Harvey Milk

Harvey Milk
BornMay 22, 1930
BirthplaceWoodmere, New York
DiedNovember 27, 1978 (aged 48)
Place of deathSan Francisco, California
Alma materUniversity at Albany

Harvey Bernard Milk (May 22, 1930 – November 27, 1978) was an American politician and gay rights activist, and the first openly gay city supervisor of San Francisco, California.[1] He was, according to Time magazine, "the first openly gay man elected to any substantial political office in the history of the planet."

As the "Mayor of Castro Street," he was active during a time of substantial change in San Francisco politics and increasing visibility of gay and lesbian people in American society.[1] He was assassinated in 1978, along with Mayor George Moscone, by then recently resigned city supervisor Dan White making him a LGBT community "martyr".[1] White's relatively mild sentence for the murders led to the White Night Riots, and eventually the abolition of diminished capacity defense in California.

Milk has been the subject of numerous books and movies—including the 1984 documentary The Times of Harvey Milk—which received an Academy Award and was later converted into an opera. In May 2008, to coincide with his birthdate, a bust of Milk was placed in San Francisco City Hall's ceremonial rotunda. This is the first memorial to an openly gay person to be featured so prominently in a public building.


Early life

Milk was born in Woodmere, New York and was the grandson of Morris Milk, owner and namesake of Milk's Department Store.[1] He graduated from Bay Shore High School, Bay Shore, NY in 1947, graduated from University at Albany in 1951 and the New York College for Teachers,[1] and then joined the United States Navy. He was honorably discharged, although he later told voters during his campaigns that he was a victim of one of the many anti-gay purges of the armed services.

Following his service in the Navy, Milk lived for a time in Dallas, Texas. He relocated to New York City, taught high school mathematics and history on Long Island and took a job on Wall Street.[1] He also became involved in theater, serving as assistant director alongside Tom O'Horgan for a number of plays including Lenny and the musical Jesus Christ Superstar.

In 1972, Milk moved to San Francisco.[1] He settled with his domestic partner Scott Smith and opened a camera store, Castro Camera, in the Castro gay village. He emerged as a community leader, founding the Castro Valley Association of local merchants, and represented the neighborhood businesses in dealing with the city government.

Public office

This is not my victory -- it's yours. If a gay man can win, it proves that there is hope for all minorities who are willing to fight.

Milk had two unsuccessful bids for the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, in both 1973 and 1975.[1] He emerged as a figurehead for San Francisco's large gay community, and was known as the "Mayor of Castro Street". With each campaign, he garnered a larger number of supporters. Milk was successful in reaching out to and making alliances with the city's ethnic populations, and with labor union leaders. However, he was less successful with the rank and file of San Francisco Democratic Party members. Between his 1973 and 1975 elections he established the Castro Village Association of local merchants which is now known as the Merchants of Upper Market and Castro.[1]

The year 1975 was a "watershed" year in San Francisco politics with Mayor Joseph Alioto being termed out of office with George Moscone emerging as the leading liberal mayoral candidate.[2] In the city-wide elections, Milk emerged as a strong supervisor candidate because of his tireless campaigning and use of media to keep his name in the front of potential voters' minds. Moscone won his campaign to be mayor and credited LGBT people for the win; Milk nearly won, coming in seventh - with 17,000 votes - for the six-person board.[3][4] Moscone appointed Milk to the Board of Permit Appeals, thereby making Milk "the city's principal - if not yet elected - gay politician" and the first openly gay commissioner in the country.[1][3]

In 1976, Milk built a coalition of labor unions and neighborhood groups to replace the city-wide elections with district elections. The initiative was placed on the November 1976 ballot, with Mayor Moscone campaigning in support to help it win voter approval.[3] Milk started another campaign (hoping to capitalize on his name recognition), this time in the 1976 race for the California State Assembly against Art Agnos, who would win the seat by 3,600 votes out of 33,000 ballots cast. Amongst Milk's supporters was Jim Jones, who is best known for the Peoples Temple church he headed and the Jonestown mass murder/suicide he orchestrated after the group relocated to northwestern Guyana from San Francisco.[5][6] The charismatic Jones could direct "hundreds of [People's Temple] volunteers who could work tirelessly for the candidates of his choosing".[2] Milk, like Moscone and Milk's opponent Agnos, had help from their volunteers in his campaigns - Jones supported both Agnos and Milk in the race.[2][6]

