June 2nd: Politician Harvey Milk

A part of the month-long sharing of various LGBT+ activists and icons, today we’re going to talk about politician Harvey Milk. Milk was the first openly gay elected official in the state of California.

A funny story real quick, I learned about Harvey Milk because my friend has the same birthday (May 22nd) and so when she was naming her band in high school, she chose “Harvey Milk” which was my first even heard of him. I still have a plain white T-Shirt that says “HARVEY MILK” written in black sharpie that I wrote when I went to their gig.


Okay, back to Harvey. Let’s rewind to 1930.

Harvey Milk was born in the suburbs of New York City on May 22nd, 1930. He was a class clown as a kid, loved the opera, and was on the athletic side. In his teen years, Harvey figured out he was gay but kept it close to his vest in fear of his family finding out.

After he graduated, he went into the US Navy during the Korean War. In 1955, he was discharged as a lieutenant, junior grade. He mostly hung around New York for a while, drifting through different jobs and in various relationships. Harvey was an uptight man, very high strung and conservative. He was, at one point, flirting with Craig Rodwell, a gay rights activist who wasn’t afraid of the police. After Rodwell was arrested for “public indecency” (his bathing suit was not deemed not long enough) and “inciting a riot” which resulted in his spending 3 days in jail, Milk stopped their relationship. Milk lived a closeted life as he drifted between New York, Dallas, and California.

In 1969, Harvey moved to the Bay Area with his lover who was a part of O’Horgan’s “Hair” and it was there, he began to change. Milk’s conservative ways were slowly washed away as he spent more time with the theater people and other hippies. He would join protests against the Vietnam War and be apart of the gay scene.  After getting fired from his job for his involvement in the anti-war rallies, Milk moved back to New York and worked in more of O’Horgan’s shows.

In 1972, Harvey moved back to San Francisco. He opened a camera shop with his lover Scott Smith. He really started to get into politics while on Castro Street. When he opened his shop, he had a government official come there and demand he pays $100 in taxes for his business. Milk called bullshit and eventually get it lowered to $30, it wasn’t the money that angered Harvey. It was what the government was prioritizing that angered him. He had a local teacher come into his shot shop say that she needed to borrow a projector because all the ones at her school didn’t work. Harvey was angered by this, the government was caring more about $30 than their schools.

In 1973, Harvey decided to run for the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. He didn’t win this time. After that, he focused more efforts near his home, Castro Street. He helped co-found the Castro Village Association after two gay men were nearly barred from forming their own business by another merchants’ association, launched the Castro Street Fair, and supported a boycott of Coors beer until they promised to hire more gay drivers. All of his work to help the neighborhood earned him the nickname “Mayor of Castro Street.” Milk ran for a place on the Board of Supervisors in 1975 but lost again. He worked a bit for the Board of Permit Appeals before leaving to run for the California State Assembly which resulted in another defeat. After suffering so much loss, Harvey formed San Francisco Gay Democratic Club and helped push for a more diverse Board of Supervisors, which worked. It set Harvey on the campaign trail once more in 1977. This time, there was a different outcome: a victory!

In November of 1977, Harvey Milk became the first openly gay elected official.

As a Supervisor, Harvey made important pushes for Gay rights. He fought for a ban on discrimination in housing, employment, and in public. It was passed and signed into law on March 21st, 1978 – one of the biggest steps forward for the LGBT+ community. There was one objector to this movement – Dan White (remember that). Milk was also involved with stopping a bill that would ban gay teachers and any gay rights supporters from working in schools. The bill was defeated by more than 1 million votes due to Milk and others’ diligent work.

In the Summer of ’78, Harvey attended a number of Pride events. He gave a speech, encouraging people to keep fighting for gay rights. Here is a bit of it:

“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.” (x)

harvey last pride
Harvey at one of his last Pride event via Terry Schmitt / San Francisco Chronicle

Sadly, Milk’s story doesn’t have a happy ending. On November 27th, 1978, Harvey Milk was murdered by his ex-coworker Dan White. White had snuck into City hall and killed Mayor Moscone before walking to the otherwise of the building to Harvey Milk’s office. Harvey Milk was shot 5 times at just 48 years old. 

Dan White was not given as sever of a punishment as he should have. Do you know what his defense was? He had eaten too much junk food the night before the murder so his mental health was deteriorated. I shit you not, that was the defense. I don’t know what’s worst: that idea or the fact that it worked. White was only sentenced to 8 years with voluntary manslaughter (he only served 5 fucking years). 

After White’s verdict, the Castro district was livid. They marched on City Hall, 12,000 with candles and photos of Milk and Mayor Moscone, walking from Castro Street to City Hall and demanding Milk be avenged. A riot soon broke out, much to the dismay of Milk’s friends. One rioter told a reporter:  “Just tell people that we ate too many Twinkies. That’s why this is happening.” The police held their ground then but later, they stormed the Elephant Walk Bar on Castro Street – decked in riot gear- and began to beat patrons. The police chief kicked officers out of the neighborhood but more than$1,000,000 in damage was done and 100 rioters were injured with 61 officers. The riot was called the “White Night riots”.

Parade in Recognition of Death of Harvey Milk and George Moscone
A crowd of 12,000 remembering the mayor and Harvey via Photo by Bettmann/Contributor/Getty Images.

Harvey Milk helped push along the gay rights movement before his life was tragically ended. He was not just active politically but socially. He was a leader for gay people to look up to, even away from politics. He encouraged people to live out of the closet and be proud. Milk talked about the importance of hope, something I lived off of in the dark times of my life.

I have skimmed over a lot here (I didn’t even TOUCH Anita Bryant‘s homophobic ass and what she did) so I beg you to read and learn more about Harvey. The movie Milk was on Netflix but has been taken down (rat move Netflix) but I recommend that movie to learn more about a great man.

“You gotta give ’em hope!”

KONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERA
The plaque outside where Castro Camera was. Some of Milk’s ashes are buried under it. Via Wikipedia

Thank you, Harvey.


Information from Wikipedia and History

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