Harvey Bernard Milk (May 22, 1930 – November 27, 1978) was an American politician and the first openly gay man to be elected to public office in California, as a member of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. Milk was born and raised in New York where he acknowledged his homosexuality as an adolescent, but chose to pursue relationships with secrecy and discretion well into his adult years. His experience in the counterculture of the 1960s caused him to shed many of his conservative views about individual freedom and the expression of sexuality.
Milk moved to San Francisco in 1972. Although he had been restless, holding an assortment of jobs and moving frequently, he settled in the Castro District, a neighborhood that was experiencing a mass immigration of gay men and lesbians. He opened a camera store and ran for city supervisor in 1973, where he came up against the existing gay political establishment. His campaign was compared to theater; he was brash, outspoken, animated, and outrageous, earning media attention and votes, although not enough to be elected. He campaigned again in the next two supervisor elections, dubbing himself the "Mayor of Castro Street". Voters responded enough to warrant his running for the California State Assembly. Taking advantage of his growing popularity, he led the gay political movement in fierce battles against anti-gay initiatives. Milk was elected city supervisor in 1977 after San Francisco reorganized its election procedures to choose representatives from neighborhoods rather than through city-wide ballots.
Harvey Milk served almost eleven months as city supervisor and was responsible for passing a stringent gay rights ordinance in San Francisco. On November 27, 1978, Milk and Mayor George Moscone were assassinated by Dan White, another city supervisor who had recently resigned and wanted his job back. Both Milk's election and the events following his assassination demonstrated the ongoing demographic shifts in a growing liberal population and political conflicts between city government and a conservative police force.
Milk has become an icon in San Francisco and a "a martyr for gay rights", according to University of San Francisco professor Peter Novak. While established political organizers in the city insisted gays work with liberal politicians and use restraint in reaching their objectives, Milk outspokenly encouraged gays to seize their growing power in the city and support each other. His goal was to give hope to disenfranchised gays around the country. In 2002, he was called "the most famous and most significantly open LGBT official ever elected in the United States". According to biographer Randy Shilts, Milk's legacy was representative of all gay people: that he struggled, had faith, and showed that it was possible to win, at least for a while. Writer John Cloud remarked on his influence, "After he defied the governing class of San Francisco in 1977 to become a member of its board of supervisors, many people—straight and gay—had to adjust to a new reality he embodied: that a gay person could live an honest life and succeed."
Harvey Bernard Milk was born in Woodmere, New York on Long Island on May 22, 1930 to William and Minerva Karns Milk. He was the younger son of eastern European Jewish parents and the grandson of a Lithuanian salesman, Morris Milk, who eventually owned a department store and was instrumental in organizing the first synagogue in the area. Milk was a subject of teasing due to his protruding ears, big nose, and oversized feet, and showed an early tendency to grab attention as a class clown. He played football in school, and developed a passion for opera. In his teens, he acknowledged his homosexuality, but kept it a very guarded secret. Under his name in the high school yearbook, it read, "Glimpy Milk—and they say WOMEN are never at a loss for words".
Milk attended New York State College for Teachers in Albany (now the University at Albany) from 1947 to 1951, majoring in math. He wrote for the college newspaper, and earned a reputation as a gregarious, friendly student. None of his friends in high school or college ever suspected his sexuality. One remembered, "He was never thought of as a possible queer—that's what you called them then—he was a man's man". Milk soon joined the U.S. Navy during the Korean War. He served as a deep sea diver aboard the submarine rescue ship USS Kittiwake, and was later stationed in San Diego at the rank of lieutenant, junior grade, teaching diving to younger sailors. He was discharged from the Navy in 1955.
Milk began teaching at George W. Hewlett High School on Long Island. In 1956 he met Joe Campbell at the Jacob Riis Park beach, a popular location for gay men in Queens. Campbell was seven years younger than Milk, and Milk pursued him passionately. Even after they moved in together, Milk wrote Campbell romantic notes and poems. Quickly growing bored, they decided to move to Texas, but they were unhappy there and moved back to New York where Milk got a job as an actuarial statistician at an insurance firm. Campbell and Milk split up after a little less than six years—his longest relationship. Milk, once again bored and untethered in New York, offered to marry a lesbian friend in Miami in order to "have ... a front & each would not be in the way of the other". However, he remained in New York and chose to pursue relationships secretly.
