Harvey Milk

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The nongay community has mostly accepted it. What San Francisco is today, and what it is becoming, reflects both the energy and organization of the gay community and its developing effort toward integration in the political processes of the American city best known for innovation in life styles.

The New York Times, November 6, 1977 [91]

Anita Bryant's public campaign opposing homosexuality and the multiple challenges to gay rights ordinances across the United States fueled gay politics in San Francisco. Seventeen candidates from the Castro District entered the next race for supervisor; more than half of them were gay. The New York Times ran an exposé on the veritable invasion of gay people into San Francisco, estimating that the city's gay population was between 100,000 and 200,000 out of a total 750,000. [91] The Castro Village Association had grown to 90 businesses; the local bank, formerly the smallest branch in the city, had become the largest and was forced to build a wing to accommodate its new customers. [92] Milk biographer Randy Shilts noted that "broader historical forces" were fueling his campaign. [93]

Milk's most successful opponent was the quiet and thoughtful lawyer Rick Stokes, who was backed by the Alice B. Toklas Memorial Democratic Club. Stokes had been open about his homosexuality long before Milk had, and had experienced more severe treatment, once hospitalized and forced to endure electroshock therapy to 'cure' him. [94] Milk, however, was more expressive about the role of gay people and their issues in San Francisco politics. Stokes was quoted saying, "I'm just a businessman who happens to be gay," and expressed the view that any normal person could also be homosexual. Milk's contrasting populist philosophy was relayed to The New York Times: "We don't want sympathetic liberals, we want gays to represent gays ... I represent the gay street people—the 14-year-old runaway from San Antonio. We have to make up for hundreds of years of persecution. We have to give hope to that poor runaway kid from San Antonio. They go to the bars because churches are hostile. They need hope! They need a piece of the pie!" [91]

Other causes were also important to Milk: he promoted larger and less expensive child care facilities, free public transportation, and the development of a board of civilians to oversee the police. [4] He advanced important neighborhood issues at every opportunity. Milk used the same manic campaign tactics as in previous races: human billboards, hours of handshaking, and dozens of speeches calling on gay people to have hope. This time, even The San Francisco Chronicle endorsed him for supervisor. [95] On election day, November 8, 1977, he won by 30% against sixteen other candidates, and after his victory became apparent, he arrived on Castro Street on the back of his campaign manager's motorcycle—escorted by Sheriff Richard Hongisto—to what a newspaper story described as a "tumultuous and moving welcome". [96]

Milk had recently taken a new lover, a young man named Jack Lira, who was frequently drunk in public, and just as often escorted out of political events by Milk's aides. [97] Since the race for the California State Assembly, Milk had been receiving increasingly violent death threats. [98] Concerned that his raised profile marked him as a target for assassination, he recorded on tape his thoughts, and whom he wanted to succeed him if he were killed, [99] adding: "If a bullet should enter my brain, let that bullet destroy every closet door". [100]


Milk's swearing-in made national headlines, as he became the first non-incumbent openly gay man in the United States to win an election for public office. [101] [note 7] He likened himself to pioneering African American baseball player Jackie Robinson [102] and walked to City Hall arm in arm with Jack Lira, stating "You can stand around and throw bricks at Silly Hall or you can take it over. Well, here we are." [103] The Castro District was not the only neighborhood to promote someone new to city politics. Sworn in with Milk were also a single mother (Carol Ruth Silver), a Chinese American (Gordon Lau), and an African American woman (Ella Hill Hutch)—all firsts for the city. Daniel White, a former police officer and firefighter, was also a first-time supervisor, and he spoke of how proud he was that his grandmother was able to see him sworn in. [101] [104]

Milk sitting at the mayor's desk in 1978 Harvey Milk in 1978 at Mayor Moscone's Desk.jpg
Milk sitting at the mayor's desk in 1978

Milk's energy, affinity for pranking, and unpredictability at times exasperated Board of Supervisors President Dianne Feinstein. In his first meeting with Mayor Moscone, Milk called himself the "number one queen" and dictated to Moscone that he would have to go through Milk instead of the Alice B. Toklas Memorial Democratic Club if he wanted the city's gay votes—a quarter of San Francisco's voting population. [105] Milk also became Moscone's closest ally on the Board of Supervisors. [106] The biggest targets of Milk's ire were large corporations and real estate developers. He fumed when a parking garage was slated to take the place of homes near the downtown area, and tried to pass a commuter tax so office workers who lived outside the city and drove into work would have to pay for city services they used. [107] Milk was often willing to vote against Feinstein and other more tenured members of the board. In one controversy early in his term, Milk agreed with fellow Supervisor Dan White, whose district was located two miles south of the Castro, that a mental health facility for troubled adolescents should not be placed there. After Milk learned more about the facility, he decided to switch his vote, ensuring White's loss on the issue—a particularly poignant cause that White championed while campaigning. White did not forget it. He opposed every initiative and issue Milk supported. [108]

Milk began his tenure by sponsoring a civil rights bill that outlawed discrimination based on sexual orientation. The ordinance was called the "most stringent and encompassing in the nation", and its passing demonstrated "the growing political power of homosexuals", according to The New York Times. [109] Only Supervisor White voted against it; Mayor Moscone enthusiastically signed it into law with a light blue pen that Milk had given him for the occasion. [110]

Another bill Milk concentrated on was designed to solve the number one problem according to a recent citywide poll: dog excrement. Within a month of being sworn in, he began to work on a city ordinance to require dog owners to scoop their pets' feces. Dubbed the "pooper scooper law", its authorization by the Board of Supervisors was covered extensively by television and newspapers in San Francisco. Anne Kronenberg, Milk's campaign manager, called him "a master at figuring out what would get him covered in the newspaper". [111] He invited the press to Duboce Park to explain why it was necessary, and while cameras were rolling, stepped in the offending substance, seemingly by mistake. His staffers knew he had been at the park for an hour before the press conference looking for the right place to walk in front of the cameras. [112] It earned him the most fan mail of his tenure in politics and went out on national news releases.