Effective with the 1977 city elections, the switch to district elections ushered in the most diverse Board of Supervisors the city had ever seen. Milk was the first openly gay elected official of any large city in the United States, and only the third openly gay elected official in all of the United States, after Kathy Kozachenko and Elaine Noble. Milk represented District 5, which included the Castro and was aware of the tremendous discrimination and prejudice that confronted gays and lesbians.[1] The diverse board included the former police officer and firefighter Dan White, as well as the gay and liberal Milk. White had to resign from being a firefighter because San Francisco charter barred people from holding two city jobs at the same time, so he took up a second job to supplement the pay downgrade; running a restaurant business, which failed.[7] White, a Roman Catholic and outspoken anti-gay conservative was elected with strong support from the city's police union in part to fight "official tolerance of crime and of overt homosexuality" was a counterpoint to Milk, an outspoken liberal who "frequently opposed him on the board."[8][9][10][11] Milk "championed the cause of those with little power against downtown corporations and real estate developers" and campaigned "especially hard for the rights of senior citizens."[1]

Milk, along with legal assistant Sally Gearhart, became highly visible in the media while debating California State Senator John Briggs throughout the state on Proposition 6, The Briggs Initiative, to "prohibit homosexuals from teaching in California public schools,"[12] a topic on which White and Milk "were sharply divided"[13] because it would have empowered California school boards to fire teachers that "practiced, advocated, or indicated an acceptance of homosexuality."[14]

Milk also sponsored a pooper-scooper ordinance and a San Francisco law barring "anti-gay discrimination" in the workplace which passed the same time the Briggs Initiative failed.[15] Days later, White resigned his city supervisor seat, citing too little salary to support his family and stated that he was "unhappy with the ethics he found in the political world."[10] White's supporters convinced him to rescind his resignation but he was denied by the "liberal-leaning" Mayor Moscone largely at the urging of Milk, who advised Moscone to use the opportunity to get a liberal majority on the Board. Milk and Moscone were friends, and Milk reminded Moscone that the mayor's re-election would be difficult without the gay vote and that many of Moscone's proposals had been defeated because of the conservative majority.[16]

Meanwhile, the tragic end to the Peoples Temple movement in Guyana was unfolding.[9] Like most politicians and civic leaders, Milk had supported the church's programs before the group started relocating to South America and even wrote a letter of support for Jim Jones involving a child-custody case.[17] Although the Jonestown deaths nine days earlier were headline news in San Francisco, with the dual assassinations of Mayor Moscone and Milk "all real dialog about Peoples Temple ceased".[9]

Peoples Temple investigation

Milk spoke at political rallies at the Peoples Temple,[18] attended a rally at the controversial Temple against its opponents during investigations of criminal wrongdoings,[19] supported the works of the Temple in a weekly column after leader Jim Jones' exodus to Guyana,[20] and wrote a letter to President Jimmy Carter stating that Jones was known as "a man of the highest character" while stating that the leader of the group attempting to extricate relatives from Jonestown was spreading "apparent bold-faced lies." [17]


Main article: Moscone-Milk assassinations

On the morning of 27 November 1978, when Moscone was to announce his replacement for Dan White, both he and Supervisor Milk were assassinated by White, who had entered San Francisco City Hall through an unlocked window to avoid detection of his police revolver. After a loud argument, he shot Moscone at close range, reloaded and went down the hall to kill Milk, delivering a coup de grâce to each victim. White quickly left the scene and met his wife at nearby Saint Mary's Cathedral[21] the principal church of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of San Francisco and within hours he turned himself in at the police station where he was formerly a police officer.[22] Though he had carried a gun, 10 extra rounds, and crawled through a window into City Hall to avoid security's metal detectors, White denied premeditation.