Milk abruptly moved from his job as an insurance salesman to become a researcher at a Wall Street firm named Bache & Company, where he was frequently promoted despite his tendency to offend the older members of the firm with his brash speech. Though he was clearly talented and successful, co-workers sensed that his heart was not in his work. He started a troubled relationship with Jack Galen McKinley. Milk's friends saw a pattern emerge: Milk could not stand to be bored in his work, and without fail chose romantic partners who were younger and needed an inordinate amount of attention. Milk persuaded McKinley to work with him on conservative Republican Barry Goldwater's 1964 presidential campaign. McKinley was a stage manager for Tom O'Horgan, a producer who started his career in experimental theater, but soon graduated to much larger Broadway productions. McKinley was prone to depression and frequently threatened to commit suicide if Milk did not show him enough attention.
To make a point to McKinley, Milk took him to the hospital to show him an unsuccessful suicide: Milk's ex-lover Joe Campbell made an attempt when the man he was in love with, Billy Sipple, left him. Milk had remained friendly with Campbell, who had entered the avant garde art scene in Greenwich Village. Milk disapproved of Campbell's relationship with Sipple and did not understand his despondency.
The Eureka Valley of San Francisco, where Market and Castro Streets intersect, had for decades been a blue-collar Irish Catholic neighborhood identified with the Most Holy Redeemer Catholic Parish. Beginning in the 1960s, however, suburbs in Berkeley and Oakland attracted young families with children. Mayor Joseph Alioto, proud of his working-class background and supporters, based his political career on welcoming developers and attracting a Cardinal to the city. Many of the blue collar jobs—and Alioto's supporters—were forced out by inflation due to the influx of white-collar jobs. Castro Street residents began to leave, and a more educated, professional voting base moved into the city. The Most Holy Redeemer Parish shops shut down, and houses were abandoned and shuttered. In 1963, real estate prices plummeted when most of the working-class families tried to sell their houses in a hurry after a gay bar opened in the neighborhood. Hippies, attracted to the free love ideals of the Haight-Ashbury area but repulsed by the crime rate, bought some of the cheap Victorian houses. Since the end of World War II, the major port city of San Francisco was home to a sizable number of gay men expelled from the military who decided to stay rather than return to their hometowns and face ostracism. By 1969, San Francisco had more gay people per capita than any American city; when the National Institute of Mental Health asked the Kinsey Institute to survey homosexuals, the Kinsey Institute chose San Francisco.
Among the thousands of gay men attracted to San Francisco was Milk, who arrived in 1969 with the Broadway touring company of Hair. McKinley was offered a job with the opening of Jesus Christ Superstar in New York City, and their tempestuous relationship came to an end. The city appealed to Milk so much that he decided to stay, working in an investment firm. In 1970, increasingly frustrated with the political climate after the U.S. invasion of Cambodia, Milk started to grow his hair. When told to cut it, he refused and was fired.
Milk returned to New York and became involved with O'Horgan's theater company as a "general aide", signing on as associate producer for Eve Merriam's Inner City, and Lenny. The time he spent with the cast of flower children began to wear away Milk's conservatism. Milk drifted from California to Texas to New York without any steady job or plan. A New York Times story about O'Horgan described Milk as "a sad eyed man—another aging hippie with long, long hair, wearing faded jeans and pretty beads". Craig Rodwell read the description of the formerly uptight man he had known and wondered if it could be the same person. One of Milk's Wall Street friends worried that he seemed to have no plan or future, but remembered Milk's attitude: "I think he was happier than at any time I had ever seen him in his entire life."
Milk met Scott Smith—20 years his junior—and began another relationship. He and Smith, now indistinguishable from other long-haired, bearded hippies, returned to San Francisco and lived on money they had saved. In 1972 a roll of film Milk dropped off to be developed was ruined; with their last $1,000, Milk decided they would open a camera store on Castro Street.
Change did not come easily to the political authorities in San Francisco. Oral sex was still a felony. In 1970, nearly 90 people were arrested for it. Facing eviction if caught having homosexual sex in a rented apartment, and unwilling to face being arrested in gay bars, some men turned to having sex in public parks at night. Alioto asked the police to target these men, thinking that would favorably impress the Archdiocese and his Catholic supporters. In 1971, 2,800 gay men were arrested for public sex in San Francisco. By comparison, New York City recorded only 63 arrests for the same offense that year. Any arrest for a morals charge carried with it mandatory registration as a sex offender.
In the late 1960s, two organizations in San Francisco, the Society for Individual Rights (SIR) and the Daughters of Bilitis (DOB), began to mount defenses against the persecution of gay bars, police entrapment, and lack of legal rights for gays and lesbians coming out of divorces. Several politicians recognized the growing clout and organization of homosexuals in San Francisco, and decided to attend SIR and DOB meetings. Among the early ones were Representative Phillip Burton and Assemblyman Willie Brown, who pushed for the legalization of sex between consenting adults. Brown's 1969 attempt failed, although SIR was again courted by surprisingly popular moderate Supervisor Dianne Feinstein in her bid to be elected mayor, opposing Alioto. Ex-policeman Richard Hongisto worked for ten years to change the conservative views of the San Francisco Police Department, and also actively appealed to the gay community, which responded by raising significant funds for his campaign for sheriff. Though Feinstein was unsuccessful, Hongisto's win in 1971 showed the political clout of the gay community.
