White Night riots

Last updated

White Night riots
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
DateMay 21, 1979 (1979-05-21)
Location San Francisco, California
140 injured

The White Night riots were a series of violent events sparked by an announcement of a perceived lenient sentencing of Dan White for the assassinations of San Francisco Mayor George Moscone and of Harvey Milk, a member of the city's Board of Supervisors who was among the first openly gay elected official in the United States. The events took place on the night of May 21, 1979 (the night before what would have been Milk's 49th birthday) in San Francisco. Earlier that day, White had been convicted of voluntary manslaughter, the lightest possible conviction for his actions. That White was not convicted of first-degree murder (of which he was originally charged) had so outraged the city's gay community that it set off the most violent reaction by gay Americans since the 1969 Stonewall Riots in New York City (which is credited as the beginning of the modern gay rights movement in the United States).

Dan White American politician, killer of Moscone and Milk

Daniel James White was a member of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors who killed San Francisco Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk, on Monday, November 27, 1978, at City Hall. In a controversial verdict that led to the coining of the legal slang "Twinkie defense", White was convicted of manslaughter rather than murder in the deaths of Milk and Moscone. White served five years of a seven-year prison sentence. Less than two years after his release he returned to San Francisco and committed suicide.

Moscone–Milk assassinations assassinations of politicians Moscone and Milk

The Moscone–Milk assassinations were the killings of San Francisco Mayor George Moscone and San Francisco Supervisor Harvey Milk, who were shot and killed in San Francisco City Hall by former Supervisor Dan White on November 27, 1978. White was angry that Moscone had refused to reappoint him to his seat on the Board of Supervisors, from which he had just resigned, and that Milk had lobbied heavily against his reappointment. These events helped bring national notice to then-Board President Dianne Feinstein, who became the first female mayor of San Francisco and eventually U.S. Senator for California.

George Moscone American politician

George Richard Moscone was an American attorney and Democratic politician. He 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. Moscone served in the California State Senate from 1967 until becoming Mayor. In the Senate, he served as Majority Leader.


The gay community of San Francisco had a longstanding conflict with the San Francisco Police Department. White's status as a former police officer intensified the community's anger at the SFPD. Initial demonstrations took place as a peaceful march through the Castro district of San Francisco. After the crowd arrived at the San Francisco City Hall, violence began. The events caused hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of property damage to City Hall and the surrounding area, as well as injuries to police officers and rioters.

San Francisco Police Department municipal police

The San Francisco Police Department (SFPD) is the city police department of the City and County of San Francisco, California. The department's motto is the same as that of the city and county: Oro en paz, fierro en guerra, Spanish for Gold in peace, iron in war.

San Francisco City Hall city hall

San Francisco City Hall is the seat of government for the City and County of San Francisco, California. Re-opened in 1915 in its open space area in the city's Civic Center, it is a Beaux-Arts monument to the City Beautiful movement that epitomized the high-minded American Renaissance of the 1880s to 1917. The structure's dome is taller than that of the United States Capitol by 42 feet. The present building replaced an earlier City Hall that was destroyed during the 1906 earthquake, which was two blocks from the present one. It was bounded by Larkin Street, McAllister Street, and City Hall Avenue, largely where the current public library and U.N. Plaza stand today.

Riot form of civil disorder

A riot is a form of civil disorder commonly characterized by a group lashing out in a violent public disturbance against authority, property or people. Riots typically involve theft, vandalism, and destruction of property, public or private. The property targeted varies depending on the riot and the inclinations of those involved. Targets can include shops, cars, restaurants, state-owned institutions, and religious buildings.

Several hours after the riot had been broken up, police made a retaliatory raid on a gay bar in San Francisco's Castro District. Many patrons were beaten by police in riot gear. Two dozen arrests were made during the course of the raid, and several people later sued the SFPD. [1]

Gay bar drinking establishment primarily or exclusively for LGBT people

A gay bar is a drinking establishment that caters to an exclusively or predominantly lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) clientele; the term gay is used as a broadly inclusive concept for LGBT and queer communities.

In the following days, gay leaders refused to apologize for the events of that night. This led to increased political power in the gay community, which culminated in the election of Mayor Dianne Feinstein to a full term the following November. In response to a campaign promise, Feinstein appointed a pro-gay Chief of Police, which increased recruitment of gay people in the police force and eased tensions.

Dianne Feinstein American politician

Dianne Goldman Berman Feinstein is an American politician serving as the senior United States Senator from California. She took office on November 4, 1992. A member of the Democratic Party, Feinstein was Mayor of San Francisco from 1978 to 1988.


