Harvey Milk (1930-1978), a San Francisco city politician, helped open the door for gays and lesbians in the United States by bringing civil rights for homosexuals, among many other issues, to the political table. Since Milk's murder in 1978, he has remained a symbol of activism.
Although there are still relatively few openly gay politicians in the United States, their numbers would be even fewer had it not been for Harvey Milk. His 1977 election to San Francisco's Board of Supervisors brought a message of hope to gays and lesbians across the country. Milk served as a city supervisor for less than a year before being murdered along with Mayor George Moscone by a rival politician, but he was instrumental in bringing the gay rights agenda to the attention of the American public. Milk was not a one-issue politician, however. For him, gay issues were merely one part of an overall human rights perspective. During his tragically short political career, Milk battled for a wide range of social reforms in such areas as education, public transportation, child-care, and low-income housing. Milk's murder—and the surprisingly light sentence his killer received by virtue of the famous "Twinkie Defense"—made him a martyr to members of gay communities throughout the United States.
Harvey Bernard Milk was born on May 22, 1930 in Woodmere, New York, a town on Long Island. His grandfather, an immigrant from Lithuania, had worked his way up from a simple peddler to owner of a respected department store. Milk's father, William, was also involved in the retail clothing trade. By his early teens, Milk was already aware of his homosexuality, but he chose to keep it to himself. In high school, he was active in sports, and was considered a class clown. He also developed a passion for opera, and would frequently go alone to the Metropolitan Opera House.
Tried Hand at Several Careers
Following his graduation in 1947, Milk entered New York State College for Teachers in Albany. He received his college degree in 1951. Three months later, Milk joined the navy. He served as a chief petty officer on a submarine rescue ship during the Korean War, and eventually reached the rank of junior lieutenant before his honorable discharge in 1955. Returning to New York, Milk took a job teaching high school. By this time, Milk was living openly with his lover, Joe Campbell, though he still kept his homosexuality hidden from his family. After a couple of years, Milk became disenchanted with teaching. He tried his hand at a number of other occupations before landing a job with the Wall Street investment firm Bache and Company in 1963. At Bache, Milk discovered that he had a knack for finance and investment, and his ascent of the corporate ladder was swift.
In spite of his unconventional lifestyle, Milk's political and social values were conservative through the early 1960s. He even campaigned for Barry Goldwater in the 1964 presidential election. As the decade progressed, however, his views gradually began to change. Milk's new romantic interest, Jack Galen McKinley, worked in theater, and through him Milk became involved as well. He was particularly interested in the experimental work of director Tom O'Horgan. Since the presence of gays in the theater world was very visible, Milk began to come to terms more completely with his homosexual identity. At the same time, his overall world view began to evolve into a more left-leaning, countercultural one.
In 1968 McKinley was hired as stage director for O'Horgan's San Francisco production of the musical Hair. Milk decided to move with McKinley to California, where he got a job as a financial analyst. Eventually, the conflict between his personal and professional lives became to much for Milk. During a 1970 protest of the American invasion of Cambodia, Milk burned his BankAmericard in front of a crowd of people. He was fired from his job later that day. His ties to mainstream life now broken, Milk returned to New York and theater work. By this time, he was sporting the long-hair and a beard, and looked more or less like an aging hippie. In 1972 he moved with his new partner, Scott Smith, back to San Francisco. The pair opened a camera shop on Castro Street, in the heart of what was emerging as the city's most recognizably gay neighborhood.
Pushed toward Politics by Watergate
Milk entered the political arena for the first time in 1973. Angered by the Watergate scandal and by a variety of local issues, he decided to run for a spot on the Board of Supervisors, San Francisco's city council. Using the gay community as his base of support, Milk sought to forge a populist coalition with other disenfranchised groups, including several of the city's diverse ethnic groups. His campaign slogan, "Milk has something for everybody," reflected this approach. Of the 32 candidates in the race, Milk came in tenth, not a bad showing for a long-haired, openly gay Jewish man with no political experience and relatively meager campaign funds. Though he lost the election, he gained enough support to put him on the city's political map. Because of his popularity in his own largely gay district, he became known as the "Mayor of Castro Street."