SIR had become powerful enough for some political maneuvering. In 1971 SIR members Jim Foster, Rick Stokes, and Advocate publisher David Goodstein formed the Alice B. Toklas Memorial Democratic Club, known as simply "Alice". Alice befriended liberal politicians to get them to sponsor bills. This proved successful when Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon obtained Feinstein's support for an ordinance outlawing employment discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation in 1972. Later, they chose Stokes to run for a relatively unimportant seat on the community college board. Though Stokes got 45,000 votes, he was quiet and unassuming and did not win. Foster, however, shot to national prominence by being the first openly gay man to address a political convention. His speech at the 1972 Democratic National Convention ensured that his voice, according to San Francisco politicians, was the one to be heard when they wanted the opinions and especially the votes of the gay community.
One day in 1973 a state bureaucrat entered Milk's shop, Castro Camera, saying that Milk owed $100 as a deposit against state sales tax. Milk was enraged and got into a screaming match with the man, and eventually got the deposit shaved down to $30 by complaining for weeks at state offices. A teacher came into his store to borrow a projector because the equipment in the schools did not function, and Milk fumed about government priorities. Friends also remember around the same time having to restrain Milk from kicking the television while Attorney General John N. Mitchell gave consistent "I don't recall" replies during the Watergate hearings. Milk decided that the time had come to run for city supervisor. He said later, "I finally reached the point where I knew I had to become involved or shut up".
Milk's reception by the gay political establishment in San Francisco was icy. Jim Foster, who had by then been active in gay politics for ten years, resented the newcomer asking for his endorsement for a position as prestigious as city supervisor. Foster told Milk, "There's an old saying in the Democratic Party. You don't get to dance unless you put up the chairs. I've never seen you put up the chairs. Milk was furious at the patronizing snub, and the conversation marked the beginning of an antagonistic relationship between Alice and Harvey Milk. Some gay bar owners, still battling police harassment and unhappy with what they saw as a timid approach by Alice to established authority in the city, decided to endorse him.
Milk ran on a campaign of conservative financial management, promoting individuals over large corporations and government. His campaign literature read, "I stand for all those who feel that the government no longer understands the individual and no longer respects individual rights". He supported the reorganization of supervisor elections from a city-wide ballot to district ballots, which reduced the influence of money and gave neighborhoods more control over their representatives in city government. He also ran on a socially liberal platform, opposing government interference in private sexual matters and favoring the legalization of marijuana. Milk's fiery, flamboyant speeches and savvy media skills earned him a significant amount of press during the 1973 election. He earned 16,900 votes—sweeping the Castro District and other liberal neighborhoods—coming in 10th place out of 32 candidates. Had the elections been reorganized to allow districts to elect their own supervisors, he would have won.
One of Milk's first displays of influence was with organized labor. The Teamsters union wanted to strike against beer distributors who refused to allow the union to organize beer drivers. An organizer asked Milk for assistance with gay bars; in return, Milk asked the union to hire more gay drivers. Milk canvassed the gay bars in and surrounding the Castro District, urging them to refuse to sell the beer. With the help of a coalition of Arab and Chinese grocers, the boycott was immensely successful. Milk earned a strong political ally in organized labor, and it was around this time he began to style himself "The Mayor of Castro Street". As Castro Street grew, so did Milk's reputation. Tom O'Horgan remarked, "Harvey spent most of his life looking for a stage. On Castro Street he finally found it."
Tensions between the older citizens of the Most Holy Redeemer Parish and the "invasion" of gays entering the Castro District were heightened in 1973. When two men tried to open an antique shop, the Eureka Valley Merchants Association (EVMA) tried to prevent them from receiving a business license. Milk and a few other gay business owners then started the Castro Village Association (CVA), with Milk as the president. He often repeated his philosophy that gays should buy from gay businesses. Milk organized the Castro Street Fair in 1974 to attract more customers to the area. More than 5,000 attended, and some of the EVMA members were stunned; they did more business than on any previous day.
Although he was a newcomer to the Castro District, Milk had shown influence and leadership. He was starting to be taken seriously as a candidate and decided to run again for supervisor in 1975. He also reconsidered his approach and cut his long hair, swore off marijuana, and vowed never to visit another gay bathhouse again. Milk's campaigning earned the support of the teamsters, firefighters, and construction unions. Castro Camera became the center of activity in the neighborhood. Milk would often pull people off the street to work his campaigns for him—many discovered later that they just happened to be the type of men Milk found attractive.