Gay history of San Francisco

The American settlers who moved west toward California in the 18th and 19th centuries were largely male prospectors and miners. Events such as the California Gold Rush created a broadly male society in that region. Romantic friendships were common, and often tolerated. [2] As San Francisco was settled the ratio of men to women remained disproportionately high, resulting in the growth of a culture that was more open-minded towards homosexuality. The city's notorious brothel district – named the Barbary Coast – earned the city a reputation as a lawless and amoral society leading to San Francisco becoming known as "Sodom by the Sea." [3]

California Gold Rush gold rush from 1848 until 1854 in California

The California Gold Rush (1848–1855) began on January 24, 1848, when gold was found by James W. Marshall at Sutter's Mill in Coloma, California. The news of gold brought approximately 300,000 people to California from the rest of the United States and abroad. The sudden influx of gold into the money supply reinvigorated the American economy, and the sudden population increase allowed California to go rapidly to statehood, in the Compromise of 1850. The Gold Rush had severe effects on Native Californians and resulted in a precipitous population decline from disease, genocide and starvation. By the time it ended, California had gone from a thinly populated ex-Mexican territory, to having one of its first two U.S. Senators, John C. Frémont, selected to be the first presidential nominee for the new Republican Party, in 1856.

Romantic friendship very close but non-sexual relationship between friends, often involving a degree of physical and emotional intimacy

A romantic friendship, passionate friendship, or affectionate friendship is a very close but typically non-sexual relationship between friends, often involving a degree of physical closeness beyond that which is common in the contemporary Western societies. It may include for example holding hands, cuddling, hugging, kissing, giving massages, and sharing a bed, or co-sleeping, without sexual intercourse or other physical sexual expression.

Barbary Coast, San Francisco human settlement in California, United States of America

The Barbary Coast was a red-light district during the second half of the 19th and early 20th centuries in San Francisco which featured dance halls, concert saloons, bars, jazz clubs, variety shows, and brothels. Its nine block area was centered on a three block stretch of Pacific Street, now Pacific Avenue, between Montgomery and Stockton Streets. Pacific Street was the first street to cut through the hills of San Francisco, starting near Portsmouth Square and continuing east to the first shipping docks at Buena Vista Cove.

The end of Prohibition prompted the opening of several gay bars along North Beach. The most notable of these were the Black Cat where female impersonation shows became the main draw, and a lesbian bar known as Mona's. [4]

Prohibition in the United States constitutional ban on alcoholic beverages

Prohibition in the United States was a nationwide constitutional ban on the production, importation, transportation, and sale of alcoholic beverages from 1920 to 1933.

Black Cat Bar

The Black Cat Bar or Black Cat Café was a bar in San Francisco, California. It originally opened in 1906 and closed in 1921. The Black Cat re-opened in 1933 and operated for another 30 years. During its second run of operation, it was a hangout for Beats and bohemians but over time began attracting more and more of a gay clientele, and becoming a flashpoint for the nascent homophile movement.

Drag show drag king or drag queen performance show

A drag show is an entertainment which is performed by drag artists, both men and women.

During World War II, San Francisco became a major debarkation point for servicemen stationed in the Pacific Theater. The U.S. military, which was concerned about male homosexuality, had a policy of dismissing servicemen caught in known gay establishments with blue discharges. As many of these men faced ostracism from their communities and families, they chose to remain in the city. The number of men that remained was a significant factor in the creation of a homosexual community in San Francisco. [5]

Gay activism in San Francisco

In 1951, the California Supreme Court affirmed in Stoumen v. Reilly [6] the right of homosexuals to assemble peacefully. [7] To assist homosexuals with legal problems, in 1951 labor activist Harry Hay started the Mattachine Society, from his living room in Los Angeles. A few years later, Phyllis Lyon and Del Martin started the Daughters of Bilitis with six other women in San Francisco, initially to have a place to socialize without fear of harassment or arrest. [8] Within a few years, both organizations learned of each other and grew to have similar goals: helping assimilate homosexuals into general society, working for legal reform to repeal sodomy laws, and assisting those who were arrested. Both groups were headquartered in San Francisco by 1957. [9]

Police continued to arrest homosexuals in large numbers, routinely bringing paddy wagons to gay bars and arresting their patrons. Charges were usually dismissed but those arrested often lost their anonymity when newspapers printed their names, addresses and places of employment. Officers also notified the employer and family of the accused, causing serious damage to their reputations. [7]

In 1964, a New Year's Eve benefit event was held for the Council on Religion and the Homosexual. Police stood outside with large floodlights, and in an effort to intimidate took photographs of anyone entering the building. Later, several officers demanded that they be allowed inside. Three lawyers explained to them that under California law, the event was a private party and they could not enter unless they bought tickets. The lawyers were then arrested. [7] Several ministers who were in attendance held a press conference the next morning, likening the SFPD to the Gestapo. Even the Catholic archbishop strongly condemned the actions of the police. In an attempt to reduce such harassment two officers were tasked with improving the police department's relationship with the gay community. [7]

The Mattachine Society and Daughters of Bilitis promoted non-confrontational education for homosexuals and heterosexuals, hoping to prove that homosexuals were respectable and normal. Living beyond the mostly white, middle class scope of these groups was an active community of cross-dressers, hustlers, and "street queens" who worked primarily in the Tenderloin district of the city. After being denied service at Gene Compton's Cafeteria, a few activists picketed the restaurant in 1966. A few days later, early in the morning, the police arrived to arrest patrons in drag. A riot ensued when a drag queen threw the contents of a cup of coffee in the face of a police officer in response to the officer's grabbing of her arm. The cafe's plate glass windows were shattered in the melée, and then again a few days later after they had been replaced. [10] Although three years later the Stonewall Riots would have a more significant impact, the Compton's Cafeteria riots were among the first in American history where homosexuals and the newly forming transgender community fought against the authorities. [note 1]