Milk had grown tired of Lira's drinking and considered breaking up with him when Lira called a few weeks later and demanded Milk come home. When Milk arrived, he found Lira had hanged himself. Already prone to severe depression, Lira had attempted suicide previously. One of the notes he left for Milk indicated he was upset about the Anita Bryant and John Briggs campaigns. [113]

Briggs Initiative

John Briggs was forced to drop out of the 1978 race for California governor, but received enthusiastic support for Proposition 6, dubbed the Briggs Initiative. The proposed law would have made firing gay teachers—and any public school employees who supported gay rights—mandatory. Briggs' messages supporting Proposition 6 were pervasive throughout California, and Harvey Milk attended every event Briggs hosted. Milk campaigned against the bill throughout the state as well, [114] and swore that even if Briggs won California, he would not win San Francisco. [115] In their numerous debates, which toward the end had been honed to quick back-and-forth banter, Briggs maintained that homosexual teachers wanted to abuse and recruit children. Milk responded with statistics compiled by law enforcement that provided evidence that pedophiles identified primarily as heterosexual, and dismissed Briggs' assertions with one-liner jokes: "If it were true that children mimicked their teachers, you'd sure have a helluva lot more nuns running around." [116]

Attendance at Gay Pride marches during the summer of 1978 in Los Angeles and San Francisco swelled. An estimated 250,000 to 375,000 attended San Francisco's Gay Freedom Day Parade; newspapers claimed the higher numbers were due to John Briggs. [117] Organizers asked participants to carry signs indicating their hometowns for the cameras, to show how far people came to live in the Castro District. Milk rode in an open car carrying a sign saying "I'm from Woodmere, N.Y." [118] He gave a version of what became his most famous speech, the "Hope Speech", that The San Francisco Examiner said "ignited the crowd": [117]

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, for I am tired of the conspiracy of 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. [119]

Despite the losses in battles for gay rights across the country that year, he remained optimistic, saying "Even if gays lose in these initiatives, people are still being educated. Because of Anita Bryant and Dade County, the entire country was educated about homosexuality to a greater extent than ever before. The first step is always hostility, and after that you can sit down and talk about it." [99]

Citing the potential infringements on individual rights, former governor of California Ronald Reagan voiced his opposition to the proposition, as did Governor Jerry Brown and President Jimmy Carter, the latter in an afterthought following a speech he gave in Sacramento. [111] [120] On November 7, 1978, the proposition lost by more than a million votes, astounding gay activists on election night. In San Francisco, 75 percent voted against it. [120]


On November 10, 1978 (10 months after he was sworn in), Dan White resigned his position on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, saying that his annual salary of $9,600 was not enough to support his family. [121] [note 8] Within days, White requested that his resignation be withdrawn and he be reinstated, and Mayor Moscone initially agreed. [122] [123] However, further consideration—and intervention by other supervisors—convinced Moscone to appoint someone more in line with the growing ethnic diversity of White's district and the liberal leanings of the Board of Supervisors. [124]

On November 18 and 19, news broke of the mass suicide of 900 members of the Peoples Temple. The cult had relocated from San Francisco to Guyana. California Representative Leo Ryan was in Jonestown to check on the remote community, and he was killed by gunfire at an airstrip as he tried to escape the tense situation. [125] [126] White remarked to two aides who were working for his reinstatement, "You see that? One day I'm on the front page and the next I'm swept right off." [127]

Moscone planned to announce White's replacement on November 27, 1978. [128] A half hour before the press conference, White avoided metal detectors by entering City Hall through a basement window and went to Moscone's office, where witnesses heard shouting followed by gunshots. White shot Moscone in the shoulder and chest, then twice in the head. [129] White then quickly walked to his former office, reloading his police-issue revolver with hollow-point bullets along the way, and intercepted Milk, asking him to step inside for a moment. Dianne Feinstein heard gunshots and called police, then found Milk face down on the floor, shot five times, including twice in the head. [note 9] Soon after, she announced to the press, "Today, San Francisco has experienced a double tragedy of immense proportions. As President of the Board of Supervisors, it is my duty to inform you that both Mayor Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk have been shot and killed, and the suspect is Supervisor Dan White." [111] [128] Milk was 48 years old. Moscone was 49.

Within an hour, White called his wife from a nearby diner; she met him at a church and was with him when he turned himself in. Many people left flowers on the steps of City Hall, and that evening 25,000 to 40,000 formed a spontaneous candlelight march from Castro Street to City Hall. The next day, the bodies of Moscone and Milk were brought to the City Hall rotunda where mourners paid their respects. [123] Six thousand mourners attended a service for Mayor Moscone at St. Mary's Cathedral. Two memorials were held for Milk; a small one at Temple Emanu-El and a more boisterous one at the Opera House. [130]

"City in agony"

The headline of The San Francisco Examiner on November 28, 1978, announced Dan White was charged with first-degree murder, and eligible for the death penalty. Cover of San Francisco Examiner November 28 1978.jpg
The headline of The San Francisco Examiner on November 28, 1978, announced Dan White was charged with first-degree murder, and eligible for the death penalty.