Milk favored support for small businesses and the growth of neighborhoods. Since 1968, Alioto had been luring large corporations to the city despite what critics labeled "the Manhattanization of San Francisco". As blue collar jobs were replaced by service industry jobs, Alioto's weakened political base allowed for new leadership to be voted into office in the city. George Moscone was elected mayor. Moscone had been instrumental in repealing the sodomy law earlier that year in the California State Legislature, and recognized Milk's influence in his election when he visited Milk's election night headquarters, thanked Milk personally, and offered him a position as a city commissioner. Milk came in seventh place in the election, only one position away from earning a supervisor seat. Liberal politicians now held the offices of the mayor, district attorney, and sheriff.
Despite the liberal leadership in the city, there were still conservative strongholds. One of Moscone's first acts as mayor was appointing a police chief to the embattled San Francisco Police Department (SFPD). He chose Charles Gain, against the wishes of the SFPD. Gain was disliked by most of the officers on the force for criticizing the police in the press for racial insensitivity and alcohol abuse on the job, instead of working within the command structure to change attitudes. By request of the mayor, Gain made it clear that gay police officers would be welcomed in the department; this became national news. Police under Gain expressed their hatred of him, and of the mayor for betraying them.
On September 22, 1975, President Gerald Ford was visiting San Francisco, walking from his hotel to his car. In the crowd, Sara Jane Moore raised a gun to shoot the president. An ex-Marine who had been walking by, grabbed her arm as the gun discharged toward the pavement. The bystander was Oliver "Bill" Sipple, who had left Joe Campbell years before, prompting his suicide attempt. Sipple, on psychiatric disability leave from the military, lived in the "sleazy" Tenderloin neighborhood, and refused to call himself a hero. The national spotlight was on him immediately, and Milk responded. While discussing whether the truth about Sipple's sexuality should be disclosed, Milk told a friend: "It's too good an opportunity. For once we can show that gays do heroic things, not just all that ca-ca [crap] about molesting children and hanging out in bathrooms. Milk contacted the newspaper.
Several days later Herb Caen, a columnist at The San Francisco Chronicle, exposed Sipple as a gay man and a friend of Milk. Sipple was besieged by reporters, as was his family. His mother, a staunch Baptist in Detroit, refused to speak to him. Although he had been involved with the gay community for years, even participating in Gay Pride events, Sipple sued the Chronicle for invasion of privacy. President Ford sent Sipple a note of thanks for saving his life. Milk said that Sipple's sexual orientation was the reason he received only a note, rather than an invitation to the White House.
Keeping his promise to Milk, newly elected Mayor George Moscone appointed him to the Board of Permit Appeals in 1976, making him the first openly gay city commissioner in the United States. Milk, however, considered seeking a position as an assemblyman in state government. The California State Assembly district was weighted heavily in his favor, as much of it was based in the Castro District and the surrounding neighborhoods where Milk's sympathizers voted. In the previous race for supervisor, Milk received more votes than the currently seated assemblyman. However, Moscone had made a deal with the assembly speaker that another candidate should run—Art Agnos. Furthermore, Milk was not allowed to run a campaign while seated on a city commission.
Milk spent five weeks on the Board of Permit Appeals before Moscone was forced to fire him because he decided to run for the California State Assembly. Rick Stokes replaced him. Milk's firing, and the backroom deal made between Moscone, the assembly speaker, and Agnos, fueled his campaign as he took on the identity of a political underdog. He railed that high officers in the city and state governments were against him. He complained that the prevailing gay political establishment, particularly the Alice B. Toklas Democratic Club, were shutting him out. He enthusiastically embraced a local independent weekly magazine's headline: "Harvey Milk vs. The Machine".
His campaign, run from the storefront of Castro Camera, was a study in disorganization. Although volunteers were plentiful and happy to get the mass mailings out, Milk's notes and volunteer lists were kept on scrap papers. Any time the campaign required funds, the money came from the cash register without any consideration for accounting. An 11-year-old neighborhood girl joyfully ordered gay men and older Irish grandmothers to work on the campaign, despite her mother's discouragement. Milk himself was hyperactive and prone to fantastic outbursts of temper, only to recover quickly and shout excitedly about something else. Many of his rants were directed at his lover, Scott Smith, who was becoming disillusioned with the man who was no longer the laid-back hippie he had fallen in love with.