Political clout

San Francisco continued to grow as a haven for homosexuals. North Beach and Polk Street had been quiet neighborhoods each with a large homosexual population, but in the 1960s the growth of the Castro District outpaced either of them. Thousands of gay men migrated to San Francisco, turning the quiet Irish working-class neighborhood around Castro Street into a bustling center of activity. [11] Meanwhile, many lesbians moved their homes and businesses to nearby Valencia Street in the Mission District. [12] New Yorker Harvey Milk resettled on Castro Street in 1972, and opened Castro Camera the following year. Dissatisfied with the level of bureaucratic apathy and indifference toward the gay community, Milk decided to run for city supervisor. Through his multiple campaigns, culminating in his 1977 election, he became the political voice for the gay community, promoting himself as the "Mayor of Castro Street." [11] By 1977, 25 percent of the population of San Francisco was reported to be gay. [13]

On Labor Day of 1974, tensions between the gay community and the SFPD came to a head when a man was beaten and arrested while walking down Castro Street. Police reinforcements suddenly appeared on the street, their badge numbers hidden, and beat dozens of gay men. Of these, 14 were arrested and charged with obstructing a sidewalk. [14] Harvey Milk dubbed them the "Castro 14", and a $1.375 million lawsuit was filed against the police. [14]

In 1975, after George Moscone had been elected Mayor, he appointed Charles Gain as his Chief of Police. Gain, whose conciliatory position towards African Americans had branded him as one of the most liberal law enforcement officers in the country, soon earned the ire of the police force. [15] Gain implemented policies that proved unpopular with his staff, such as painting police cars powder blue, and barring officers from drinking on the job. His lenient policies towards gays also angered the police force. When asked what he would do if a gay police officer came out, Gain replied "I certainly think that a gay policeman could be up front about it under me. If I had a gay policeman who came out, I would support him 100 percent." [15] This statement sent shockwaves through the police department, and made national headlines. Made during the first week of Gain's tenure, the remark also made Mayor Moscone extremely unpopular with the police. [15] The two were so intensely disliked by the police that in 1977 rumors circulated about a plan by right-wing police officers to assassinate Gain, [16] and a year later similar plans formed targeting Mayor Moscone. [16] Upon being informed of this threat, Moscone hired a bodyguard.[ citation needed ]


San Francisco City Hall, where the killings took place. The building was heavily damaged during the riots. SFCityHall.png
San Francisco City Hall, where the killings took place. The building was heavily damaged during the riots.

Dissatisfied with city politics, and in financial difficulty due to his failing restaurant business and low annual salary of $9,600, former police officer and Supervisor Dan White resigned from the San Francisco Board of Supervisors on November 10, 1978. [17] However, after a meeting with the Police Officers' association and the Board of Realtors, White announced that he wanted his seat back. Liberal Supervisors saw this as an opportunity to end the 6-5 split on the Board that blocked progressive initiatives they wanted to introduce. After intense lobbying by Supervisors Milk and Silver, as well as State Assemblyman Willie Brown, Moscone announced on November 26, 1978, that he would not be reappointing Dan White to the seat he had vacated. [18] [19] [20]

The next morning White went to City Hall armed with his police .38 Smith & Wesson revolver and 10 extra cartridges in his coat pocket. To avoid the metal detector he entered the building through a basement window, and proceeded to the office of Mayor George Moscone. Following a brief argument, White shot the Mayor in the shoulder and chest, and then twice in the head. [21] White then walked to his former office, reloading his gun, and asked Milk to join him. White then shot Milk in the wrist, shoulder and chest, and then twice in the head, execution style. Supervisor Dianne Feinstein heard the gunshots and called the police, who found Milk on his stomach, blood pouring out of his head wounds. [22]


Dan White verdict

On May 21, 1979, White was found guilty of the voluntary manslaughter of Mayor Moscone and Supervisor Milk. [23] The prosecutor asked for a finding of first-degree murder with "special circumstances", which would have permitted the death penalty under the terms of a recently adopted capital punishment law in California, Proposition 7. [23] The "special circumstances" alleged in this case were that Mayor Moscone had been killed in order to block the appointment of someone to fill the City Supervisor seat from which Dan White had resigned, and also that multiple people were killed. [23]