Thousands from Milk's District and all over the city attended a spontaneous candlelight memorial march from the Castro towards City Hall plaza. Noted speakers included folk singer Joan Baez. (The Internet Archive has video of the vigil, accompanied by a message Milk recorded preemptively "to be played only in the event of [his] death by assassination".) Milk had anticipated the possibility of assassination and had recorded several audio tapes to be played in that event. One of the tapes included his now-famous quote,

If a bullet should enter my brain, let that bullet destroy every closet door.[1]


Dan White's trial, which began four months after the killings, was one of the most closely watched trials in California at that time. During jury selection, defense attorneys had excluded candidates they deemed "remotely pro-gay"[9] and "filled" it instead with "white conservative Catholics, half of them from White’s district".[22] The prosecution claimed that White's motive was revenge. But White's attorney, Douglas Schmidt, claimed that White was a victim of pressure and had been depressed, a state exacerbated by his consuming a large quantity of junk food before the murders; this became known as the "Twinkie defense". Schmidt also told the jury and the press that White carried the ammunition on him out of impulse from his past experience as a police officer.

Finally, the jury heard what the prosecution hoped would be its most damaging piece of evidence; Dan White's tape-recorded confession which was taped the day after the murders. What was notable about this confession was that the police didn't seem to ask White any questions about the crime and just let him talk. Instead, White tearfully talked of how Moscone and Milk refused to give him his supervisor's job back.

White was convicted of voluntary manslaughter on the grounds of diminished capacity and sentenced to seven years and eight months with parole.

White's former campaign manager and business partner, Ray Sloan, suggests that instead of homophobia, White was mostly motivated by revenge for perceived political betrayal.[22]

White Night Riots

For further information, see: White Night Riots

On 21 May 1979, the eve of what would have been Milk's 49th birthday, demonstrations at San Francisco City Hall erupted into what became known as "White Night", so named for Milk's assassin Dan White.[1] After the sentence, the local gay community erupted in what came to be known as the White Night Riots.[1] As soon as the sentence was announced, word ran through the gay community and groups of people began walking quickly to the Civic Center where City Hall was located. By 8:00 PM, a sizable crowd had formed. According to the documentary, The Times of Harvey Milk, the enraged crowd began screaming at police officers, calling for revenge and death. Riots then began to break out, the mob setting ablaze a number of police vehicles, disrupting traffic, and smashing windows of cars and stores. Buses were disabled by their overhead wires being ripped down, and violence broke out against the outnumbered police officers.

Later that night, in what was widely regarded as a retaliatory strike, a police riot took place in the gay Castro neighborhood half a block from Milk's camera shop and campaign office.[23] After order was restored at City Hall a number of SFPD cars with dozens of officers headed into the Castro District.[24] Police marched into a bar called the Elephant Walk, smashed fixtures and attacked patrons.[23] A civil grand jury was convened to find out who ordered the attack, but ended inconclusively with a settlement covering personal injury claims and damages.[23][24] More than 160 people were hospitalized because of the rioting.

Diminished capacity abolished

As a result of the White case, diminished capacity was abolished in 1982 by Proposition 8 and the California legislature, and replaced by "diminished actuality", referring not to the capacity to have a specific intent but to whether a defendant actually had a required intent to commit the crime with which he was charged.[25] By this time the "Twinkie defense" had become such a common referent that one participant waved a Twinkie in the air to make his point.[26] Additionally, California's statutory definitions of premeditation and malice required for murder were eliminated with a return to common law definitions. Twinkie defense was described in detail in Massachusetts Mutual Life Insurance Co. v. Woodall, 304 F.Supp.2d 1364, 1377 n. 7 (S.D.Ga. 2003).

Legacy've got to keep electing gay know there is better hope for tomorrow. Not only for gays, but for blacks, Asians, the disabled, our senior citizens and us. Without hope, we give up. I know you cannot live on hope alone, but without it life is not worth living.[1]

Milk "profoundly influenced gay and lesbian politics, and was also a champion of human rights".[1] He was named in the "Heroes & Icons" section of Time magazine's Time 100: The Most Important People of the Century. Many institutions and organizations are named for Milk, including the Harvey Milk Recreational Arts Centre, Harvey Milk Civil Rights Academy, the Harvey Milk Institute, the Eureka Valley/Harvey Milk Memorial Branch Library,and the Harvey Milk LGBT Democratic Club in San Francisco.