If the candidate was manic, he was also dedicated and filled with good humor, and he had a particular genius for getting media attention. He spent long hours registering voters and shaking hands at bus stops and movie theater lines. He took whatever opportunity came along to promote himself. With the large numbers of volunteers, he had dozens at a time stand along the busy thoroughfare of Market Street as human billboards, holding up "Milk for Assembly" signs while commuters drove into the heart of the city to work. He distributed his campaign literature anywhere he could, including among one of the most influential political groups in the city: the Peoples Temple. Milk's volunteers dropped off brochures there, but came back with feelings of apprehension. Because the Peoples Temple leader, Jim Jones, was politically powerful in San Francisco (and supported both candidates), Milk allowed Temple members to work his phones, and later spoke at the Temple and defended Jones. But to his volunteers, he said, "Make sure you're always nice to the Peoples Temple. If they ask you to do something, do it, and then send them a note thanking them for asking you to do it. They're weird and they're dangerous, and you never want to be on their bad side.
The race was close, and Milk lost by less than 4,000 votes. Agnos, however, taught Milk a valuable lesson when he criticized Milk's campaign speeches as "a downer... You talk about how you're gonna throw the bums out, but how are you gonna fix things—other than beat me? You shouldn't leave your audience on a down.
The fledgling gay rights movement had yet to meet organized opposition in the U.S. A few well-connected gay activists in Miami, Florida were able to pass a civil rights ordinance that made discrimination based on sexual orientation illegal in Dade County in 1977. A well-organized group of conservative fundamentalist Christians responded, headed by singer Anita Bryant. Their campaign was titled "Save Our Children", and Bryant claimed the ordinance infringed her right to teach her children Biblical morality. Bryant and the campaign gathered 64,000 signatures to put the issue to a county-wide vote. With funds raised in part by the Florida Citrus Commission, of which Bryant was the spokeswoman, they ran television advertisements contrasting the Orange Bowl Parade with San Francisco's Gay Freedom Day Parade, stating that Dade County would be turned into a "hotbed of homosexuality" where "men ... cavort with little boys".
Jim Foster, then the most powerful political organizer in San Francisco, went to Miami to assist gay activists there as election day neared, and a nationwide boycott of orange juice was called. The message of the Save Our Children campaign was popular, though, and they were well-organized. The result was an overwhelming defeat for gay activists; in the largest turnout in any special election in the history of Dade County, 70% voted to repeal the law.
Christian conservatives were inspired by their victory, and saw an opportunity for a new, effective political cause. Gay activists were shocked to see how ineffective they had been. An impromptu demonstration of over 3,000 Castro residents formed the night of the Dade County ordinance vote. Gay men and lesbians were simultaneously angry, chanting "Out of the bars and into the streets!", and elated at their passionate and powerful response. The San Francisco Examiner reported that members of the crowd pulled others out of bars along Castro and Polk Streets to "deafening" cheers. Milk led marchers—consciously avoiding a riot—through the city that night and the next declaring, "This is the power of the gay community. Anita's going to create a national gay force." Weeks later, 250,000 attended the 1977 San Francisco Gay Freedom Day Parade, in the largest attedance at a Gay Pride event to that point. Activists had little time to recover, however, as the scenario replayed itself when civil rights ordinances were overturned by voters in Minneapolis – Saint Paul, Wichita, Kansas and Eugene, Oregon, all throughout 1977 and into 1978.
California State Senator John Briggs saw an opportunity in the Christian fundamentalists' campaign. He was hoping to be elected governor of California in 1978, and was impressed with the voter turnout seen in Miami. Though there was no statewide gay rights law to overturn, when Briggs returned to Sacramento he wrote a bill that would ban gays and lesbians from teaching in public schools throughout California. Briggs claimed in private that he had nothing against gays, telling Randy Shilts, "It's politics. Just politics. Random attacks on gays rose in the Castro. When the police response was considered inadequate, groups of gays patrolled the neighborhood themselves, on alert for attackers. On June 21, 1977, a gay man named Robert Hillsborough died from 15 stab wounds while his attackers gathered around him and chanted "Faggot!" Both Mayor Moscone and Hillsborough's mother blamed Anita Bryant and John Briggs. One week prior to the incident, Briggs had held a press conference at San Francisco City Hall where he called the city a "sexual garbage heap" because of homosexuals.
In November of 1976, voters in San Francisco decided to reorganize supervisor elections to choose supervisors from neighborhoods instead of voting for them in city-wide ballots. Harvey Milk quickly qualified as the primary candidate in District 5, surrounding Castro Street.
Anita Bryant's vitriol and 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, half of them gay. The New York Times ran an expose 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. The Castro Village Association had grown to 90 businesses; the local bank, formerly the smallest branch in the city, was now the largest and was forced to build a wing to accommodate its new customers. Biographer Randy Shilts noted that "broader historical forces" were fueling Milk's campaign.