White's sentence was reduced due in part to the so-called Twinkie defense, a judgment that provoked outrage in the community. The "Twinkie" defense was presented by a psychiatrist to the jury, stating that White had a diminished capacity due to depression. The copious amounts of junk food White consumed are cited as a symptom of his mental state. [19] The jury heard a tape recording of White's confession, which consisted of highly emotional ranting about the pressure he was under, and members of the jury wept in sympathy for the defendant. [24] White represented the "old guard" of San Francisco, who were wary of the influx of minority groups into the city and represented a more conservative, traditional view that the more liberal forces in the city, like Moscone and Milk, were perceived to be eroding. [25] The San Francisco Police Department had, in conjunction with the fire department, raised more than $100,000 to defend White, which earned the anger of the gay community. [26] He received a conviction for the least serious offense, voluntary manslaughter, and sentenced to seven years and eight months in Soledad prison. [1] With good behavior he had the chance to be released after serving two-thirds of his sentence, about five years. [27] Upon hearing the verdict, District Attorney Joseph Freitas, Jr., said "It was a wrong decision. The jury was overwhelmed by emotions and did not sufficiently analyze the evidence that this was deliberate, calculated murder." [23] In defense of his client, White's attorney Douglas Schmidt stated that White "is filled with remorse and I think he's in a very bad condition." [23]

White would later confirm that the killings were premeditated. In 1984, he told former police Inspector Frank Falzon that not only had he planned to kill Moscone and Milk, but also had plans to kill Assemblyman Willie Brown and Supervisor Carol Ruth Silver. He believed that the four politicians were attempting to block his reinstatement as Supervisor. [28] [29] Falzon quoted White as having said, "I was on a mission. I wanted four of them. Carol Ruth Silver, she was the biggest snake ... and Willie Brown, he was masterminding the whole thing." [29]

March through the Castro

Today, Dan White was essentially patted on the back. He was convicted of manslaughter—what you get for hit and run. We all know this violence has touched all of us. It was not manslaughter. I was there that day at City Hall. I saw what the violence did. It was not manslaughter, it was murder.

Cleve Jones [30]

When told of the verdict, Milk's friend and activist Cleve Jones addressed an audience of about 500 people that had gathered on Castro Street, telling them of the verdict. With shouts of "Out of the bars and into the streets" Jones led a crowd down Castro street, its numbers bolstered by people emerging from each bar. [31] The crowd circled around and marched through the Castro again, by now numbering about 1,500 people. [31]

In a 1984 interview, Jones gave a voice to the feeling in the crowd as they began to group together on Castro Street after news of the verdict spread, stating, "The rage in people's face—I saw people I'd known for years, and they were so furious. That to me was the scariest thing. All these people I'd know from the neighborhood, boys from the corner, these people I'd ridden the bus with, just out there, screaming for blood." [1]

Violence at City Hall

Rioters causing property damage at the Civic Center Plaza. Burning police cruisers are seen in the background. Image credit: Daniel Nicoletta. White Night riots.jpg
Rioters causing property damage at the Civic Center Plaza. Burning police cruisers are seen in the background. Image credit: Daniel Nicoletta.

By the time the crowd reached City Hall its numbers had increased to over 5,000. Protesters shouted slogans such as "Kill Dan White!" and "Dump Dianne!", a reference to Mayor Dianne Feinstein. [23] [note 2] The handful of police officers on duty at the scene were uncertain about how to deal with the situation, and the Police Department, which was unaccustomed to an angry gay crowd, was similarly uncertain of how to proceed. [23] [31] The protesters were convinced that the police and prosecution had conspired to avoid a severe sentence for White, although Prosecutor Thomas Norman denied this repeatedly until his death. [28]

Members of the crowd tore gilded ornamental work from the building's wrought iron doors and then used it to break first floor windows. Several of Harvey Milk's friends monitored and attempted to hold back the crowd, including Milk's long term partner Scott Smith. [31] A formation of police appeared on the north side of the Civic Center Plaza, and those attempting to hold back the mob sat down, grateful for the reinforcements. The officers however did not restrain themselves to holding back the crowd, and instead attacked them with night sticks. [31]

One young man kicked and smashed the window of a police car, lit a pack of matches, and set the upholstery on fire. After burning for a short time, the fuel tank exploded; a dozen more police cars and eight other automobiles would be destroyed in a similar fashion. The photo on the front cover of the Dead Kennedys 1980 album Fresh Fruit for Rotting Vegetables , which shows several police cars on fire, was taken that night. Several crowd members threw tear gas, which they had stolen from police vehicles. [23] [32] [33] Riots began to break out, with one mob disrupting traffic. Electric trollies were disabled when their overhead wires were pulled down, and violence broke out against the police officers, who were outnumbered. Police Chief Charles Gain, standing inside City Hall, ordered officers not to attack and to simply stand their ground. [31]

Mayor Feinstein and Supervisor Carol Ruth Silver addressed the demonstrators in an attempt to defuse the situation. Mayor Feinstein said that she had received news of the verdict "with disbelief", and Supervisor Silver stated, "Dan White has gotten away with murder. It's as simple as that." [32] Silver was injured when struck by a flying object. [23] More than 140 protesters were also injured. [32]

Police retaliation

After nearly three hours of shouts from the angry crowd, officers moved in to quell the riot. Police reportedly covered their badges with black tape—preventing any identification—and attacked rioters. Dozens of police officers swept into the crowd, using tear gas to force protesters away from the building. Police were surprised at the resistance they faced from the protesters, who attempted to push them back using tree branches, chrome torn off city buses, and asphalt ripped from the street, as weapons. As one man ignited the last police car he shouted to a reporter "Make sure you put in the paper that I ate too many Twinkies." [34] Sixty officers were injured, and about two dozen arrests were made. [23] [32] [33]

