Harvey Milk was a Gay activist, politician, icon, and martyr. He gained national attention when he was elected to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors in 1977, and became the first openly-Gay elected official in California. His iconic status was heightened by his theater-inspired performance as an activist-politician, and as a Gay martyr after his assassination in 1979.
Harvey Bernard Milk was born on May 22, 1930 in Woodmere, Long Island, New York to Jewish American parents. During his college years at the New York State College for Teachers in Albany, he was an active member of the Gay social scene without being openly Gay. After college, Milk joined the Navy, and was discharged for reasons unknown.
He returned to New York after his service, where he met Jack McKinley (at one time his lover), and a cast of theater friends who were influential in his involvement in politically-oriented plays such as Jesus Christ Superstar and Hair. Milk would continue to work in theater when he moved to San Francisco. During his theater years, his conservative political views would change, and he adopted counter-culture dress, including beads and long hair.
After living in New York, Milk moved to various cities and settled in San Francisco where his political activism intensified. He ran for supervisor of San Francisco’s District 5 (the Castro District), an area with a large LGBTQ population. He lost his bid, but had established a base of support. In 1975, he changed his appearance to conform to more conservative standards (he wore a suit, no longer wore beads, and cut his hair) when he ran for supervisor a second time. His small business, Castro Camera on Castro Street, was his headquarters, and he took upon himself the title, “Mayor of Castro Street.” Besides working for the rights of Gay people (he called for Gays to support Gay-owned businesses), Milk was also an advocate for ethnic minorities, the elderly, the disabled, and affordable childcare, creating a broad coalition of supporters. Milk was elected supervisor of the Castro District in 1977, after the voting rules for supervisors changed from citywide ballot to neighborhood elections.
By many accounts, Harvey Milk was a lifelong jokester. Harvey even mocked himself with his childhood nickname “Glimpy Milch” (“Milch” was the surname of his Lithuanian grandfather), in part because his big nose, ears, and feet. His sense of comedy was incorporated into his political approach. Milk introduced himself to Mayor Moscone as “number one queen” during their first meeting after his election as supervisor, and would begin speeches with, “I’m Harvey Milk, and I’m here to recruit you,” lampooning anti-Gay rhetoric claiming that Gays were out to recruit children into lives of depravity.
In one memorable example of comedic performance, Milk staged a televised interview where he stepped into dog feces left on the sidewalk to illustrate the need for rules to keep the sidewalks feces-free, and then made a link between people not curbing their dogs and much bigger issues. “It’s symbolic of all the problems of irresponsibility we face in big depersonalized, alienating urban societies,” he said. “Whoever can solve this dogshit problem can be elected mayor of San Francisco, even President of the United States.”
Milk became famous for his “hope” speeches. “A gay official is needed not only for our protection, but to set an example for younger gays that says the system works,” he said. “We’ve got to give them hope.”
To Milk, hope and change would come about fastest if all Gay people everywhere would come out of the closet (not try to hide being Gay) and thus undermine the image of homosexuality as a deviant lifestyle practiced by only a few. He was able to rally enough support in 1978 to defeat Proposition 6, which would have fired openly Gay teachers from public schools, and he sponsored a law barring anti-Gay discrimination. The campaign slogan against Proposition 6 was “Come out! Come out! Wherever you are!” (from the children’s game hide-and-seek, and a song in The Wizard of Oz) a call for closeted homosexuals to reveal their orientation to friends, neighbors, and family so that the public would realize how the measure could hurt somebody close to them.
Not all of Milk’s legacy was positive. Hagiographic portrayals of Milk, such as the movie with the same name by Gus Van Sant (2008), do not include Milk’s outing (revealing to the public that a person is homosexual or LGBTQ) of Billy Sipple.
Oliver “Billy” Sipple was a disabled Marine living in San Francisco. Sipple suffered from debilitating physical and psychological injuries from head wounds he had received in the Vietnam War. Although he was a member of the LGBTQ community, he was not out to his family, including his mother, who lived in his birth-town of Detroit. But neither Sipple’s injuries nor his semi-closeted status kept him from supporting Gay causes, including the campaign of Harvey Milk.