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. 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 gay. 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!"
Milk supported other causes as well. He promoted larger and less expensive child care facilities, free public transportation, and the development of a board of civilians to oversee the police. By this time, Milk understood and promoted issues important to neighborhoods 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. 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 a what a newspaper story described as a "tumultuous and moving welcome".
Milk had recently taken a new lover, a young man named Jack Lira, who was frequently very drunk in public, and just as often escorted out of political events by Milk's aides. Since the race for the California State Assembly, Milk had been receiving increasingly violent death threats. Aware that his profile had raised considerably, he recorded on tape who he wanted to succeed him if he were killed, adding: "If a bullet should enter my brain, let that bullet destroy every closet door".
Milk's swearing-in made national headlines, as he became the first openly gay non-incumbent man in the United States to win an election for public office. He likened himself to pioneering African American baseball player Jackie Robinson 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. The Castro District was not the only neighborhood to promote someone new to city politics. An unwed mother (Carol Ruth Silver), a Chinese American (Gordon Lau), and an African American woman (Ella Hill Hutch) were all firsts for the city sworn in with Milk, along with Daniel White, a former police officer and firefighter, who spoke of how proud he was that his grandmother was able to see him get sworn in.
Milk's energy, affinity for pranking, and his 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 successfully represented himself as the person who could deliver gay votes, which were now a quarter of the votes in city elections, effectively negating the influence of the Alice B. Toklas Memorial Democratic Club. Milk, however, became Moscone's closest ally on the Board of Supervisors. 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. Milk was often willing to vote against Feinstein and other more tenured members of the board. Initially he 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 in an old convent. However, after Milk learned more about the facility, he decided to switch his vote, making White's majority—one he had championed while campaigning—a minority. White did not forget it. He opposed every initiative and issue Milk proposed and supported.
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. 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.
The second bill Milk concentrated on was designed to solve the number one problem according to a recent citywide poll: dog poop. Within a month of being sworn in, he began to work on a city ordinance to require dog owners to clean up after their pets. Dubbed the "pooper scooper law", its authorization by the Board of Supervisors was covered extensively on television and newspapers in San Francisco. Milk's campaign manager called him "a master at figuring out what would get him covered in the newspaper". He invited the press to Duboce Park to explain why it was necessary, and while cameras were rolling, stepped in the offending substance apparently by mistake. His staffers, however, 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. It earned him the most fan mail of his tenure in politics and went out on national news releases.
Milk and Lira soon broke up, but Lira called him some time after and demanded Milk come to his apartment. When Milk arrived, he found Lira had hanged himself. Lira, already prone to severe depression, had been upset about the Anita Bryant and John Briggs campaigns.
Attendance at Gay Pride marches during the summer of 1978 in Los Angeles and San Francisco swelled; attendance was estimated between 250,000 and 375,000 at San Francisco's Gay Freedom Day Parade, and newspapers claimed they were inspired by John Briggs. 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. He gave a version of what became his most famous speech, the "Hope Speech", that The San Francisco Examiner said "ignited the crowd":
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.
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."
Citing the potential infringements of individual rights, former governor of California Ronald Reagan voiced his opposition to the proposition, as did Supervisor Dan White, Governor Jerry Brown, and President Jimmy Carter, in an afterthought following a speech he gave in Sacramento. The proposition lost by more than a million votes, astounding gay activists on election night. In San Francisco, 75 percent voted against it.
On November 10, 1978, ten months after being sworn in, Supervisor White resigned his position on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, claiming that his annual salary of $9,600 was not enough to support his family. Milk had also felt the pinch of the decrease in income when he and Scott Smith were forced to close Castro Camera a month before. 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. Within days White requested the position again, and Mayor Moscone initially agreed. However, further consideration—and intervention by other supervisors—convinced the mayor to appoint someone more in line with the growing ethnic diversity of White's district and liberal leanings of the Board of Supervisors. On November 18, news broke of the murder of California Representative Leo Ryan, who was in Jonestown, Guyana to check on the remote community built by members of the Peoples Temple relocated from San Francisco. The next day came news of the mass suicide of members of the Peoples Temple. Horror came in degrees as San Franciscans learned more than 400 Jonestown residents were dead. Dan White remarked to two aides who were working to get him reinstated, "You see that? One day I'm on the front page and the next I'm swept right off. Soon the number of dead in Guyana topped 900.