The second stage of the violence was a police raid/riot hours later in the predominantly gay Castro neighborhood, which vandalized the Elephant Walk bar and injured many of its occupants. [35] After order was restored at City Hall, SFPD cars carrying dozens of officers headed into the Castro District. [36] Officers entered a gay bar called the Elephant Walk, despite their orders not to do so. They shouted "dirty cocksuckers" and "sick faggots", shattered the large plate glass windows of the bar, and attacked patrons. After 15 minutes police withdrew from the bar and joined other officers who were indiscriminately attacking gays on the street. The incident lasted nearly two hours. [33] [35] [37] [38]

When Police Chief Charles Gain heard about the unauthorized Elephant Walk raid, he immediately went to the location and ordered his men to leave. Later that night, freelance reporter Michael Weiss saw a group of police officers celebrating at a downtown bar. "We were at City Hall the day [the killings] happened and we were smiling then," one officer explained. "We were there tonight and we're still smiling." [37]

At least 61 police officers and an estimated 100 members of the public were hospitalized in the course of the riot. [37] [39] A civil grand jury convened to find out who ordered the attack, but it ended inconclusively with a settlement covering personal injury claims and damages. [35] [36]


The next morning gay leaders convened in a committee room in the Civic Center. Supervisor Harry Britt, who had replaced Milk, along with the more militant gays of the Harvey Milk Democratic Club, made it clear that nobody was to apologize for the riots. Britt informed a press conference, "Harvey Milk's people do not have anything to apologize for. Now the society is going to have to deal with us not as nice little fairies who have hairdressing salons, but as people capable of violence. We're not going to put up with Dan Whites anymore." [40] Reporters were surprised that a public official would condone the violent acts of the previous night, expecting an apology from Britt. Subsequent attempts to find a gay leader who would give an apologetic statement proved unsuccessful. [40]

That evening, May 22, would have been the 49th birthday of Harvey Milk. City officials had considered revoking the permit for a rally planned for that night, but decided against it for fear of sparking more violence. Officials stated that the rally could channel the community's anger into something positive. Police from San Francisco and its neighboring towns were placed on alert by Mayor Feinstein, and Cleve Jones coordinated contingency plans with the police, and trained 300 monitors to keep an eye on the crowd. Approximately 20,000 people gathered on Castro and Market streets, where the mood was "angry, but subdued." Officers monitored the crowd from a distance, [32] [40] however the crowd engaged in a peaceful celebration of Milk's life. Attendees danced to popular disco songs, drank beer, and sang a tribute to Milk. [33] [40]

On the same night, for over three hours about a hundred people held a demonstration at Sheridan Square in Manhattan, to protest the verdict. About 20 officers observed the protest, which began at 8 pm, but no arrests were made. A candlelight vigil was planned for two days later, sponsored by the Coalition for Lesbian and Gay Rights and the National Gay Task Force. [32]

On October 14, 1979, between 75,000 and 125,000 people marched on Washington for gay rights. Many carried portraits of Milk, and placards honoring his legacy. [41] The rally, something that Milk had intended to organize, was instead a tribute to his life.

Dan White was released from prison on January 14, 1984 after serving five years of a seven-year, eight-month sentence. On the evening following his release, 9,000 people marched down Castro street and burned his effigy. State authorities reportedly feared an assassination attempt, and in response Scott Smith urged people not to retaliate with violence. He stated, "Harvey was against the death penalty. He was a nonviolent person." [42]

White committed suicide by carbon monoxide poisoning on October 21, 1985. He connected a rubber hose to his car's exhaust system and routed it to the interior of the vehicle, which he let fill with carbon monoxide. Mayor Feinstein said, "This latest tragedy should close a very sad chapter in this city's history." [43] According to Orange County lawyer Jeff Walsworth, White had expressed remorse for the killings in February 1984. White reportedly stated that it would always cause him inner turmoil. [43] Inspector Falzone said the contrary, however, commenting that at no time did White express remorse in any form at the deaths of Moscone and Milk. [29]



San Francisco's Castro district became an early stronghold for the emerging gay community. Thecastro01.jpg
San Francisco's Castro district became an early stronghold for the emerging gay community.

The community had a long history of conflict with the San Francisco Police Department. Following World War II, gay bars were subject to frequent raids and attempts by the California Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control to revoke their alcohol licenses. [7] They were accused of serving alcohol to homosexuals, a criminal act at the time.[ citation needed ]

The growing political and economic power of the city's gay community conflicted with the established but dwindling numbers of the conservative institutions, such as the police and fire departments. By 1971, police were arresting an average of 2,800 men per year on public sex charges; by contrast, 63 such arrests were made in New York City, although up to a quarter of San Francisco was reported to be gay at the time. [13] [44] Many charges were dismissed due to entrapment, but several men were given harsh sentences.[ citation needed ] In March, 1979, an attack on a lesbian bar by off-duty police officers made the national news and highlighted the tension between the LGBT community and police. [45] The Washington Post cited the incident when it reported a week before the White Night riots that anti-homosexual violence had "increased to a level unparalleled in San Francisco's recent history", including what the gay community perceived as "increasing harassment and abuse directed toward homosexuals by the police themselves," as well as indifference by city officials. [46]