Outside of San Francisco are a number of alternative schools named for Milk in the United States, including Harvey Milk High School in New York City. Oakes College at the University of California, Santa Cruz has an on-campus apartment building named Harvey Milk.

In February 2007, the city of San Francisco agreed to erect a bust of Harvey Milk in City Hall in tribute to his service and to memorialize his life's work. A lengthy process was conducted to choose a design and a gala installation event took place on May 22, 2008 to coincide with Milk's birthday. The bust, unveiled by an honor guard selected from gay youth, depicts a smiling Milk. On the pedestal are three bas reliefs: one of a Gay Pride Parade, another of Milk sitting on the roof of a car during a Gay Freedom Parade, and a third of Milk in his Navy uniform. It contains the inscription:

Harvey Bernard Milk
May 22, 1930
November 27, 1978
San Francisco Supervisor
Jan 9 – November 27, 1978
I ask for the Movement to continue because my election gave young people out there hope. You gotta give 'em hope.
Hope Speech 1978

In May 2008, the California State Assembly passed AB 2567, which would declare May 22 "Harvey Milk Day".[27]


In 1979, the new wave/electronic band Tuxedomoon released a song mocking the results of White's trial entitled "(Special Treatment For The) Family Man". The song is a part of their EP "Scream With A View" originally on Ralph Records. The assassination of Milk directly affected the band as they were based in San Francisco at the time and one of the founding members was openly gay.

Milk's political life is depicted in the 1984 Academy Award-winning documentary film, The Times of Harvey Milk, narrated by Harvey Fierstein. A 20th anniversary digitally remastered DVD of the documentary was released in 2004 and includes interviews with the film's director, Rob Epstein and Milk's openly gay nephew Stuart Milk,[1] among others.

In 1995 the opera Harvey Milk by composer Stewart Wallace and librettist Michael Korie was premiered by the Houston Grand Opera, and in 1996 it was recorded on CD under Donald Runnicles with the San Francisco Opera orchestra and chorus.

The 1999 TV film Execution of Justice based on the 1983 play (of the same title) written by Emily Mann reenacts the assassination.

In 2000 a TV film, American Justice: It's Not My Fault - Strange Defenses examined the assassination with archival footage of Milk and White.

In 2004, playwright and actor Jade Esteban Estrada portrays Milk in the solo musical comedy ICONS: The Lesbian and Gay History of the World, Vol. 2.

Director Gus Van Sant's film titled Milk began filming on location in San Francisco in January 2008 and is set for release in November 2008.[28] It stars Sean Penn as Milk, Josh Brolin as White, Emile Hirsch as Cleve Jones, Victor Garber as Moscone, Lucas Grabeel as Danny Nicoletta, and James Franco as Smith. San Francisco supervisor Tom Ammiano will portray himself.

Director Bryan Singer had also begun work on a project based on the Randy Shilts biography The Mayor of Castro Street, but due to the 2007-08 Writers Guild of America strike, the film was suspended.

In 2008, Irish electronic band Empire State Human released a song, Harvey Milk, a torch ballad based on his legacy.[29]

