Harvey Milk, a native of Long Island, New York, served in the U.S. Navy before working at a Wall Street investment firm. Keeping his homosexuality a secret at first, Milk became more openly gay through his exposure to New York City’s bohemian theater scene. After moving to San Francisco in the early 1970s, Milk established himself as a leading political activist for the gay community. Winning a seat on the city’s Board of Supervisors, he emerged as one of the country’s preeminent openly gay elected officials, spearheading an important anti-discrimination measure. Milk was murdered in November 1978 by a former colleague, Dan White.
Harvey Milk, Class Clown
Harvey Bernard Milk was born on May 22, 1930, in Woodmere, New York. The second son of William and Minerva Milk, he came from a family with prominent ties to the community: His Lithuanian-born grandfather Morris owned Milk’s Dry Goods, which became the largest department store on Long Island, and had helped organize the area’s first synagogue.
Milk realized he was gay at an early age, and reportedly was indulging his desires with illicit trysts by his early teens. However, he also knew full well the need to conceal any signs that would raise suspicion, such as his love of opera. Milk’s cover was helped by his athleticism—he played football and basketball at Bayshore High School—and a quick comic wit that made him popular among classmates.
Milk enrolled at the New York State College for Teachers at Albany, where he joined the Jewish fraternity Kappa Beta and became sports editor of the school paper. After graduating with a mathematics degree in 1951, he followed in his parents’ footsteps and enlisted in the Navy.
Milk went on to attend Officer Candidate School in Newport, Rhode Island, and served as a diving instructor and chief petty officer aboard U.S.S. Kittiwake during the Korean War until his honorable discharge in 1955.
Well compensated and politically conservative—he campaigned for Republican presidential hopeful Barry Goldwater in 1964—the straight-laced Milk was content to live a closeted life in those days. However, after he befriended experimental theater director Tom O’Horgan, Milk eventually became involved with a more progressive, avant-garde crowd.
After his lover joined an O’Horgan-directed production of “Hair” in San Francisco, Milk moved to the Bay Area in 1969. A financial analyst by day, he joined friends to march in protests of the Vietnam War while enjoying the city’s thriving gay social scene after hours.
Mayor of Castro Street
Milk moved back to San Francisco for good in late 1972, and within a few months he opened a camera shop on Castro Street, the heart of the gay community. Partly inspired by what he viewed as an unfair tax on small businesses, he decided to run for a seat on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors in 1973.
Milk was spurned by much of the city’s more influential gay electorate, who felt the outspoken New Yorker should tone down his act and wait his turn. Still, he garnered 17,000 votes to finish a respectable 10th out of 32 candidates, providing a reason to continue his political efforts. Milk co-founded the Castro Village Association to unite gay business owners, and launched the inaugural Castro Street Fair in 1974.
Additionally, Milk forged an alliance with the Teamsters Union by supporting a boycott of Coors beer, and the union returned the favor by promising to hire more gay drivers. With his charisma, energy and natural political skills, Milk was soon known as the “Mayor of Castro Street.”
After coming up short in another bid for the Board of Supervisors in 1975, Milk landed a post in new Mayor George Moscone‘s administration on the Board of Permit Appeals. However, he was forced out after announcing his candidacy for the California State Assembly, which led to another campaign defeat.
Supervisor Harvey Milk
Undaunted by his election losses, Milk founded the San Francisco Gay Democratic Club to garner more political support, and successfully pushed for a reorganization of the Board of Supervisors election from a citywide, at-large format to a geographical district format.
Returning to the campaign trail in 1977, he sought to broaden his appeal beyond the gay community through promises to reform the tax code to boost industry, create low-income housing and establish day care centers for working mothers.
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That November, in an historic election that also saw the first Chinese American and the first African American woman elected to the city’s Board of Supervisors, Milk became one of the country’s first openly gay elected officials.
Gay Rights Legislation
Demonstrating his penchant for courting publicity, Milk co-sponsored a “pooper-scooper” ordinance that required dog owners to clean up after their pets.
As supervisor, he also dove into more personal matters by spearheading a bill to ban discrimination in employment, housing and public accommodations based on sexual orientation, one of the nation’s strongest gay-rights measures to date.
The ordinance passed with only one dissenting vote—that of Supervisor Dan White—and Mayor Moscone signed the measure into law on March 21, 1978.
Following California State Senator John Briggs’s introduction of the Proposition 6 ballot initiative, which sought to ban gay teachers and anyone supporting gay rights from working in California schools, Milk spent much of the summer and fall of 1978 campaigning against the initiative.
He drew the support of several political luminaries, including President Jimmy Carter and former California Governor Ronald Reagan, and Prop 6 was soundly defeated by more than 1 million votes in November.
Dan White and the “Twinkie Defense”
On November 27, 1978, the former Supervisor Dan White crept into City Hall through a basement window, armed with a .38 revolver. White had resigned his post just months earlier, and had unsuccessfully asked that he be reinstated.
Angered that his hope of returning to the Board was denied, he confronted and killed Mayor Moscone, then strode across the building to Milk’s office, where he murdered his former colleague with five shots.
White was quickly apprehended, and that night, tens of thousands of Milk supporters marched to City Hall for a peaceful candlelight vigil. At the subsequent trial, the defense argued that White was operating under severe mental distress due to the loss of his job, citing his junk-food diet as evidence of diminished morale.
The strategy was derided as the “Twinkie Defense,” but his situation seemed to strike a chord with the jury. On May 21, 1979, White was sentenced to less than eight years in prison for voluntary manslaughter.
This time, the reaction was far less peaceful: Outraged protesters stormed City Hall and set police cars on fire, and the SFPD responded by smashing up gay bars and beating patrons. All told, at least 120 people, including some 60 policemen, were injured in what was dubbed the “White Night Riots.”
Legacy: Harvey Milk Day
Although he spent less than a year in office, Milk’s brief time in the public eye marked an important stepping stone in the battle for gay rights. His story became known to wider audiences through Randy Shilts’s 1982 biography, “The Mayor of Castro Street,” and Rob Epstein’s 1984 Oscar-winning documentary, “The Times of Harvey Milk.”
Additionally, more elected officials, including Massachusetts Congressman Gerry Studds and Barney Frank, came forth to acknowledge their homosexuality during this period.
In subsequent years, Milk’s name was attached to a series of schools, buildings and public centers throughout California. He was the subject of another acclaimed film in 2008, with actor Sean Penn and screenwriter Dustin Lance Black earning Academy Awards for their contributions to director Gus Van Sant’s biography, “Milk.”
In 2009, the activist’s May 22 birthday was formally recognized in California as Harvey Milk Day, and he was posthumously honored with the Presidential Medal of Freedom by Barack Obama.
The United States Navy, in recognition of Milk’s years with the Navy and his civil-rights activism, announced that a naval fleet oiler would be christened the USNS Harvey Milk. Other ships in that class will be named after Supreme Court Justice Earl Warren, Robert F. Kennedy and abolitionist Sojourner Truth.