When Dan White was found guilty of involuntary manslaughter, his successful diminished capacity defense enraged the gay community. [27] That the police and fire departments had raised money for his defense gave their anger a focus, turning it against the city government and especially the SFPD. [26]

Effects on San Francisco politics

With the 1979 municipal elections occurring only months after the riot, prominent gay leaders feared a backlash at the polls. [47] The elections continued without incident, and the gay community fared better than expected, wielding unprecedented influence. Although the virtually unknown gay Mayoral candidate David Scott finished third in the election, his showing was strong enough to force Mayor Feinstein into a runoff election against conservative City Supervisor Quentin Kopp. Feinstein's promises to appoint more gay people to public office, and her heavy campaigning in the Castro, ensured that she won enough support from the gay community to give her a full term as Mayor. [47]

One of Mayor Feinstein's first actions upon being elected was to announce the appointment of Cornelius Murphy as the new Chief of Police. Murphy declared that police cars would no longer be colored powder blue, but instead would be repainted as "macho black-and-whites." [47] This pleased the rank and file, and restored confidence in police leadership. [47] Murphy also vowed to maintain the progressive policy towards gays that his predecessor had implemented. By 1980, one in seven new police recruits was either gay or lesbian. [47] In one of his last public appearances, outgoing Police Chief Charles Gain stated that he fully expected to see the day when San Francisco would have both a gay mayor and Chief of Police. [47] By October 1985, an organization for gay law enforcement personnel in California, the Golden State Peace Officers Association, had incorporated as a non-profit organization. [48] It was founded by Art Roth, an Oakland police officer who was present on the night of the riots. [48]

Protesters at the "Day of Decision" rally marched up Market Street in downtown San Francisco following the California Supreme Court ruling. Prop 8 Rally in Market St.jpg
Protesters at the "Day of Decision" rally marched up Market Street in downtown San Francisco following the California Supreme Court ruling.

Thirty years after the announcement of Dan White's guilty verdict, the Supreme Court of California prepared their decision on Strauss v. Horton . The case was an attempt to overturn Proposition 8, which had added the statement "Only marriage between a man and a woman is valid or recognized in California" to Article I, section 7.5 of the California State Constitution. [49] This ballot initiative, which was approved in 2008, eliminated the right of same-sex couples to marry in the state. [49] "2008 Official Voter Information Guide". Archived from the original on April 30, 2009. Retrieved May 21, 2009.</ref>

In late May 2009, while the Court was preparing its announcement, rumors surfaced on the Internet that San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom had asked the court not to announce the decision on May 21. [50] [51] [52] They suggested that he made this request so that the announcement would not coincide with the 30th anniversary of the White Night riots. On May 26, the court upheld the validity of Proposition 8, but ruled that the 18,000 marriages that had already been performed would remain valid. [53] In 2013, same-sex marriage again became legal when that voter initiative was ruled unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court: Hollingsworth v. Perry. [54]

Effects on the AIDS movement

The NAMES Project AIDS quilt, representing people who have died of AIDS, in front of the Washington Monument Aids Quilt.jpg
The NAMES Project AIDS quilt, representing people who have died of AIDS, in front of the Washington Monument

Cleve Jones played a major role in the investigation of the riots, and had since become a prominent activist. He dropped out of school to work as a legislative consultant to California State Assembly Speakers Leo McCarthy and Willie Brown. [55] [56] He also spent time organizing political campaigns. In 1981, while working as a consultant to the California State Assembly Health Committee, he became aware of gay men in San Francisco contracting unusual diseases, such as Kaposi's sarcoma. The gay community was eventually seriously affected by the AIDS epidemic, and Jones became a key AIDS activist. Jones co-founded the Kaposi's Sarcoma Research & Education Foundation, which in 1982 became the San Francisco AIDS Foundation. [57] On November 27, 1985, at a candlelight vigil on the anniversary of the Moscone-Milk assassinations, Jones learned that 1,000 people had died of AIDS. He proposed the creation of a quilt, in remembrance of those who had died. [58] In 1987, Jones, by then HIV-positive himself, launched the NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Quilt. [58] As of 2009, the quilt consists of over 44,000 individual panels. [58] In a 2004 interview, Jones said "I thought, what a perfect symbol; what a warm, comforting, middle-class, middle-American, traditional-family-values symbol to attach to this disease that's killing homosexuals and IV drug users and Haitian immigrants, and maybe, just maybe, we could apply those traditional family values to my family." [59]

See also


  1. A smaller-scale riot broke out in 1959 in Los Angeles, when the drag queens and street hustlers who hung out at Cooper's Donuts and who were frequently harassed by the LAPD fought back after police arrested three people, including John Rechy. Patrons began pelting the police with donuts and coffee cups. The LAPD called for back-up and arrested a number of rioters. Rechy and the other two original detainees were able to escape (Faderman and Timmons, pp. 1–2).
  2. As president of the Board of Supervisors upon the death of Mayor Moscone, Feinstein had succeeded to the mayoralty on December 4, 1978.

