Harvey Milk, left, with Mayor George Moscone in 1977.
Credit: Associated Press
Soon after Harvey Milk was elected to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors in 1977—the first openly gay politician in a major public office—he sponsored two bills. The first outlawed discrimination based on sexual orientation. Milk was responding to his core constituency, San Francisco’s gay community, which had endured years of bigotry from employers, landlords, and other institutions. The second bill dealt with an issue that, according to polls, voters considered the number one problem in the city: dog feces. Milk’s ordinance, called the "pooper scooper" law, required dog owners to scoop up their pets’ excrement. After it passed, Milk invited the press to a local park, where, with cameras rolling, he intentionally stepped in the smelly substance. The stunt attracted national media attention as well as extensive local press coverage, as Milk had anticipated. He later explained why he pulled off the photo op: "All over the country, they’re reading about me, and the story doesn’t center on me being gay. It’s just about a gay person who is doing his job."
Milk was a flamboyant personality, but he was also a serious and brilliant politician. After his election, he was the most visible gay public figure in America. At a time when homophobia was still deeply entrenched in American culture, Milk encouraged gays and lesbians to come out of the closet. He received thousands of letters from gays around the country, thanking him for being a role model. "I thank God," wrote a sixty-eight-year-old lesbian, "I have lived long enough to see my kind emerge from the shadows and join the human race."
Milk knew that to win elections and pass legislation, he had to build bridges with other constituencies and with his straight colleagues on the Board of Supervisors. He cultivated support from tenants’ groups, the elderly, small businesses, environmentalists, and labor unions.
Milk forged an unlikely alliance with the Teamsters union, which represented truck drivers. The Teamsters wanted to pressure beer distributors to sign a contract with the union to improve pay and working conditions for its members. They were particularly angry at Coors, which, of all the beer companies, was the most hostile toward unions. A Teamsters organizer approached Milk for help in reaching out to gay bars, a big portion of Coors’s customer base. Within days, Milk had canvassed the gay bars in and around the heavily gay Castro District, encouraging them to stopping selling Coors beer. With help from Arab and Chinese grocers, the gay boycott of Coors was successful. Milk had earned a political ally among the Teamsters. At Milk’s urging, the union also began to recruit more gay truck drivers.
A decade earlier, Milk had been a Wall Street analyst who had voted for conservative Republican presidential candidate Barry Goldwater in 1964. Milk’s story—his personal transformation, his meteoric rise to political influence, and his tragic murder less than a year after taking office—reflects the merging of a man and a movement.
Milk grew up in a middle-class Jewish family on Long Island outside New York City. In high school he played football and developed a passion for opera. He graduated from college in 1951 with a degree in math. Although he knew he was homosexual while he was still a teenager, he kept it secret. A college friend recalled, "He was never thought of as a possible queer—that’s what you called them then—he was a man’s man." After college Milk joined the navy for four years, serving as a diving officer aboard a submarine rescue ship during the Korean War. He was discharged in 1955 with the rank of lieutenant, junior grade.
For the next fifteen years, Milk drifted, taking a series of jobs for which he had little enthusiasm. He taught high school, then worked as a statistician for an insurance company and as an analyst for a Wall Street brokerage firm. During that period he had a number of homosexual relationships.
One of Milk’s long-term lovers was a successful director of countercultural 1960s Broadway plays, including Jesus Christ Superstar and Hair. He got Milk a job helping produce several plays, and Milk started hanging out with theater people and artists. He left Wall Street behind, let his hair grow long, traded his suits for jeans, and became part of the hippie subculture.
In 1972 Milk and his new partner, Scott Smith, joined the exodus of hippies and gays migrating to San Francisco. The city had long been a haven for nonconformists and bohemians. The 1950s beatnik scene, with its overlapping circles of radicals and folk music devotees, morphed into the hippie culture of the 1960s, centered in San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury neighborhood. After World War II, San Francisco had become a mecca for gay men. By the 1960s it had more gay people per capita than any other American city and a thriving gay scene of bars, businesses, and bathhouses. The Castro District became the city’s gay ghetto, but the official culture still reflected mainstream antipathy toward gays. For example, landlords could legally evict tenants whom they discovered to be homosexual.
