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Having spent much of his life in New York City, it wasn’t until Harvey Milk moved to San Francisco that he became active in local politics.
It was the early 1970s, gay men from across the US had moved to San Francisco and transformed the city’s Castro District into a vibrant, diverse, and liberal community.
San Francisco’s gay community had been growing steadily since the end of World War II – as one of the country’s major ports, numerous gay men who were expelled from the military decided to stay in the city rather than return to their hometowns. This growing community drew others – also seeking an escape from discrimination and homophobia. By the late 1960s, the Kinsey Institute reported that San Francisco had more gay men per capita than any other American city.
Not everyone in San Francisco was pleased by the city’s growing reputation as a gay destination. Police harassment and entrapment was part of everyday life – in 1971 2,800 gay men were arrested for public sex in San Francisco, by comparison in New York City only 63 men were arrested for public sex in the same year. Any arrest for this type of offence required registration as a sex offender.
Harvey Milk began to become more politically active in response to the continuing discrimination faced by the gay community, but also because of his frustration with local government bureaucracy and inefficiency.
“I finally reached the point where I knew I had to become involved or shut up.”
Milk’s fiery, flamboyant speeches and media skills saw him develop into a natural politician and community leader.
Having unsuccessfully stood for office a number of times since arriving in San Francisco, Harvey Milk was elected as a city supervisor in 1977. He was the first openly gay person to be elected to public office in California.
Harvey Milk was only in office for a period of 11 months, but within that time he was able to pass a stringent gay rights ordinance for the city –outlawing discrimination based on sexual orientation.
It’s important to understand the context in which Harvey Milk was operating. Any progress being made to address discrimination against gay men was vigorously opposed by socially conservative Christian organisations. Save Our Children, led by Anita Bryant, was a major political force, and there were also high-profile campaigns in California to introduce Proposition 6. If passed, Proposition 6 would have made firing gay teachers – and any public school employees who supported gay rights – mandatory.
San Francisco’s gay community were becoming increasingly organised, increasingly political, and increasingly vocal. In the summer of 1978, around 300,000 people took part in San Francisco’s Pride parade. Those marching in the parade carried signs indicating their hometowns, to show how far people had come from to live in the Castro district in San Francisco. It was on this occasion that Harvey Milk made one of his most famous speeches:
“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.”
On November 27, 1978, Harvey Milk and Mayor George Moscone were assassinated by Dan White – a man known to them both through his political career.
“If a bullet should enter my brain, let that bullet destroy every closet door.”
At the time of his assassination, Harvey Milk was 48 years old.
In a sensational trial in May 1979, Dan White was acquitted of first degree murder but found guilty of voluntary manslaughter of both victims. He was sentenced to seven years imprisonment. When the sentence was announced, over 3,000 people marched from the Castro to City Hall. The march quickly escalated into a night of violent rioting that became known as the White Night riots.
Harvey Milk was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2009. It was also in 2009 that the Californian legislature first recognised Harvey Milk Day.
It was Gus Van Sant’s 2008 biographical film (written by Dustin Lance Black) that helped raise global awareness of the story of Harvey Milk and the role that he has played in leading the drive for equality for gay men. Van Sant’s film built on the groundwork of a 1982 biography by Randy Shilts, and the 1984 documentary The Times of Harvey Milk by Rob Epstein.
“My name is Harvey Milk – and I want to recruit you.”
Harvey Milk’s legacy is that he showed that gay community leaders and politicians could have a voice. That we didn’t need to try and show that gay men were just like normal people, that we have every right to demand to be treated with respect and fairness for being exactly who we are.
“…if a gay person makes it, the doors are open to everyone.”