Related Research Articles

Harvey Milk American politician who became a martyr in the gay community

Harvey Bernard Milk was an American politician and the first openly gay elected official in the history of California, where he was elected to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. Although he was the most pro-LGBT politician in the United States at the time, politics and activism were not his early interests; he was neither open about his sexuality nor civically active until he was 40, after his experiences in the counterculture movement of the 1960s.

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

Randy Shilts American journalist

Randy Shilts was an American journalist and author. He worked as a reporter for both The Advocate and the San Francisco Chronicle, as well as for San Francisco Bay Area television stations. He wrote the critically acclaimed book And the Band Played On (1987), which chronicled the history of the AIDS epidemic.

Briggs Initiative

The Briggs Initiative, officially California Proposition 6, was a 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 film by Rob Epstein

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.

Harvey Milk Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer Democratic Club

Based in San Francisco, California, the Harvey Milk Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer 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 cofounded the 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.

Harry Britt supervisor of San Francisco ca. 1980s

Harry Britt is a political activist and former supervisor for San Francisco, California. Britt was involved during the late 1960s in the civil rights movement when he was a Methodist minister in Chicago. He was first appointed to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors in January 1979 by Mayor Dianne Feinstein, succeeding Harvey Milk, who was assassinated in City Hall along with Mayor George Moscone by former Supervisor Dan White.

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

Milk is a 2008 American biographical film based on the life of gay rights activist and politician Harvey Milk, who was the first openly gay person 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 and Josh Brolin as Dan White, a city supervisor who assassinated Milk and Mayor George Moscone. The film was released to much acclaim and earned numerous accolades from film critics and guilds. Ultimately, it received 8 Oscar nominations, including Best Picture, winning 2 for Best Actor for Penn and Best Original Screenplay for Black.

Daniel Nicoletta American photographer

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

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 credits SIR and the gay vote with generating her margin of victory in her election to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors in 1969.

The Council on Religion and the Homosexual was a San Francisco-based organization founded in 1964 for the purpose of joining homosexual activists and religious leaders.

1977 San Francisco Board of Supervisors election

The 1977 San Francisco general elections occurred on November 8, 1977, for all 11 newly created electoral districts to be represented in the Board of Supervisors for the 1978 fiscal year, as well as the position of City Attorney, the position of City Treasurer and a roster of 22 propositions. It was the first time in San Francisco's history that Board elections were held on a districted basis rather than on a citywide at-large basis; in the November 1976 general election, voters in San Francisco decided to reorganize supervisor elections to choose supervisors from neighborhoods instead of voting for them in citywide ballots.

Mayoralty of Dianne Feinstein 38th Mayor of San Francisco

Dianne Feinstein became mayor pro-tem of the City and County of San Francisco, California on December 4, 1978, following the Moscone–Milk assassinations in which her predecessor in office, George Moscone and fellow member of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, Harvey Milk, were assassinated by former supervisor Dan White. At the age of 45, Feinstein became the first female mayor of the municipality, and was formally elected to the position on November 4, 1979 and re-elected in 1983. She was prevented from seeking a third term in office and was succeeded in 1987 by Art Agnos.

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

LGBT culture in San Francisco

The lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community in San Francisco is one of the largest and most prominent LGBT communities in the world, and is one of the most important in the history of LGBT rights and activism. The city itself has, among its many nicknames, the nickname "gay capital of the world", and 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 which was 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 a 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.