Milk spent much of the next year preparing for his next election campaign. He cultivated a more mainstream look and gave up smoking marijuana. He also revitalized the Castro Village Association as a powerful civic organization, and launched the popular Castro Street Fair. In addition, he conducted a voter registration drive that brought 2,000 new voters onto the rolls, and he began writing a newspaper column for the Bay Area Reporter.
Milk ran for supervisor again in 1975, this time wearing a suit and short hair. Although he gained the support of several important labor unions, he lost again, this time placing seventh, just behind the six incumbents. In recognition of Milk's growing power base, however, newly-elected Mayor George Moscone appointed Milk to the Board of Permit Appeals, his first public office. After just a few weeks, however, Milk announced his intention to run for the state assembly. That disclosure led to his removal from his city post. Running against the entrenched Democratic party apparatus on the campaign theme "Harvey Milk vs. the Machine," Milk lost yet again, by a mere 4,000 votes. By this time, however, he had established a formidable political machine of his own, the San Francisco Gay Democratic Club. In 1977, on his third try, Milk was finally elected to the Board of Supervisors, becoming the first openly gay elected official in the city's history.
Emphasized Neighborhood and Individual Rights
Several key themes characterized Milk's successful campaign, as well as his short tenure as a city official. One was his demand that government be responsive to the needs of individuals. Another was his ongoing emphasis on gay rights. A third theme was the fight to preserve the distinctive character of the city's neighborhoods. As city supervisor, Milk was the driving force behind the passage of a gay-rights ordinance that prohibited discrimination in housing and employment based on sexual orientation. At his urging, the city announced an initiative to hire more gay and lesbian police officers. He also initiated programs that benefited minorities, workers, and the elderly. On top of that, Milk gained national attention for his role in defeating a state senate proposal that would have prohibited gays and lesbians from teaching in public schools in California.
On November 27, 1978, Milk and Mayor Moscone were shot to death in City Hall by Dan White, a conservative former city supervisor who had quit the Board to protest the passage of the city's gay rights ordinance. In his trial for the killings, White's attorneys employed what came to be known as the "Twinkie Defense." They claimed that the defendant had eaten so much junk food that his judgment had become impaired. Amazingly, White was convicted only of voluntary manslaughter, meaning he would receive the lightest sentence possible for a person who has admitted to intentionally killing somebody. The verdict, which appeared to signal that society condoned violence against gays, outraged homosexuals and their supporters across the United States. In San Francisco, riots erupted, resulting in hundreds of injuries, a dozen burned police cars, and about $250,000 in property damage. The following night, thousands of people flocked to Castro Street to celebrate what would have been Milk's 49th birthday.
Since his death, Milk has become a symbol for the gay community of both what has been achieved and what remains to be done. He has been immortalized in the names of the Harvey Milk Democratic Club (formerly the San Francisco Gay Democratic Club), Harvey Milk High School in New York, and San Francisco's annual Harvey Milk Memorial Parade. In 1985 the film The Times of Harvey Milk won the Academy Award for Best Documentary. Ten years later, Harvey Milk, an opera co-commissioned by the Houston Grand Opera, the New York City Opera, and the San Francisco Opera, premiered in Houston. Although he is best remembered in the gay community, Milk's message of empowerment has served as an inspiration for people of all ethnicities and orientations.
Further Reading on Harvey Bernard Milk
Shilts, Randy, The Mayor of Castro Street, St. Martin's Press, 1982.
Weiss, Mike, Double Play: The San Francisco City Hall Killings, Addison-Wesley, 1984.
Foss, Karen A., "Harvey Milk: "You Have to Give Them Hope," in Journal of the West, April 1988, pp. 75-81.
New York Times, November 28, 1978, p. 33.