Moscone planned to announce White's replacement one week later, on November 27, 1978. Half an hour before the press conference, Dan White entered City Hall through a basement window to avoid metal detectors and made his way to Mayor Moscone's office. Witnesses heard shouting between White and Moscone, then gunshots as White shot the mayor once in the arm, then three times in the head after Moscone had fallen on the floor. White then quickly walked to his former office, reloading his police-issue revolver along the way, and intercepted Harvey Milk, asking him to step inside for a moment. Dianne Feinstein heard gunshots, and called the police. She found Milk face down on the floor, shot five times, including twice in the head at close range. Feinstein was shaking so badly afterward she required support from the police chief after identifying both bodies. It was she who announced to the press, "Today San Francisco has experienced a double tragedy of immense proportions ... It is my duty to inform you that both Mayor Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk have been shot and killed", then adding after being drowned out by shouts of disbelief, "and the suspect is Supervisor Dan White". 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 escorted him to turn himself in to the police. Many residents left flowers on the steps of City Hall. That evening, a spontaneous gathering began to move from Castro Street toward City Hall in a candlelight vigil, where their numbers rose to between 25,000 and 40,000, taking up the width of Market Street as far as Castro Street. The next day, the bodies of Moscone and Milk were brought to the City Hall rotunda where mourners paid their respects. Six thousand mourners attended a service for Mayor Moscone at St. Mary's Cathedral. Two memorials were held for Milk, a smaller one at Temple Emmanu-El, and a more boisterous one at the Opera House.
Mayor Moscone had recently increased security at City Hall in the wake of the Jonestown suicides. Survivors from Guyana recounted drills for suicide preparations that Jones called "White Nights". Rumors spread that Moscone's and Milk's murders—promoted by the coincidence in White's name to Jones' codename for suicide preparations—were somehow associated with the Jonestown tragedy. A stunned District Attorney called the assassinations so close to the news about Jonestown "incomprehensible", but denied any connection. Governor Jerry Brown ordered flags 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". President Jimmy Carter expressed his shock at both murders and sent condolences. Speaker of the California Assembly Leo McCarthy called it "an insane tragedy". "A City in Agony" topped the headlines in The San Francisco Examiner the day after the murders; inside the paper stories of the assassinations 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 occur, particularly to "men of such warmth and vision and great energies". Dan White was charged with two counts of murder and held without bail, eligible for the death penalty owing to the recent passing of a statewide proposition that allowed death or life in prison for the murder of a public official. One analysis of the months surrounding the murders called 1978 and 1979 "the most emotionally devastating years in San Francisco's fabulously spotted history".
The 32-year-old White, who had been in the Army during the Vietnam War, was an ex-police officer and ex-firefighter who ran on a tough anti-crime platform in his district. Colleagues declared him a high-achieving "all-American boy", saying, "If he had been a breakfast cereal, he would have had to be Wheaties". White 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 saying, "I respect the rights of all people, including gays". 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". White voted to support a center for gay seniors, and to honor Phyllis Lyon and Del Martin's 25th anniversary and pioneering work.
After Milk's vote for the mental health facility in White's district, however, White refused to speak with Milk and only communicated to one of Milk's aides. Other acquaintances remembered White as being 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. 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. White's associates and supporters described him "as a man with a pugilistic temper and an impressive capacity for nurturing a grudge". The aide who ran 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".
Milk's friends went to find a suit for his casket, and then learned how much he had been affected by the recent decrease in his income as a supervisor. They were surprised that all of his clothes were coming apart; they couldn't find any of his socks without holes. He was cremated and his ashes were split, most of them scattered in San Francisco Bay by his closest friends. Some of them were encapsulated and buried beneath the sidewalk in front of 575 Castro Street, where Castro Camera was located. Harry Britt, one of four people Milk listed on his tape as acceptable replacements should he be assassinated, was chosen by the acting mayor, Dianne Feinstein.
Dan White's arrest and trial caused a sensation, and illustrated severe tensions between the liberal population and the established police force in the city. The San Francisco Police were mostly working-class Irish descendants who intensely disliked the growing gay immigration, as well as the liberal politics of the Haight-Ashbury area. 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. 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". White showed no remorse for his actions, and only exhibited vulnerability during an eight-minute call to his mother from jail.
The seated jury for White's trial were white middle-class San Franciscans who were mostly Catholic, and clearly sympathetic to the defendant; gays and ethnic minorities were excused from the jury pool. Some of the jury members cried when they heard White's tearful recorded confession, at the end of which the interrogator thanked White for his honesty. White's defense attorney, Doug Schmidt, argued that he was not responsible for his actions, using the legal defense known as diminished capacity: "Good people, fine people, with fine backgrounds, simply don't kill people in cold blood". 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. Area newspapers quickly dubbed it the Twinkie defense. White was acquitted of the murders but found guilty of voluntary manslaughter of both of his 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. He cried when he heard the verdict.