As their numbers grew, gays became a political force in the city. Two organizations—the Society for Individual Rights and the Daughters of Bilitis—began challenging the police department’s arbitrary and sometimes brutal persecution of gay bars and entrapment of gays having sex in public parks. In 1971, 2,800 gay men were arrested for having sex in public restrooms and parks. That year, Richard Hongisto, a straight ex-cop who had fought the police department’s bias against gays and minorities, ran successfully for county sheriff with the support of the gay community. Other liberal politicians began to court gay and lesbian support. Key gay leaders, including the publisher of the gay newspaper the Advocate, started the Alice B. Toklas Democratic Club in 1971 to mobilize gay voters.
Milk lived as an openly gay man, but he was not part of this early wave of gay activism. He and Smith had opened Castro Camera. The store’s back room became a gathering place for Milk’s widening circle of friends. He frequently complained about taxes on small businesses, underfunded schools (which he learned about when a teacher asked to borrow a projector because her school’s equipment did not work), and ongoing discrimination against gays by employers, landlords, and cops. In 1973 Milk decided to run for supervisor. "I finally reached the point where I knew I had to become involved or shut up," he recalled.
Milk, who still looked like an aging hippie, ran a spirited but low-budget and chaotic campaign, drawing on patrons of gay bars angry about police harassment. His fiery speeches and flare attracted media attention, and he garnered 16,900 votes—winning the Castro District and other liberal neighborhoods, finishing tenth out of thirty-two candidates. It was not enough to win the citywide campaign, but it made Milk a visible presence.
Milk and other gay business owners founded the Castro Village Association, which chose Milk as its president. He also organized the Castro Street Fair to attract more customers to the area. By then, Milk had started referring to himself as the "mayor of Castro Street."
Milk ran a better campaign for supervisor in 1975. He cut his hair, wore suits, and stopped smoking marijuana (although he favored its legalization). His community organizing paid off. He had more money and more volunteers. Thanks to his work on the Coors boycott, he earned the support of key unions. This time he came in seventh, one spot away from winning a supervisor’s seat.
Milk remained involved in grassroots gay activism, which was facing a backlash by the Religious Right across the country. The growing antigay climate had real consequences. Random attacks on gays in the Castro increased. Upset by the lack of police protection, groups of gays began patrolling the neighborhood themselves. On June 21, 1977, thugs attacked Robert Hillsborough, a gay man, yelling "Faggot!" while stabbing him fifteen times, killing him. A few weeks later, 250,000 people attended the Gay Freedom Day Parade, fueled by anger as well as by gay pride.
Milk’s leadership in these mobilizations, plus his previous campaigns, gave him an advantage when he ran again for supervisor in 1977. Equally important, voters had just approved a city charter change to elect supervisors by geographic districts instead of citywide. The new District 5, centered in the Castro area, was Milk’s home base. That November, Milk was finally elected to the Board of Supervisors, beating sixteen other candidates, half of them gay. This time he had an effective campaign manager, a large cadre of volunteers, and the endorsement of the San Francisco Chronicle.
Milk’s victory made national news. He was not the first openly gay candidate to win public office. Voters in Massachusetts, Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Michigan had already elected gay and lesbian candidates. But Milk’s victory, winning a powerful high-profile position in the nation’s gay capital, made him an instant national figure. He compared himself to Jackie Robinson, the black baseball pioneer.
Milk became Mayor George Moscone’s closest ally. They challenged the power of the big corporations and real estate developers that were gentrifying the city and changing its skyline. They supported rent control, unions, small businesses, neighborhood organizations, and a tax on suburban commuters. He made sure that he responded to constituency concerns, such as fixing potholes and installing stop signs at dangerous intersections.