See also


  1. 1.00 1.01 1.02 1.03 1.04 1.05 1.06 1.07 1.08 1.09 1.10 1.11 1.12 1.13 1.14 1.15 1.16 1.17 Harvey Milk, Hero and Martyr: (May 22, 1930 - November 27, 1978). KQED (2008). Retrieved on 2008-07-06.
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 Shilts, Randy (1988, page 99). The Mayor of Castro Street: The Life and Times of Harvey Milk. Macmillan. Retrieved on 2008-06-05. 
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 Armstrong, Elizabeth A. (2002, page 126). Forging Gay Identities: Organizing Sexuality in San Francisco. University of Chicago Press. Retrieved on 2008-06-05. 
  4. Shilts, Randy (1988, page 129). The Mayor of Castro Street: The Life and Times of Harvey Milk. Macmillan. Retrieved on 2008-06-05. 
  5. Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple (transcript). PBS (20 February 2007). Retrieved on 2008-08-03.
  6. 6.0 6.1 Another Day of Death. Time (11 December 1978). Retrieved on 2008-08-03.
  7. Dan White: The City Hall Killer. A&E's Crime and Investigation Network (2007). Retrieved on 2007-08-10.
  8. Dan White AKA Daniel James White. Notable Names Database (2007). Retrieved on 2007-08-12.
  9. 9.0 9.1 9.2 9.3 Taccone, Tony (2004/2005). The People's Temple: A Letter From The Artistic Director. Berkeley Repertory Theatre. Retrieved on 2008-08-08. Cite error: Invalid <ref> tag; name "The Time 100: Heroes and Icons" defined multiple times with different content
  10. 10.0 10.1 Lindsey, Robert (October 22, 1985). Dan White, Killer of San Francisco Mayor, A Suicide. New York Times. Retrieved on 2007-08-10.
  11. Getting Off?: Depression as a defense. Time (May 28, 1979). Retrieved on 2007-08-10.
  12. A Brief History Of Homosexuality In America. St. Louis University Safezone. Retrieved on 2007-08-10.
  13. Film: 'The Times of Harvey Milk,' A Documentary. New York Times (October 27, 1984). Retrieved on 2007-08-10.
  14. Mak, Maxwell (2000-2001). What You Get for Hit and Run: A Look at the City Hall Murders and the Dan White Murder Trial. UC Davis. Retrieved on 2007-08-10.
  15. Cloud, John (June 14, 1999). The Time 100: Heroes and Icons - Harvey Milk. Time (magazine). Retrieved on 2007-08-10.
  16. Donald, Uncle (June 19, 1996). Dan White: He got away with Murder!. Castro Street. Retrieved on 2007-08-12.
  17. 17.0 17.1 Milk, Harvey Letter Addressed to President Jimmy Carter, Dated February 19, 1978
  18. "Another Day of Death." Time Magazine. 11 December 1978.
  19. Reiterman, Tim and John Jacobs. Raven: The Untold Story of Reverend Jim Jones and His People, Dutton, 1982, ISBN 0-525-24136-1, page 327
  20. Bellefountaine, Michael, Research on Harvey Milk Renews Calls for Reappraisal of Peoples Temple, The Jonestown Institute at San Diego State University, 2003
  21. A Timeline of San Francisco History - 1978. Zpub (April 5, 1995). Retrieved on 2007-08-12.
  22. 22.0 22.1 22.2 Sieber, Ann Walton (May 2000). Harvey Milk: OutSmart's celebration of the gay icon. OutSmart. Retrieved on 2007-08-10. Cite error: Invalid <ref> tag; name "Harvey Milk: OutSmart" defined multiple times with different content
  23. 23.0 23.1 23.2 Davis, Kevin (10 June 2007, page 13). Harvey's Marks 10 Years. Bay Area Reporter. Retrieved on 2008-01-30.
  24. 24.0 24.1 Rogers, Fred (2000). The Gay Pride 2000: Elephant Walk Took Brunt of Police Attack in the Castro. San Francisco Examiner. Retrieved on 2008-01-30.
  25. FindLaw for Legal Professionals - Case Law, Federal and State Resources, Forms, and Code
  26. Pogash, Carol (November 23, 2003). Myth of the 'Twinkie defense': The verdict in the Dan White case wasn't based on his ingestion of junk food. San Francisco Chronicle. Retrieved on 2007-08-10.
  27. AB 2567 Assembly Bill - INTRODUCED
  28. May, Troy (February 2008, page 28 (magazine mistakenly has 2007)). Harvey Milk Movie Begins Production: Sean Penn Plays Milk. On Bay Area. Retrieved on 2008-02-07.
  29. Empire State Human

Further reading

  • Shilts, Randy, The Mayor of Castro Street: The Life and Times of Harvey Milk. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1982. ISBN 0-312-01900-9
  • Turner, Wallace, "San Francisco Mayor is Slain; City Supervisor Also Killed; Ex-Official Gives Up to Police." The New York Times. November 28, 1978. A1.
  • Weiss, Mike Double Play: The San Francisco City Hall Killings. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley 1984. ISBN 0201095955

External links

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