In the wake of the Jonestown suicides, Moscone had recently increased security at City Hall. Cult survivors recounted drills for suicide preparations that Jones had called "White Nights". [131] Rumors about the murders of Moscone and Milk were fueled by the coincidence of Dan White's name and Jones's suicide preparations. A stunned District Attorney called the assassinations so close to the news about Jonestown "incomprehensible", but denied any connection. [123] Governor Jerry Brown ordered all flags in California to be flown at half staff, and called Milk a "hard-working and dedicated supervisor, a leader of San Francisco's gay community, who kept his promise to represent all his constituents". [132] President Jimmy Carter expressed his shock at both murders and sent his condolences. Speaker of the California Assembly Leo McCarthy called it "an insane tragedy". [132] "A City in Agony" topped the headlines in The San Francisco Examiner the day after the murders; inside the paper stories of the assassinations under the headline "Black Monday" were printed back to back with updates of bodies being shipped home from Guyana. An editorial describing "A city with more sadness and despair in its heart than any city should have to bear" went on to ask how such tragedies could occur, particularly to "men of such warmth and vision and great energies". [133] Dan White was charged with two counts of murder and held without bail, eligible for the death penalty owing to the recent passage of a statewide proposition that allowed death or life in prison for the murder of a public official. [134] One analysis of the months surrounding the murders called 1978 and 1979: "the most emotionally devastating years in San Francisco's fabulously spotted history". [135]

The 32-year-old White, who had been in the Army during the Vietnam War, had run on a tough anti-crime platform in his district. Colleagues declared him a high-achieving "all-American boy". [124] He was to have received an award the next week for rescuing a woman and child from a 17-story burning building when he was a firefighter in 1977. Though he was the only supervisor to vote against Milk's gay rights ordinance earlier that year, he had been quoted as saying, "I respect the rights of all people, including gays". [124] Milk and White at first got along well. One of White's political aides (who was gay) remembered, "Dan had more in common with Harvey than he did with anyone else on the board". [136] White had voted to support a center for gay seniors, and to honor Phyllis Lyon and Del Martin's 25th anniversary and pioneering work. [136]

The plaque covering Milk's ashes reads, in part: "[Harvey Milk's] camera store and campaign headquarters at 575 Castro Street and his apartment upstairs were centers of community activism for a wide range of human rights, environmental, labor, and neighborhood issues. Harvey Milk's hard work and accomplishments on behalf of all San Franciscans earned him widespread respect and support. His life is an inspiration to all people committed to equal opportunity and an end to bigotry." [137]

The plaque covering Milk's ashes in front of 575 Castro Street Bronze plate of Harvey Milk ashes on Castro Street.JPG
The plaque covering Milk's ashes in front of 575 Castro Street

After Milk's vote for the mental health facility in White's district, however, White refused to speak with Milk and communicated with only one of Milk's aides. Other acquaintances remembered White as very intense. "He was impulsive ... He was an extremely competitive man, obsessively so ... I think he could not take defeat," San Francisco's assistant fire chief told reporters. [138] White's first campaign manager quit in the middle of the campaign, and told a reporter that White was an egotist and it was clear that he was antigay, though he denied it in the press. [139] White's associates and supporters described him "as a man with a pugilistic temper and an impressive capacity for nurturing a grudge". [139] The aide who had handled communications between White and Milk remembered, "Talking to him, I realized that he saw Harvey Milk and George Moscone as representing all that was wrong with the world". [140]

When Milk's friends looked in his closet for a suit for his casket, they learned how much he had been affected by the recent decrease in his income as a supervisor. All of his clothes were coming apart and all of his socks had holes. [141] His remains were cremated and his ashes were split. His closest friends scattered most of the ashes in San Francisco Bay. Other ashes were encapsulated and buried beneath the sidewalk in front of 575 Castro Street, where Castro Camera had been located. There is a memorial to Milk at the Neptune Society Columbarium, ground floor, San Francisco, California. [142] Harry Britt, one of four people Milk listed on his tape as an acceptable replacement should he be assassinated, was chosen to fill that position by the city's acting mayor, Dianne Feinstein. [143]

Trial and conviction

Dan White's arrest and trial caused a sensation and illustrated severe tensions between the liberal population and the city police. The San Francisco Police were mostly working-class Irish descendants who intensely disliked the growing gay immigration as well as the liberal direction of the city government. After White turned himself in and confessed, he sat in his cell while his former colleagues on the police force told Harvey Milk jokes; police openly wore "Free Dan White" T-shirts in the days after the murder. [144] An undersheriff for San Francisco later stated: "The more I observed what went on at the jail, the more I began to stop seeing what Dan White did as the act of an individual and began to see it as a political act in a political movement." [145] White showed no remorse for his actions, and exhibited vulnerability only during an eight-minute call to his mother from jail. [146]

The jury for White's trial consisted of white middle-class San Franciscans who were mostly Catholic; gays and ethnic minorities were excused from the jury pool. [147] Some of the members of the jury cried when they heard White's tearful recorded confession, at the end of which the interrogator thanked White for his honesty. [148] White's defense attorney, Doug Schmidt, argued that his client was not responsible for his actions; Schmidt used the legal defense known as diminished capacity: "Good people, fine people, with fine backgrounds, simply don't kill people in cold blood." [149] Schmidt tried to prove that White's anguished mental state was a result of manipulation by the politicos in City Hall who had consistently disappointed and confounded him, finally promising to give his job back only to refuse him again. Schmidt said that White's mental deterioration was demonstrated and exacerbated by his junk food binge the night before the murders, since he was usually known to have been health-food conscious. [150] Area newspapers quickly dubbed it the Twinkie defense. White was acquitted of the first-degree murder charge on May 21, 1979, but found guilty of voluntary manslaughter of both victims, and he was sentenced to serve seven and two-thirds years. With the sentence reduced for time served and good behavior, he would be released in five. [151] He cried when he heard the verdict. [152]

White Night riots

Rioters outside San Francisco City Hall, May 21, 1979, reacting to the voluntary manslaughter verdict for Dan White. Rioters outside San Francisco City Hall May 21 1979.jpg
Rioters outside San Francisco City Hall, May 21, 1979, reacting to the voluntary manslaughter verdict for Dan White.

Acting Mayor Feinstein, Supervisor Carol Ruth Silver, and Milk's successor Harry Britt condemned the jury's decision. When the verdict was announced over the police radio, someone sang "Danny Boy" on the police band. [153] A surge of people from the Castro District walked again to City Hall, chanting "Avenge Harvey Milk" and "He got away with murder". [111] [154] Pandemonium rapidly escalated as rocks were hurled at the front doors of the building. Milk's friends and aides tried to stop the destruction, but the mob of more than 3,000 ignored them and lit police cars on fire. They shoved a burning newspaper dispenser through the broken doors of City Hall, then cheered as the flames grew. [155] One of the rioters responded to a reporter's question about why they were destroying parts of the city: "Just tell people that we ate too many Twinkies. That's why this is happening." [85] The chief of police ordered the police not to retaliate, but to hold their ground. [156] The White Night riots, as they became known, lasted several hours.