  1. 1 2 3 Gorney, Cynthia (January 4, 1984). "The Legacy of Dan White; A stronger gay community looks back at the tumult". The Washington Post .
  2. Katz (1976), pp. 508–510.
  3. Stryker & Van Buskirk (1996), pp. 18.
  4. Stryker & Van Buskirk (1996), pp. 22–24.
  5. D'Emilio, John (1989). "Gay Politics and Community in San Francisco since World War II". Hidden From History: Reclaiming the Gay and Lesbian Past. New American Library. ISBN   0-453-00689-2.
  6. Stoumen v. Reilly, 37Cal. 2d713 (1951).
  7. 1 2 3 4 5 Shilts (1982), pp. 53–60
  8. Katz (1976), pp. 406–433.
  9. Stryker & Van Buskirk (1996), p. 41.
  10. Stryker, Susan (2008). "Transgender History, Homonormativity, and Disciplinarity". Radical History Review . 2008 (Winter): 145–157. doi:10.1215/01636545-2007-026.
  11. 1 2 FitzGerald, Frances (July 21, 1986). "A Reporter at Large: The Castro – I". The New Yorker . pp. 34–70.
  12. Bonnie Zimmerman, Encyclopedia of Lesbian Histories and Cultures, Routledge, Aug 21, 2013
  13. 1 2 Gold, Herbert (November 6, 1977). "A Walk on San Francisco's Gay Side". The New York Times . p. SM17.
  14. 1 2 Shilts (1982), pp. 92–93
  15. 1 2 3 Shilts (1982), pp. 120–121
  16. 1 2 Shilts (1982), p. 201
  17. Shilts (1982), p. 250
  18. Shilts (1982), pp. 254–262
  19. 1 2 Pogash, Carol (November 23, 2003). "Myth of the 'Twinkie defense'". San Francisco Chronicle . p. D1.
  20. Weiss, Mike (September 18, 1998). "Killer of Moscone, Milk had Willie Brown on List". San Jose Mercury News . p. A1.
  21. Turner, Wallace (November 28, 1978). "Suspect Sought Job". The New York Times . p. 1.
  22. Flintwick, James (November 28, 1978). "Aide: White 'A Wild Man'". The San Francisco Examiner . p. 1.
  23. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 Turner, Wallace (May 22, 1979). "Ex-Official Guilty of Manslaughter In Slayings on Coast; 3,000 Protest". The New York Times . pp. A1, D17.
  24. D'Emilio (1992), p. 92.
  25. Fosburgh, Lacey (July 1, 1984). "San Francisco". The New York Times .
  26. 1 2 Peddicord (1996), p. 88.
  27. 1 2 Matthews, Jay (October 22, 1985). "Dan White Commits Suicide; Ex-San Francisco Supervisor Killed 2 City Officials in '78". The Washington Post .
  28. 1 2 Sward, Susan (July 1, 2009). "Thomas Norman dies – prosecuted Dan White case". San Francisco Chronicle . p. B6.
  29. 1 2 3 Hatfield, Larry D. (November 9, 1998). "Death stalks City Hall". The San Francisco Examiner .
  30. Shilts (1982), p. 327
  31. 1 2 3 4 5 6 Shilts (1982), pp. 326–332
  32. 1 2 3 4 5 6 Ledbetter, Les (May 23, 1979). "San Francisco Tense as Violence Follows Murder Trial". The New York Times . pp. A1, A18.
  33. 1 2 3 4 Corsaro, Kim (May 18, 2006). "Remembering "White Night" – San Francisco's Gay Riot". San Francisco Bay Times . Retrieved April 4, 2009.
  34. Shilts (1982), pp. 331–332
  35. 1 2 3 Davis, Kevin (June 10, 2007). "Harvey's Marks 10 Years". Bay Area Reporter . p. 13. Retrieved January 30, 2008.
  36. 1 2 Rogers, Fred (October 17, 2000). "The Gay Pride 2000: Elephant Walk Took Brunt of Police Attack in the Castro". Uncle Donald's Castro Street. Retrieved April 10, 2008.
  37. 1 2 3 Shilts (1982), pp. 332–334
  38. Woods (2003), pp. 95–96
  39. May, Meredith (November 27, 2003). "City Hall Slayings: 25 Years Later; From Milk's Times to our Times". San Francisco Chronicle .
  40. 1 2 3 4 Shilts (1982), pp. 334–339
  41. Shilts (1982), p. 348
  42. "Uneasy Freedom". Time Magazine. January 16, 1984. Retrieved July 8, 2009.
  43. 1 2 Schreibman, Jack. "Man who used 'Twinkie Defense' Commits Suicide" Associated Press, reprinted in St. Petersburg Times . October 22, 1985
  44. Shilts (1982), pp. 62–63
  45. Randy Shilts, The Mayor of Castro Street, Macmillan, 1988, p. 306
  46. Paul Grabowicz, “Anti-Gay Sentiments Turn Violent in Aftermath of Moscone-Milk Killings,” Washington Post, May 12, 1979/
  47. 1 2 3 4 5 6 Shilts (1982), pp. 340–342
  48. 1 2 Dickey, Jim (March 16, 1987). "Gay Police Officers Increasingly in Open". Spokane Chronicle . p. A1, A4. Retrieved July 11, 2009.
  49. 1 2 "2008 Official Voter Information Guide". Archived from the original on April 30, 2009. Retrieved May 21, 2009.
  50. "Exclusive: SF Mayor Gavin Newsom Asked Court to Delay Prop 8 Ruling". Towleroad.com. May 20, 2009. Retrieved May 21, 2009.
  51. Keeling, Brock (May 20, 2009). "UPDATE: Newsom Asks Court to Delay Prop 8 Ruling (or Not)". SFist.com. Archived from the original on May 24, 2009. Retrieved May 21, 2009.
  52. Baume, Matt (May 22, 2009). "Newsom Did Not Request Prop 8 Decision Delay". San Francisco Appeal . Retrieved July 8, 2009.
  53. Strauss v. Horton , 207P.3d48 (Cal.2009).
  54. "Cleve Jones Official Website" . Retrieved July 8, 2009.
  55. Shilts (1987), p. 17
  56. "HIV/AIDS Timeline (1982)". San Francisco AIDS Foundation. Archived from the original on June 13, 2010. Retrieved July 8, 2009.
  57. 1 2 3 "History of the Quilt". NAMES Project Foundation. Archived from the original on February 8, 2009.
  58. "FRONTLINE: The Age of AIDS". PBS . Retrieved July 8, 2009.