaries like Anita Bryant, and Milk understood both the power and the danger of his position as de facto leader of the largest gay community in America. Fearing assassination, he took to recording his thoughts, including a sadly prescient one: “If a bullet should enter my brain, let that bullet destroy every closet door.”
Finally, in 1977, Milk was elected to the Board of Supervisors to represent his beloved Castro. His first act was to introduce a bill outlawing discrimination based on sexual orientation, which Mayor George Moscone signed into law with a pen Milk had given him. On the ninth anniversary of the Stonewall Riots, shortly after his partner committed suicide and in the face of conservative backlash across the country, Milk addressed San Francisco’s gay pride parade, beginning with his catchphrase “My name is Harvey Milk and I’m here to recruit you” and ending with a message of “Hope for a better world, hope for a better tomorrow, hope for a better place to come to if the pressures at home are too great.”
The following November, 75 percent of California voters rejected a referendum that would have allowed schools to fire teachers for being homosexual. The vote represented California’s rejection of Bryant’s “family values” campaign, but the victory for the LGBT community was short-lived. On November 27, Milk and Moscone were assassinated in City Hall by Dan White, a disgruntled former supervisor who had been the only one to vote against Milk’s civil rights bill. Mourning and riots throughout San Francisco followed news of the assassinations and White’s subsequent conviction for manslaughter rather than murder.
A plaza in the Castro and Terminal One of San Francisco International Airport were both renamed in Milk’s honor. In 2009, President Barack Obama posthumously awarded Milk the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and California declared his birthday, May 22, Harvey Milk Day. On the 50th anniversary of Stonewall in 2019, Milk was an inaugural inductee onto the National LGBTQ Wall of Honor.
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