Later that evening, several police cruisers filled with officers wearing riot gear arrived at the Elephant Walk Bar on Castro Street. Harvey Milk's protégé Cleve Jones and a reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle, Warren Hinckle, watched as officers stormed into the bar and began to beat patrons at random. After a 15-minute melee, they left the bar and struck out at people walking along the street. [25] [157]

After the verdict, District Attorney Joseph Freitas faced a furious gay community to explain what had gone wrong. The prosecutor admitted to feeling sorry for White before the trial, and neglected to ask the interrogator who had recorded White's confession (and who was a childhood friend of White's and his police softball team coach) about his biases and the support White received from the police because, he said, he did not want to embarrass the detective in front of his family in court. [148] [158] Nor did Freitas question White's frame of mind or lack of a history of mental illness, or bring into evidence city politics, suggesting that revenge may have been a motive. Supervisor Carol Ruth Silver testified on the last day of the trial that White and Milk were not friendly, yet she had contacted the prosecutor and insisted on testifying. It was the only testimony the jury heard about their strained relationship. [159] Freitas blamed the jury who he claimed had been "taken in by the whole emotional aspect of [the] trial". [151]


The murders of Milk and Moscone and White's trial changed city politics and the California legal system. In 1980, San Francisco ended district supervisor elections, fearing that a Board of Supervisors so divisive would be harmful to the city and that they had been a factor in the assassinations. A grassroots neighborhood effort to restore district elections in the mid-1990s proved successful, and the city returned to neighborhood representatives in 2000. [160] As a result of Dan White's trial, California voters changed the law to reduce the likelihood of acquittals of accused who knew what they were doing but claimed their capacity was impaired. [150] Diminished capacity was abolished as a defense to a charge, but courts allowed evidence of it when deciding whether to incarcerate, commit, or otherwise punish a convicted defendant. [161] The "Twinkie defense" has entered American mythology, popularly described as a case where a murderer escapes justice because he binged on junk food, simplifying White's lack of political savvy, his relationships with George Moscone and Harvey Milk, and what San Francisco Chronicle columnist Herb Caen described as his "dislike of homosexuals". [162]

Dan White served just over five years for the double homicide of Moscone and Milk; he was released from prison on January 7, 1984. On October 21, 1985, White was found dead in a running car in his wife's garage, having committed suicide by carbon monoxide poisoning. He was 39 years old. His defense attorney told reporters that he had been despondent over the loss of his family and the situation he had caused, adding, "This was a sick man." [163]


Milk's political career centered on making government responsive to individuals, gay liberation, and the importance of neighborhoods to the city. At the onset of each campaign, an issue was added to Milk's public political philosophy. [164] His 1973 campaign focused on the first point, that as a small business owner in San Francisco—a city dominated by large corporations that had been courted by municipal government—his interests were being overlooked because he was not represented by a large financial institution. Although he did not hide the fact that he was gay, it did not become an issue until his race for the California State Assembly in 1976. It was brought to the fore in the supervisor race against Rick Stokes, as it was an extension of his ideas of individual freedom. [164]

Milk strongly believed that neighborhoods promoted unity and a small-town experience, and that the Castro should provide services to all its residents. He opposed the closing of an elementary school; even though most gay people in the Castro did not have children, Milk saw his neighborhood having the potential to welcome everyone. He told his aides to concentrate on fixing potholes and boasted that 50 new stop signs had been installed in District 5. [164] Responding to city residents' largest complaint about living in San Francisco—dog feces—Milk made it a priority to enact the ordinance requiring dog owners to take care of their pets' droppings. Randy Shilts noted, "some would claim Harvey was a socialist or various other sorts of ideologues, but, in reality, Harvey's political philosophy was never more complicated than the issue of dogshit; government should solve people's basic problems." [165]

Karen Foss, a communications professor at the University of New Mexico, attributes Milk's impact on San Francisco politics to the fact that he was unlike anyone else who had held public office in the city. She writes, "Milk happened to be a highly energetic, charismatic figure with a love of theatrics and nothing to lose ... Using laughter, reversal, transcendence, and his insider/outsider status, Milk helped create a climate in which dialogue on issues became possible. He also provided a means to integrate the disparate voices of his various constituencies." [166] Milk had been a rousing speaker since he began campaigning in 1973, and his oratory skills only improved after he became City Supervisor. [25] His most famous talking points became known as the "Hope Speech", which became a staple throughout his political career. It opened with a play on the accusation that gay people recruit impressionable youth into their numbers: "My name is Harvey Milk—and I want to recruit you." A version of the Hope Speech that he gave near the end of his life was considered by his friends and aides to be the best, and the closing the most effective:

And the young gay people in the Altoona, Pennsylvanias and the Richmond, Minnesotas who are coming out and hear Anita Bryant in television and her story. The only thing they have to look forward to is hope. And you have to give them hope. 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. Hope that all will be all right. Without hope, not only gays, but the blacks, the seniors, the handicapped, the us'es, the us'es will give up. And if you help elect to the central committee and other offices, more gay people, that gives a green light to all who feel disenfranchised, a green light to move forward. It means hope to a nation that has given up, because if a gay person makes it, the doors are open to everyone. [167]

In the last year of his life, Milk emphasized that gay people should be more visible to help to end the discrimination and violence against them. Although Milk had not come out to his mother before her death many years before in his final statement during his taped prediction of his assassination, he urged others to do so:

I cannot prevent anyone from getting angry, or mad, or frustrated. I can only hope that they'll turn that anger and frustration and madness into something positive, so that two, three, four, five hundred will step forward, so the gay doctors will come out, the gay lawyers, the gay judges, gay bankers, gay architects ... I hope that every professional gay will say 'enough', come forward and tell everybody, wear a sign, let the world know. Maybe that will help. [99]

However, Milk's assassination has become entwined with his political efficacy, partly because he was killed at the zenith of his popularity. Historian Neil Miller writes, "No contemporary American gay leader has yet to achieve in life the stature Milk found in death." [143] His legacy has become ambiguous; Randy Shilts concludes his biography writing that Milk's success, murder, and the inevitable injustice of White's verdict represented the experience of all gays. Milk's life was "a metaphor for the homosexual experience in America". [168] According to Frances FitzGerald, Milk's legend has been unable to be sustained as no one appeared able to take his place in the years after his death: "The Castro saw him as a martyr but understood his martyrdom as an end rather than a beginning. He had died, and with him a great deal of the Castro's optimism, idealism, and ambition seemed to die as well. The Castro could find no one to take his place in its affections, and possibly wanted no one." [169] On the 20th anniversary of Milk's death, historian John D'Emilio said, "The legacy that I think he would want to be remembered for is the imperative to live one's life at all times with integrity." [170] For a political career so short, Cleve Jones attributes more to his assassination than his life: "His murder and the response to it made permanent and unquestionable the full participation of gay and lesbian people in the political process." [170]

Tributes and media

Gay Pride flag above Harvey Milk Plaza in The Castro neighborhood Castrosanfranciscoflag.jpg
Gay Pride flag above Harvey Milk Plaza in The Castro neighborhood

The City of San Francisco has paid tribute to Milk by naming several locations after him. [note 10] Where Market and Castro streets intersect in San Francisco flies an enormous Gay Pride flag, situated in Harvey Milk Plaza. [171] The San Francisco Gay Democratic Club changed its name to the Harvey Milk Memorial Gay Democratic Club in 1978 (it is currently named the Harvey Milk Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender Democratic Club) and boasts that it is the largest Democratic organization in San Francisco. [172]

In April 2018, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors and mayor Mark Farrell approved and signed legislation renaming Terminal 1 at San Francisco International Airport after Milk, and planned to install artwork memorializing him. This followed a previous attempt to rename the entire airport after him, which was turned down. [173] [174] Officially opening on July 23, 2019, Harvey Milk Terminal 1 is the world's first airport terminal named after a leader of the LGBTQ community. [175]

In New York City, Harvey Milk High School is a school program for at-risk youth that concentrates on the needs of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender students and operates out of the Hetrick Martin Institute. [176]

USNS Harvey Milk (T-AO-206) named in honor of Lieutenant Junior Grade Milk USNS Harvey Milk (T-AO-206) underway in San Francisco Bay, California (USA), 28 March 2024 (240328-N-IM823-1076).JPG
USNS Harvey Milk (T-AO-206) named in honor of Lieutenant Junior Grade Milk

In July 2016, US Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus advised Congress that he intended to name the second ship of the Military Sealift Command's John Lewis-class oilers USNS Harvey Milk. [177] All ships of the class are to be named after civil rights leaders. In November 2021, the ship was launched. [178]

In response to a grassroots effort, in June 2018 the city council of Portland, Oregon, voted to rename a thirteen-block southwestern section of Stark Street to Harvey Milk Street. The mayor, Ted Wheeler, declared that it "sends a signal that we are an open and a welcoming and an inclusive community". [179]

In 1982, freelance reporter Randy Shilts completed his first book: a biography of Milk, titled The Mayor of Castro Street . Shilts wrote the book while unable to find a steady job as an openly gay reporter. [180] The Times of Harvey Milk , a documentary film based on the book's material, won the 1984 Academy Award for Documentary Feature. [181] Director Rob Epstein spoke later about why he chose the subject of Milk's life: "At the time, for those of us who lived in San Francisco, it felt like it was life changing, that all the eyes of the world were upon us, but in fact most of the world outside of San Francisco had no idea. It was just a really brief, provincial, localized current events story that the mayor and a city council member in San Francisco were killed. It didn't have much reverberation." [182] Milk was also the subject of Helene Meyers work, "Got Jewish Milk: Screening Epstein and Van Sant for Intersectional Film History", which explored the contemporary depiction of Milk and his "Jewishness". [183]

Stuart Milk accepts the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Barack Obama in August 2009 on behalf of his uncle Stuart Milk, Barack Obama 2009.jpg
Stuart Milk accepts the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Barack Obama in August 2009 on behalf of his uncle

Milk's life has been the subject of a musical theater production; [184] an eponymous opera; [185] a cantata; [186] a children's picture book; [187] a French-language historical novel for young-adult readers; [188] and the biopic Milk , released in 2008 after 15 years in the making. The film was directed by Gus Van Sant and starred Sean Penn as Milk and Josh Brolin as Dan White, and won two Academy Awards for Best Original Screenplay and Best Actor. [189] It took eight weeks to film, and often used extras who had been present at the actual events for large crowd scenes, including a scene depicting Milk's "Hope Speech" at the 1978 Gay Freedom Day Parade. [190]

Milk was included in the " Time 100 Heroes and Icons of the 20th Century" as "a symbol of what gays can accomplish and the dangers they face in doing so". Despite his antics and publicity stunts, according to writer John Cloud, "none understood how his public role could affect private lives better than Milk ... [he] knew that the root cause of the gay predicament was invisibility". [191] The Advocate listed Milk third in their "40 Heroes" of the 20th century issue, quoting Dianne Feinstein: "His homosexuality gave him an insight into the scars which all oppressed people wear. He believed that no sacrifice was too great a price to pay for the cause of human rights." [192]

In August 2009, 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". Milk's nephew Stuart accepted for his uncle. [193] Shortly after, Stuart co-founded the Harvey Milk Foundation with Anne Kronenberg with the support of Desmond Tutu, co-recipient of 2009 Presidential Medal of Freedom and now a member of the Foundation's advisory board. [194] Later in the year, California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger designated May 22 as Harvey Milk Day and inducted Milk in the California Hall of Fame. [195] [196]

