Harvey Milk: An Openly Gay Official Who Stood for All
by TarikA on March 17, 2014 - 11:29am
In 1977, a new era in American politics had begun. Jimmy Carter was still the incumbent president in Washington and an openly gay man from New York, named Harvey Milk, had won a seat on the San Francisco City-County Board. Though the power between both of these men was very far from equal, the latter figure still managed to provide an entire ostracized community of gay and lesbian men and women an incredibly empowering message – that they could actually have hope for the future that awaited them.
The story of Harvey Milk is the story of any adult American who had grown up in the conservative and puritanical age of post-War America – one that was characterized by fear, rebellion and hope. Born in 1930, Milk grew up in a small middle-class Jewish family. Well liked throughout his adolescence, Harvey played sports, sang in the opera at his high school, and even went on to join the Navy after attending New York State College for Teachers. Though to many he seemed to be as “normal” as anyone else, it was only because Milk knew the risks of openly “coming out” as a gay man in 1950’s America (Shilts). After being discharged from the Navy in 1955, Milk moved to New York City, where he took on various jobs: public school teacher, production associate on a few Broadway plays and even a stint as a Wall Street investment banker. The latter job proved to grow tiresome for him and he soon found himself befriending gay radicals in Greenwich Village, in the late 1960’s (Biography). In 1972, Milk moved to San Francisco, alongside his lover Scott Smith, and opened up a small camera shop called Castro Camera, which was located on Castro Street, where the majority of the city’s gay community resided. Over the course of a year, Milk began to gain traction within the gay community as a leader and began to involve himself more so in local politics. By 1973, Castro Camera had become a hub for the local neighbourhood, and Milk decided to declare his candidacy for a position on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, a legislative body within the city’s government. Though he lost the election, his steadfast determination lead to him a second campaign run in 1975, which he also lost, but by a small margin. By 1977, Milk was a top contender in the election and, to the delight of the gay community, won a seat in San Francisco’s city council (Epstein). On January 9, 1978, Milk was inaugurated and thus became one of the first openly gay elected officials in the United States (Biography).
Though Milk was concerned for all peoples that he represented in his district, regardless of their sexual orientation, he did not shy away from the fact that he wanted all gay people in the Bay area to share the same rights as heterosexuals. Milk thus began to sponsor a civil rights bill that would outlaw discrimination based on sexual orientation. For him, it was a necessary right for all homosexuals and lesbians to be able to freely “come out” and live their lives to the fullest in San Francisco, without having to worry about losing their jobs or being persecuted by the rest of society. The bill was approved and signed into law by the mayor of San Francisco, George Moscone, who had become a strong ally to Milk. Though the bill was approved by the majority of the Board of Supervisors (9 out of the 10 members voted in favour of the bill), only one of its members voted against it – Dan White, a former police officer and Vietnam War veteran. White posed himself as a more conservative candidate at the 1977 elections. Guided by traditional values and his faith, White often clashed heads with Milk, though he never expressed any public discontent with his counter-part’s homosexuality (Epstein).
Though Milk had managed to help transform San Francisco into an ever-expanding hub for the American gay community, the situation for gay rights in the country was still rather dire. In 1978, John Briggs, who had recently dropped out of the race for governor of California, began a campaign to pass into law Proposition 6, which was an initiative that would effectively have made firing both gay teachers and gay advocates in public schools mandatory. Though similar initiatives had already been proposed across the country to much greater support, the Briggs Initiative, as it went on to be called, was eventually dismissed by the efforts of Harvey Milk, who campaigned fiercely to discredit the image that Briggs and other proponents of the bill had of gay teachers – that they were more likely to be pedophiles than heterosexual teachers. Aided also by the voice of former California governor Ronald Reagan and even president Jimmy Carter, Proposition 6 lost by nearly a million votes, with 75% of San Franciscans voting against it.
To the joy of many in the gay community, Harvey Milk was riding high in his position on the Board of Supervisors. Dan White, on the other hand, was more miserable than ever. Being unable to provide for his family given the small salary he had been given as a member of the Board, White decided to resign. Quickly after his decision, however, White was pushed by his supporters to ask Mayor Moscone to reappoint him to his position. Moscone refused, as Milk and other members of the Board had asked for a more liberal candidate to replace White. This decision proved to be the last straw for Dan White. On November 27, 1978, White snuck into City Hall with the intention of confronting Mayor Moscone – he was armed with a .38 revolver. White tried to first talk Moscone into reappointing him to his position, which Moscone declined. The talk soon became heated and White then shot the mayor twice in the chest and twice in the head. White then went down the corridor to Milk’s office. White shot milk twice in the chest, once in the back and then twice again the head. Following the altercation, White turned himself in to the police precinct he had worked in (Biography).
That night, thousands of people marched in vigil to commemorate the man that had given them so much hope and aspiration for the future. Harvey Milk was indeed no more, but he would live on as a martyr of the gay liberation movement and would prove to resonate throughout the world as a towering figure for liberty and equality. Though Dan White was, shockingly, only convicted of voluntary manslaughter for the murder of both mayor Moscone and Milk, the efforts that both of these men displayed to create a San Francisco free of prejudice and discrimination would endure and inspire other American cities to change as well (Epstein).
Harvey Milk, the “mayor of Castro Street”, still resides in the American consciousness not only as a political pioneer, but also as a hero for all gay people as he helped many of them conquer the fear and shame that society had reflected upon them their whole lives.
"Harvey Milk." 2014. The Biography Channel website. Web. Mar. 16 2014.
The Times of Harvey Milk. Dir. Robert Epstein. Perf. Harvey Fierstein and Anne Kronenberg. New Yorker Films, 1984. Film.
Shilts, Randy. The Mayor of Castro Street. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1982. Print.