22 May 1930 – 27 November 1978
"If a bullet should enter my brain, let that bullet destroy every closet door." Harvey Milk
Harvey Milk was born in Woodmere, New York, on Long Island, not too far from where JFK International Airport is located. In 1951 he graduated from the State University of NY at Albany and then joined the U.S. Navy where he served in active duty in the Korean War. After four years of service, he was honorably discharged, but always claimed that he was part of the all too frequent anti-gay "clean-ups" conducted by the U.S. military. Throughout his life, Harvey wore a brass belt buckle showing the Navy insignia.
After leaving the Navy in 1955, Harvey lived in Dallas and then in New York City where he first worked as an investment banker on Wall Street, not far from where the World Trade Center would be constructed from 1966 to 1973. Harvey also worked in theater and is credited as associate producer for a number of productions including the musicals Hair and Jesus Christ Superstar.
In 1972, Harvey moved, with his partner to San Francisco where they opened up a camera shop at 575 Castro Street, in the famous Castro Street gay ghetto. Harvey distinguished himself as a community leader and became spokesperson for the neighborhood’s businesses in their dealings with city government. He launched the first Castro Street Fair in 1974.
In 1977, in his third attempt, Harvey ran for the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. He convinced gays, lesbians, seniors and various ethnic minorities, that they could have a voice in city government. Some gays showed their backing by creating "human billboards" at busy intersections. They were willing to do for Harvey what so many feared doing; they were "outing" themselves to get him elected.
Third time lucky, in 1977, Harvey finally won. He was the first openly gay male elected official in the United States. As Supervisor, he represented District 5, which included the gay Castro Street Village. Needless to say, the gay community was ecstatic to witness their delegate’s historical triumph. On election evening, Harvey spoke to his supporters: "This is not my victory -- it's yours. If a gay man can win, it proves that there is hope for all minorities who are willing to fight."
During his eleven months as a Supervisor, Harvey championed a gay rights bill for the City of San Francisco which was the very first gay rights legislation in the U.S. In November of 1978, he also was a key figure in defeating California’s Proposition 6, which would have permitted the outright firing of openly gay and lesbian teachers based on their sexual orientation. Not only was Harvey fighting hard for the gay community and winning, he showed, back in 1977, that you could be gay and "out" and be a successful public figure. And yes he did have quite a sense of humor, "Never take an elevator in city hall," he once quipped to his boyfriend, "The marble staircase affords a grander entrance." His instincts told him that gay progress would come through gay visibility. Ironically, it was at this time, that former pop singer, and orange juice queen, Anita Bryant, was conducting her anti-gay crusade across America.
Dan White was a disgruntled former City Supervisor who had quit his job in opposition to the recent passage of Milk's gay rights ordinance. Shortly after, he asked Mayor George Moscone, for his job back but was refused. Believing that Mayor Moscone and Harvey Milk were responsible for his hard times, Dan White was angry and bitter. On November 27th, 1978, armed with a gun, White snuck into City Hall by crawling through a basement window. He then climbed the stairs to Mayor Moscone’s office. Once inside, White, asked Mayor Moscone again if he could be re-appointed to the Board of Supervisors. When Moscone said no, the conversation turned ugly. Realizing he would not get what he wanted, White suddenly pulled out a revolver and shot the mayor twice in the abdomen and then twice more in the head, killing him.
Dan White then went to Harvey Milk's office on the opposite side of City Hall. There, White shot Harvey Milk at point blank range; three times in the chest, once in the back and then twice in the head. White fled as chaos reigned at city hall. He later turned himself in at a police precinct where he’d formerly worked as a cop. In his confession he insisted that his actions had not been premeditated.
Thousands of San Franciscans attended a candlelight vigil the night of Harvey Milk's funeral. Milk had foreseen the possibility of his assassination and had recorded several audio messages to be played in that event. One of these included the words, "If a bullet should enter my brain, let that bullet destroy every closet door."
During jury selection, White’s lawyers eliminated anyone they deemed "pro-gay." During the trial, they brought in a psychologist to testify that Dan White had been in a state of depression which led him to consume too much junk food and it was that, which had led to the shootings. This was dubbed, "The Twinkie Defense."
For two cold blooded murders, White was convicted, not of premeditated murder as had been expected, but only of voluntary manslaughter. He was subsequently sentenced to a mere seven years and eight months in prison. Everyone knew that the sentence was not only a mockery of justice, but also of the gay and lesbian community.
As soon as the verdict was heard, exasperated and outraged gays headed for City Hall and by 8:00 p.m., there was a sizable crowd gathered. They started yelling at police officers and denouncing the injustice of the verdict. Riots broke out with the demonstrators setting several police cars on fire, blocking traffic and breaking store and car windows. The angry protesters ripped down the overhead wires of busses and assaulted police officers. This night of gay rage on May 21st, 1979, would become known as the White Night Riots.
Many were arrested but San Francisco chief of police emphasized that no one was dead and only a few had minor injuries. In truth, more than 160 people were hospitalized because of injuries incurred during the rioting.
In 1984, the life of Harvey Milk was shown in a gem of an Academy Award-winning documentary called, The Times of Harvey Milk. The film was narrated by the renowned, gay playwright and actor of Torch Song Trilogy fame, Harvey Fierstein. Also in 1984, a book biography of Milk by Randy Shilts entitled, "The Mayor of Castro Street," was published. More recently, the biographical film Milk (2008) made a considerable stir in the movie industry. It was directed by Gus Van Sant; its screenplay was written by Dustin Lance Black and it starred Sean Penn as Harvey Milk. The laster two won Oscars for their work. It had been nominated for a total of eight Academy Awards.
Harvey Milk is remembered as a martyr for gays and the gay rights movement everywhere. He was one of the greatest catalysts for coming out and seizing power that the movement has ever known. He demonstrated the importance of gay people in public leadership roles as opposed to just getting by with non-gay friends of the community as our voices in government. On October 14th, 1979, the year following Harvey Milk’s killing, 100,000 people marched in the First Gay March on Washington in support of gay civil rights, with many chanting "Harvey Milk Lives". Harvey Milk was chosen by Time Magazine as one of the hundred most important people of the 20th century. To this day, every year, on the date of his assassination, November 27th, an evening candlelight walk on Market Street serves as a reminder that he is still very much loved and remembered.