Personal belongings of Harvey Milk on display at the GLBT History Museum in San Francisco's Castro District GLBT Museum Milk.jpg
Personal belongings of Harvey Milk on display at the GLBT History Museum in San Francisco's Castro District

Since 2003, the story of Harvey Milk has been featured in three exhibitions created by the GLBT Historical Society, a San Francisco–based museum, archives, and research center, to which the estate of Scott Smith donated Milk's personal belongings that were preserved after his death. [197] On May 22, 2014, the United States Postal Service issued a postage stamp honoring Harvey Milk, the first openly LGBT political official to receive this honor. [198] The stamp features a photo taken in front of Milk's Castro Camera store and was unveiled on what would have been his 84th birthday. [199]

Harry Britt summarized Milk's impact the evening Milk was shot in 1978: "No matter what the world has taught us about ourselves, we can be beautiful and we can get our thing together ... Harvey was a prophet ... he lived by a vision ... Something very special is going to happen in this city and it will have Harvey Milk's name on it." [200]

In 2010, radio producer JD Doyle aired the two-hour Harvey Milk Music on his Queer Music Heritage radio program. The mission of the broadcast was to gather music about and inspired by the Harvey Milk story. That broadcast and playlist of songs is archived online. [201]

Milk was inducted in 2012 into the Legacy Walk, an outdoor public display in Chicago which celebrates LGBT history and people. [202] He was named one of the inaugural fifty American "pioneers, trailblazers, and heroes" inducted on the National LGBTQ Wall of Honor within the Stonewall National Monument (SNM) in New York City's Stonewall Inn. [203] [204] Paris named a square Place Harvey-Milk in Le Marais in 2019. [205]

The USNS Harvey Milk, a United States Navy oiler launched on November 6, 2021, bears his name: it is the first U.S. Navy ship named for an openly gay leader. [206] In July 2016, United States Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus advised Congress that he intended to name the Military Sealift Command's John Lewis-class oilers after prominent civil rights leaders, with the second to be named for gay rights activist Harvey Milk. [207] Milk served in the U.S. Navy during the Korean War aboard the submarine rescue ship USS Kittiwake (ASR-13) and held the rank of lieutenant (junior grade) [207] at the time that he was forced to accept an "other than honorable" discharge rather than face a court martial for his homosexuality. [208] The ship was officially named at a ceremony in San Francisco on August 16, 2016, [209] generating some controversy considering Milk's antiwar stance later in his life. [210] It is the first U.S. Navy ship named for an openly gay leader. [211] The first cut of steel occurred on December 13, 2019, marking the beginning of construction of the vessel. [212]