On September 22, 1975, Sipple saved the life of President Gerald Ford from an assassin. The media reported the event, and Ford publicly thanked Sipple. Seeing an opportunity to capitalize on the incident, Harvey Milk and other activists publicly lauded Sipple as a Gay American hero. “It’s too good an opportunity,” Milk said, according to Randy Shilts in his book, The Mayor of Castro Street. “For once we can show that gays do heroic things. That guy saved the President’s life. It shows we can do good things, not just all that ca-ca about molesting children and hanging out in bathrooms.”
Public revelation of Sipple’s orientation caused a huge rift with members of his family that took years to resolve. Sipple unsuccessfully tried to sue the journalists who released his personal information, but appeared to hold no ill will toward Milk. The outing led to further mental problems for Sipple, who died at the age of 47.
Harvey Milk was assassinated along with Mayor George Moscone by gunshot in November of 1978 by Dan White, a disgruntled former member of city council. White was initially on good terms with Milk, and he even invited Milk to the christening of one of his children.
But White opposed Milk on almost every issue (including non-discrimination of Gays) after Milk failed to support White on a zoning dispute with the Catholic Church over a facility for juvenile offenders in White’s district (Milk sided with the Church against White). Milk had received death threats throughout his political career, and had recorded a message in case of his early demise that included the following statement: “If a bullet should enter my brain, let the bullet destroy every closet door.”
On the night of his death, people held a candlelight vigil at the corner of Castro Street and Market Street. When the crowd grew into thousands, mourners marched quietly to City Hall. That night also marked the first public performance, albeit impromptu, of the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus.
White Night Riot and Harvey Milk’s Birthday Party
Dan White received less than eight years in a prison sentence for killing the two men after his lawyers argued, among other things, he was mentally unstable from eating too much junk food. This legal maneuver was lampooned by the press and the Gay community as the “Twinky Defense,” which has entered lawyers’ folk speech as synonymous with questionable legal maneuvering in court (White committed suicide in 1985).
Upon hearing the jury’s verdict on May 21, 1979, an alliance of both Gay and Straight citizens held public protests and began a march to city hall that swelled into thousands, which led to destruction of property as the crowd reached city hall and began breaking windows. A fire was lit within the building, and police cars were vandalized. The police responded by raiding the Elephant Walk (a renowned Gay bar on Castro Street), beating the clientele, and wrecking the establishment. The civic unrest was called the White Night Riot.
The next day, an event had been planned to celebrate Harvey Milk’s birthday with a large dance party by closing off Castro Street. The unrest the night before had both city officials and the Gay community on edge, but the birthday party was successful and peaceful. The tradition of celebrating Milk’s birthday became an annual event for Gay bars in San Francisco and other cities in California.
Besides numerous works in print, on stage, and on video that memorialize Milk, there is the Harvey Milk High School for at-risk children (including LGBTQ children) in New York City and the Harvey Milk Plaza at the intersection of Castro and Market Streets in San Francisco, which has a large rainbow flag raised over it. The building that once housed Castro Camera and Milk’s upstairs apartment has a commemorative plaque in front of it on the sidewalk, as well as a picture in a second-floor window of a smiling Milk wearing a white T-shirt with a rainbow flag on it as he looks down at the street below.
Foss, Karen A. “The Logic of Folly in the Political Campaigns of Harvey Milk.” In Queer Words, Queer Images: Communication and the Construction of Homosexuality, ed. R. Jeffery Ringer, 7-29. New York: New York University, 1994.
Levinson, Sanford. “Public Lives and the Limits of Privacy.” Political Science and Politics 21:2 (Spring 1988); 263-268.
Shilts, Randy. The Mayor of Castro Street: the Life & Times of Harvey Milk. New York: St. Martin’s, 1982.
Milk. Dir. Gus Van Sant, Focus, 2008.
The Times of Harvey Milk. Dir. Rob Epstein, DVD. Black Sand Productions/Harvey Milk Film Project, 1984.