Acting Mayor Feinstein, Supervisor Carol Ruth Silver, and Milk's successor Harry Britt condemned the jury's decision. When it was announced over the police radio in the city, someone sang "Danny Boy" on the police band. A surge of people from the Castro District walked again to City Hall, chanting "Avenge Harvey Milk" and "He got away with murder". 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, and shoved a burning newspaper dispenser through the broken doors of City Hall and cheered while it burned. 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." The chief of police ordered the police not to retaliate, but to hold their ground. The White Night riots, as they became known, lasted several hours.
Later that evening, several police cruisers filled with officers wearing riot gear pulled up to the Elephant Walk Bar on Castro Street. Harvey Milk's protégé Cleve Jones, and a reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle, Warren Hinckle, witnessed 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. The chief of police finally ordered the officers out of the neighborhood. By morning, 61 police officers and 100 rioters and gay residents of the Castro had been hospitalized. Over a million dollars worth of damage had been done to City Hall, police cruisers, and the Elephant Walk Bar.
After the verdict, the District Attorney faced a furious gay community to explain what had gone wrong. The prosecutor had admitted to feeling sorry for White before the trial, and neglected to ask the interrogator (a childhood friend of White's and his police softball team coach) who recorded White's confession about his biases and the support White got from the police because, he said, he did not want to embarrass the detective in front of his family in court. The District Attorney blamed the jury who he claimed had been "taken in by the whole emotional aspect of [the] trial".
Dan White served a little more than five years for the double murder of Moscone and Milk. On October 22, 1985, a year and a half after his release from prison, White was found dead in a running car in his ex-wife's garage, at 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, saying "This was a sick man."
Harvey Milk's political career centered on making government responsive to individuals, gay liberation, and the importance of neighborhoods to the city. His campaigns gradually increased and developed these statements and causes. 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 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.
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. Responding to city residents' largest complaint about living in San Francisco—dog feces—Milk made it a priority to enact an ordinance requiring dog owners to clean up after their pets. Randy Shilts noted, "some would claim Harvey was a socialist or various other sorts of ideologies, but, in reality, Harvey's political philosophy was never more complicated than the issue of dogshit; government should solve people's basic problems.
Scholar Karen Foss attributes Milk's impact on San Francisco politics to the fact that he was completely 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." Milk had been a rousing speaker since he began campaigning in 1973, and his oratory skills only improved after he became City Supervisor. 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 those who had heard it often to be the best, and the closing the most effective (although the closeted and fearful gays and lesbians seemed to change cities often in his speeches):
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.
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.
Where Market and Castro streets intersect in San Francisco flies an enormous Gay Pride flag, situated in Harvey Milk Plaza, which doubles as the Castro District San Francisco Municipal Railway (MUNI) station. The City of San Francisco has paid tribute to Milk by naming the Harvey Milk Recreational Arts Center for him. The recreation center is headquarters for the drama and performing arts programs for the city's youth. Douglass Elementary in the Castro District was renamed the Harvey Milk Civil Rights Academy in 1996 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. 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. In May 2008, the State Assembly of California voted to mark Harvey Milk's birthday in a gesture proposed by Assemblyman Mark Leno, who said he "hopes the date will memorialize Milk and motivate people to learn about and celebrate his legacy". Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, however, vetoed the bill, stating that Milk's "contributions should continue to be recognized at the local level".
A school program for at-risk youth, concentrating on the needs of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender students in New York City and operating out of the Hetrick Martin Institute is named Harvey Milk High School. A Democratic organization more liberal than the Alice B. Toklas Memorial Democratic Club organized in 1976 "to keep the gay community free itself of anointed gatekeepers and machine politics". It changed its name to the Harvey Milk Memorial Gay Democratic Club in 1978 and boasts that it is the largest gay Democratic organization in San Francisco.
Freelance reporter Randy Shilts completed a biography of Milk in 1982—his first book, titled The Mayor of Castro Street. Shilts wrote the book while unable to find a steady job as an openly gay reporter. A documentary film was based on the book material titled The Times of Harvey Milk, which won the 1984 Academy Award for Documentary Feature. 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. A musical theater production titled The Harvey Milk Show premiered in 1991. Harvey Milk, an opera written by Stewart Wallace that "mythologizes Milk as a symbol for the birth of the modern gay rights movement", debuted in 1996. In November 2008 a film of Milk's life will be released, directed by Gus Van Sant, with Sean Penn starring as Harvey Milk and Josh Brolin as Dan White. The movie took eight weeks to film, and often used extras who were present at the actual events for large crowd scenes, including a scene depicting Milk's "Hope Speech" at the 1978 Gay Freedom Day Parade.
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, "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". 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.” 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.