See also


  1. Milk was described as a martyr by news outlets as early as 1979, by biographer Randy Shilts in 1982, and University of San Francisco professor Peter Novak in 2003. United Press International [October 15, 1979]; printed in the Edmonton Journal, p. B10; Skelton, Nancy; Stein, Mark [October 22, 1985]. S.F. Assassin Dan White Kills Himself Archived July 25, 2017, at the Wayback Machine , Los Angeles Times, Retrieved on February 3, 2012.; Shilts, p. 348; Nolte, Carl [November 26, 2003]. "City Hall Slayings: 25 Years Later", The San Francisco Chronicle , p. A-1.
  2. While Milk said numerous times that he was dishonorably discharged and claimed it was because he was gay, for a number of years this claim was doubted. For example, his biographer Randy Shilts was skeptical of this claim, stating: "The Harvey Milk of this era was no political activist, and according to available evidence, he played the more typical balancing act between discretion and his sex drive." In addition, the Harvey Milk Archives-Scott Smith Collection included a photocopy of what appeared to be Milk's honorable discharge paperwork from the U.S. Navy. However, a records request from the U.S. Navy revealed that he did indeed receive an "other than honorable" discharge and was forced to resign for being gay. It appears Milk forged the discharge papers now in his archives in order to be employed after leaving the service.
  3. In addition to his concerns over Rodwell's activism, Milk believed that Rodwell had given him gonorrhea. (Carter, pp. 31–32.)
  4. Gain further alienated the SFPD by attending a raucous party in 1977 called the Hooker's Ball. The party grew out of control and Gain had to call in reinforcements to control the excesses, but a photograph ran in the papers of him holding a champagne bottle while standing beside prostitution rights activist Margo St. James and a drag queen named "Wonder Whore". (Weiss, pp. 156–157.)
  5. Sipple's case was eventually rejected in 1984 in a California court of appeals. Sipple, who was wounded in the head in Vietnam, was also diagnosed as having paranoid schizophrenia. He held no ill will toward Milk, however, and remained in contact with him. The incident's significance brought so much attention that, later in life while drinking, he stated that he regretted having grabbed Moore's gun. Eventually, Sipple regained contact with his mother and brother, but continued to be rejected by his father. He kept the letter written by Gerald Ford, framed, in his apartment, until he died of pneumonia in 1989. ("Sorrow Trailed a Veteran Who Saved a President's Life", The Los Angeles Times, [February 13, 1989], p. 1.)
  6. Bryant agreed to an interview with Playboy magazine, in which she was quoted saying that the civil rights ordinance "would have made it mandatory that flaunting homosexuals be hired in both the public and parochial schools ... If they're a legitimate minority, then so are nail biters, dieters, fat people, short people, and murderers." ("Playboy Interview: Anita Bryant", Playboy, (May 1978), pp. 73–96, 232–250.) Bryant would often break into her standard "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" while speaking during the campaign, called homosexuals "human garbage", and blamed the drought in California on their sins. (Clendinen, p. 306.) As the special election drew near, a Florida state senator read the Book of Leviticus aloud to the senate, and the governor went on record against the civil rights ordinance. (Duberman, p. 320.)
  7. Two gay politicians were already in office: lesbian Massachusetts State Representative Elaine Noble and Minnesota State Senator Allan Spear, who had come out after he had been elected and won re-election.
  8. Despite White's financial strain, he had recently voted against a pay raise for city supervisors that would have given him a $24,000 annual salary. (Cone, Russ [November 14, 1978]. "Increase in City Supervisors' Pay Is Proposed Again", The San Francisco Examiner, p. 4.) Feinstein pointed him toward commercial developers at Pier 39 near Fisherman's Wharf where he and his wife set up a walk-up restaurant called The Hot Potato. (Weiss, pp. 143–146.) Gentrification in the Castro District was fully apparent in the late 1970s. In Milk's public rants about "bloodsucking" real estate developers, he used his landlord (who was gay) as an example. Not amused, his landlord tripled the rent for the storefront and the apartment above, where Milk lived. (Shilts, pp. 227–228.)
  9. Though Feinstein was known to carry a handgun in her purse, she afterwards became a proponent of gun control. In 1993, Feinstein exchanged words with National Rifle Association member and Idaho senator Larry Craig, who suggested during a debate on banning assault weapons that "the gentlelady from California" should be "a little bit more familiar with firearms and their deadly characteristics." She reminded Craig that she indeed had experience with the results of firearms when she put her finger in a bullet hole in Milk's neck while searching for a pulse. (Faye, Fiore [April 24, 1995]. "Rematch on Weapons Ban Takes Shape in Congress Arms: Feinstein prepares to defend the prohibition on assault guns as GOP musters forces to repeal it", The Los Angeles Times, p. 3.)
  10. The Harvey Milk Recreational Arts Center is headquarters for the drama and performing arts programs for the city's youth. (Duboce Park and Harvey Milk Recreational Arts Center Archived July 24, 2008, at the Wayback Machine , San Francisco Neighborhood Parks Council, 2008. Retrieved on September 7, 2008.) Douglass Elementary in the Castro District was renamed the Harvey Milk Civil Rights Academy in 1996 (Harvey Milk Civil Rights Academy: Our History Archived December 18, 2008, at the Wayback Machine , Harvey Milk Civil Rights Academy website. Retrieved September 8, 2008.) and the Eureka Valley Branch of the San Francisco Public Library was also renamed in his honor in 1981. It is located at 1 José Sarria Court, named for the first openly gay man to run for public office in the United States. (Eureka Valley Library History Archived February 5, 2020, at the Wayback Machine , San Francisco Public Library website. Retrieved February 21, 2020.) On what would have been Milk's 78th birthday, a bust of his likeness was unveiled in San Francisco City Hall at the top of the grand staircase on May 22, 2008. On June 2, 2008, the bust was accepted into the city's Civic Art Collection during a meeting of the San Francisco Arts Commission. It was designed by the Eugene Daub, Firmin, Hendrickson Sculpture Group with Eugene Daub the principal sculptor. Engraved in the pedestal is a quotation from one of the audiotapes Milk recorded in the event of his assassination, which he openly predicted several times before his death. "I ask for the movement to continue because my election gave young people out there hope. You gotta give 'em hope." (Buchanan, Wyatt (May 22, 2008). "S.F. prepares to unveil bust of Harvey Milk" Archived April 2, 2015, at the Wayback Machine , San Francisco Chronicle. Retrieved on September 8, 2008.) On the 82nd anniversary of his birth, a street was renamed to Harvey Milk Street in San Diego, and a new park named Harvey Milk Promenade Park was opened in Long Beach, California. (Harvey Milk Honored With San Diego Street, Long Beach Park On His 82nd Birthday Archived September 24, 2015, at the Wayback Machine , The Huffington Post . Published May 22, 2012. Retrieved May 23, 2012.)

Related Research Articles

Oliver Wellington "Billy" Sipple was an American man known for intervening to prevent an assassination attempt against U.S. President Gerald Ford on September 22, 1975. A decorated U.S. Marine and disabled Vietnam War veteran, he grappled with Sara Jane Moore as she fired a pistol at Ford in San Francisco, causing her to miss. The subsequent public revelation that Sipple was gay turned the news story into a cause célèbre for LGBT rights activists, leading Sipple to sue — unsuccessfully — several publishers for invasion of privacy, and causing his estrangement from his parents.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Dan White</span> American politician and assassin (1946–1985)

Daniel James White was an American politician who assassinated George Moscone, the mayor of San Francisco, and Harvey Milk, a member of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, inside City Hall on November 27, 1978. White was convicted of manslaughter for the deaths of Milk and Moscone and served five years of a seven-year prison sentence. Less than two years after his release, he returned to San Francisco and later committed suicide.

This is a list of notable events in the history of LGBT rights that took place in the year 1978.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">George Moscone</span> American lawyer and 37th Mayor of San Francisco from 1976 to 1978

George Richard Moscone was an attorney and Democratic politician who was the 37th mayor of San Francisco, California from January 1976 until his assassination in November 1978. He was known as "The People's Mayor," who opened up City Hall and its commissions to reflect the diversity of San Francisco, appointing African Americans, Asian Americans, and gay people. Moscone served in the California State Senate from 1967 until becoming mayor. In the Senate, he served as majority leader. Moscone is remembered for being an advocate of civil progressivism.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">White Night riots</span> 1979 riots in San Francisco, California, US

The White Night riots were a series of violent events sparked by an announcement of a lenient sentencing of Dan White for the assassinations of George Moscone, the mayor of San Francisco, and of Harvey Milk, a member of the city's Board of Supervisors who was one of the first openly gay elected officials in the United States. The events took place on the night of May 21, 1979, in San Francisco. Earlier that day White had been convicted of voluntary manslaughter, the lightest possible conviction for his actions. The lesser conviction outraged the city's gay community, setting off the most violent reaction by gay Americans since the 1969 Stonewall riots in New York City.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Randy Shilts</span> American journalist and writer (1951–1994)

Randy Shilts was an American journalist and author. After studying journalism at the University of Oregon, Shilts began working as a reporter for both The Advocate and the San Francisco Chronicle, as well as for San Francisco Bay Area television stations. In the 1980s, he was noted for being the first openly gay reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle.