Milk garnered headlines for sponsoring the antidiscrimination ordinance and the pooper scooper law. But much of Milk’s eleven months in office—before he and Moscone were assassinated—was spent organizing opposition to a statewide referendum sponsored by State Senator John Briggs to ban gays from teaching in public schools. Milk went up and down California speaking out against the initiative. He debated Briggs on television. He crashed Briggs’s events, generating media stories. When Briggs claimed that gay teachers abused their students, Milk countered with statistics documenting that most pedophiles were straight, not gay.
Opposition to the Briggs initiative mobilized gays and their liberal allies. They knocked on doors, wrote letters to the editor, and paid for TV and radio ads. More than a quarter of a million people attended that summer’s Gay Freedom Day Parade in San Francisco. (Similar events in other cities attracted record numbers.) Milk rode in an open car and later gave an inspiring speech that, according to the San Francisco Examiner, "ignited the crowd." He said:
On this anniversary of Stonewall, I ask my gay sisters and brothers to make the commitment to fight. For themselves, for their freedom, for their country…. We will not win our rights by staying quietly in our closets…. We are coming out to fight the lies, the myths, the distortions. We are coming out to tell the truths about gays! I’m tired of the silence. So I’m going to talk about it. And I want you to talk about it…. You must come out…. Come out to your parents, your relatives…. Come out to your friends.
On November 7, 1978, Briggs’s initiative lost by more than a million votes, with 58 percent of voters—and 75 percent in San Francisco—opposing it. It was a stunning victory for the gay community, and Milk was its most visible leader.
Twenty days later, Milk and Moscone were dead. On November 27, former supervisor Dan White, carrying a gun, climbed into city hall through a basement window and shot both public officials. White had represented one of the city’s more conservative neighborhoods and was the only supervisor to oppose Milk’s antidiscrimination ordinance. Frustrated by his marginalization on the board, he abruptly resigned on November 10, only ten months after being sworn in. He quickly changed his mind and asked Moscone to reappoint him to his old position. Moscone refused to do so, in part because of Milk’s lobbying against White.
White was charged with first-degree murder, making him eligible for the death penalty. A conviction seemed a slam dunk. But White’s lawyer claimed that he was not responsible for his actions because of his mental state, which the lawyer termed "diminished capacity." On May 21, 1979, a jury acquitted White of the first-degree murder charge but found him guilty of voluntary manslaughter. He was sentenced to seven years in prison. The verdict triggered riots outside city hall as gays and their allies unleashed their fury.
Milk had anticipated his murder. Since his high-profile Assembly campaign, he had received many hate letters and death threats. He recorded his thoughts on tape, indicating who he wanted to succeed him if he were killed, saying, "If a bullet should enter my brain, let that bullet destroy every closet door." He added, "I would like to see every gay lawyer, every gay architect come out, stand up and let the world know. That would do more to end prejudice overnight than anybody could imagine. I urge them to do that, urge them to come out. Only that way will we start to achieve our rights."
The 2008 film Milk, which won Academy Awards for best actor (Sean Penn) and best original screenplay, triggered renewed and broad interest in Milk’s life and legacy. In 2009 the California legislature established Milk’s birthday, May 22, as Harvey Milk Day throughout the state. That year, too, 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."
When Milk began his political career, the nation’s laws and public attitudes still did not accept homosexuality as legitimate. His charisma and political savvy helped unleash the power of gay voters and advance the issue of gay rights, including the growing number of gay and lesbian elected officials and widening acceptance of same-sex marriage.
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Elected in 1977 to the San Francisco board of supervisors, Harvey Milk was the first openly gay politician to hold office in a major American city.
(born May 22, 1930, Woodmere, Long Island, N.Y., U.S.—died Nov. 27, 1978, San Francisco, Calif.) U.S. political leader. After graduating from colle
(1930–1978) I’m tired of the conspiracy of silence. Born into a wealthy family in Long Island, New York, Harvey Milk served in the...