Sister Boom Boom, also known as Sister Mary Boom Boom, was the drag nun persona of astrologer Jack Fertig. He was a prominent member of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, a gay activist group founded in San Francisco in 1979.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">1978 California Proposition 6</span> Failed Californian anti-gay ballot initiative

California Proposition 6, informally known as the Briggs Initiative, was an unsuccessful ballot initiative put to a referendum on the California state ballot in the November 7, 1978 election. It was sponsored by John Briggs, a conservative state legislator from Orange County. The failed initiative sought to ban gays and lesbians from working in California's public schools.

<i>The Times of Harvey Milk</i> 1984 American film

The Times of Harvey Milk is a 1984 American documentary film that premiered at the Telluride Film Festival, the New York Film Festival, and then on November 1, 1984, at the Castro Theatre in San Francisco. The film was directed by Rob Epstein, produced by Richard Schmiechen, and narrated by Harvey Fierstein, with an original score by Mark Isham.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Harvey Milk LGBTQ Democratic Club</span> Democratic club founded in 1976 by Harvey Milk and his supporters

Based in San Francisco, California, the Harvey Milk LGBTQ Democratic Club is a chapter of the Stonewall Democrats, named after LGBT politician and activist Harvey Milk. Believing that the existing Alice B. Toklas LGBT Democratic Club would never support him in his political aspirations, Milk co-founded the political club under the name "San Francisco Gay Democratic Club" in the wake of his unsuccessful 1976 campaign for the California State Assembly. Joining Milk in forming the club were a number of the city's activists, including Harry Britt, Dick Pabich, Jim Rivaldo, and first club president Chris Perry.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Moscone–Milk assassinations</span> 1978 murders in San Francisco, California, US

On November 27, 1978, George Moscone, the mayor of San Francisco, and Harvey Milk, a member of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, were shot and killed inside City Hall by former Supervisor Dan White. On the morning of that day, Moscone intended to announce that the Supervisor position from which White had previously resigned would be given to someone else. White, angered, entered City Hall before the scheduled announcement and first shot Moscone in the Mayor's office, then Milk in White's former office space, before escaping the building. Board of Supervisors President Dianne Feinstein first announced Moscone and Milk's deaths to the media, and because of Moscone's death, succeeded him as acting mayor.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Harry Britt</span> San Francisco legislator (1938–2020)

Harry Britt was an American politician and gay rights activist. A native of Texas who worked as a Methodist pastor in Chicago as a young man, he later moved to San Francisco and worked with Harvey Milk until Milk's assassination in 1978. He was appointed to his seat on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, where he remained until 1993, and served as the board's president from 1989 to 1990. Britt was a Democrat and member of the Democratic Socialists of America. He ran for the United States House of Representatives in 1987 and for the California State Assembly in 2002, but was unsuccessful both times.

<i>Milk</i> (2008 American film) 2008 film by Gus Van Sant

Milk is a 2008 American biographical drama film based on the life of gay rights activist and politician Harvey Milk, who was the first openly gay man to be elected to public office in California, as a member of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. Directed by Gus Van Sant and written by Dustin Lance Black, the film stars Sean Penn as Milk, Josh Brolin as Dan White, a city supervisor, and Victor Garber as San Francisco Mayor George Moscone.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Daniel Nicoletta</span> Italian-American photographer

Daniel Nicoletta is an Italian-American photographer, photojournalist and gay rights activist.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Castro Camera</span> Building in California, United States of America

Castro Camera was a camera store in the Castro District of San Francisco, California, operated by Harvey Milk from 1972 until his assassination in 1978. During the 1970s the store became the center of the neighborhood's growing gay community, as well as campaign headquarters for Milk's various campaigns for elected office.

James M. Foster was an American LGBT rights and Democratic activist. Foster became active in the early gay rights movement when he moved to San Francisco following his undesirable discharge from the United States Army in 1959 for being homosexual. Foster co-founded the Society for Individual Rights (SIR), an early homophile organization, in 1964. Dianne Feinstein credited SIR and the gay vote with generating her margin of victory in her election to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors in 1969.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Anne Kronenberg</span> American politician and LGBT rights activist

Anne Kronenberg is an American political administrator and LGBT rights activist. She is best known for being Harvey Milk's campaign manager during his historic San Francisco Board of Supervisors campaign in 1977 and his aide as he held that office until he and mayor George Moscone were assassinated. As an openly lesbian political activist, Kronenberg was noted for her instrumental role in the gay rights movement, both for Milk's campaign and in her own right.

Jon Reed Sims, was an American choir conductor born in Smith Center, Kansas.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">LGBT culture in San Francisco</span> Culture of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people in San Francisco, United States

The lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community in San Francisco is one of the largest and most prominent LGBT communities in the United States, and is one of the most important in the history of American LGBT rights and activism alongside New York City. The city itself has been described as "the original 'gay-friendly city'". LGBT culture is also active within companies that are based in Silicon Valley, which is located within the southern San Francisco Bay Area.

Peg's Place was a San Francisco lesbian bar (1950s–1988) and the site of an assault in 1979 by off-duty members of the San Francisco vice squad, an event which drew national attention to other incidents of anti-gay violence and police harassment of the LGBT community and helped propel an unsuccessful citywide proposition to ban the city's vice squad altogether. Historians have written about the incident when describing the tension that existed between the police and the LGBT community during the late 1970s.


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Further reading

Archival resources

Harvey Milk
Harvey Milk at Gay Pride San Jose, June 1978 (cropped).jpg
Milk in June 1978
Member of the
San Francisco Board of Supervisors

from the 5th district
In office
January 8, 1978 November 27, 1978
Political offices
New constituency Member of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors
from the 5th district

Succeeded by