As Salt Lake City has named three miles of 9th South Harvey Milk Boulevard, many people seeing those signs might ask, “Who the hell is Harvey Milk?” That is part of the
reason city council members decided to name the street — to start a discussion and teach people about the gay pioneer.
Harvey Milk was a civil and human rights leader who became one of the first openly gay elected officials in the United States when he won a seat on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors in 1977. Milk’s unprecedented loud and unapologetic proclamation of his authenticity as an openly gay candidate for public office, and his subsequent election, gave hope that was never before experienced in our community and came at a time of widespread hostility and discrimination. His remarkable career was tragically cut short when he was assassinated nearly a year after taking office.
Milk was born May 22, 1930, in Woodmere, New York. He and a brother worked in the family’s department store, “Milks,” founded by his Lithuanian-born father, William.
He also served in the U.S. Navy during the Korean War. Milk came from a small, middle-class Jewish family that founded a Jewish synagogue and was well known in the New York “Litvaks” community for their civic engagement. He knew he was gay by the time he attended Bayshore High School, where he was a popular student with wide-ranging interests, from opera to football.
While in college at New York State College for Teachers, Milk penned a popular weekly student newspaper column where he began questioning issues of diversity. He graduated in 1951 and enlisted in the Navy, serving in San Diego. In 1955, he was discharged with the rank of lieutenant junior grade.
Milk became a Long Island public school teacher, then a stock analyst in New York City, and a production associate for Broadway musicals, including Jesus Christ Superstar and Hair. In the 60s and early 70s he became more actively involved in politics and demonstrated against the Vietnam War.
Late 1972, Milk moved to San Francisco where he opened a camera store on Castro Street, in the heart of the city’s growing gay community. It quickly became a neighborhood gathering center. Milk’s sense of humor and theatricality made him a popular figure.
Little more than a year after his arrival in the city, he declared his candidacy for the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. He lost that race, but emerged from the campaign as a force to be reckoned with in local politics.
After some area merchants tried to prevent two gay men from opening a store, Milk and a few other business owners founded the Castro Village Association, a first such business guild in the nation, with Milk as president.
He organized the Castro Street Fair in 1974 to attract more customers to area businesses.
Its success made the Castro Village Association an effective power base for gay merchants and a blueprint for other LGBT communities in the US.
In 1975, he ran again for the combined San Francisco City/County supervisor seat and narrowly lost. By then he was established as the leading political spokesman for the Castro’s vibrant gay community. His close friend and ally Mayor George Moscone appointed him to the city’s Board of Permit Appeals, making Milk the first openly gay city commissioner in the United States.
Milk ran and lost a race for California State Assembly. Realizing he would have a greater chance of political success if he could rely on voters in the Castro, he successfully worked for passage of an amendment to replace at-large elections for the Board of Supervisors with district elections.
In 1977, he easily won his third bid, and was inaugurated as a San Francisco City-County Supervisor on January 9, 1978. This was an important and symbolic victory for the LGBT community as well as a personal triumph for Milk. His election made national and international headlines.
A commitment to serving a broad constituency, not just LGBT people, helped make Milk an effective and popular supervisor. His ambitious reform agenda included protecting gay rights — he sponsored an important anti-discrimination bill — as well as establishing day care centers for working mothers, the conversion of military facilities in the city to low-cost housing, tax code reform to attract industry to deserted warehouses and factories, and other issues. He was a powerful advocate for strong, safe neighborhoods, and pressured the mayor’s administration to improve services for the Castro such as library services, and community policing. In addition, he spoke out on state and national issues of interest to LGBT people, women, racial and ethnic minorities and other marginalized communities.
Milk built coalitions between diverse groups — women, Asians, Hispanics, the disabled — and even brought together the teamsters and gay bar owners — in return for a pledge from the teamsters to hire more gay drivers, Milk asked bar owners to stop selling beer from certain distributors while drivers were striking.
One of these was a California ballot initiative, Proposition 6, which would have mandated the firing of gay teachers in the state’s public schools. State Sen. John Briggs, seeking to marshal anti-gay sentiment and an agenda of hate, spearheaded the initiative.
With strong, effective opposition from Milk and others, it was defeated at a time when other political attacks on gay people were being successfully waged around the country.
Attendance swelled at gay pride marches in San Francisco and Los Angeles as Milk and others campaigned against the Briggs Initiative.
In one of his eloquent speeches, Milk spoke of the American ideal of equality, proclaiming, “Gay people, 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.”
On Nov. 27, 1978, a disgruntled former city supervisor assassinated Milk and Mayor George Moscone. Dan White sneaked into City Hall through a basement window, avoiding the metal detectors, went to Moscone’s office and killed him, then walked down the hall to kill Milk. That night, a crowd of thousands spontaneously came together on Castro Street and marched to City Hall in a silent candlelight vigil that has been recognized as one of the most eloquent responses to violence that a community has ever expressed.
Having been the target of death threats since his election, Milk had recorded several versions of his will, “to be read in the event of my assassination.” One of his tapes contained the now-famous statement, “If a bullet should enter my brain, let that bullet destroy every closet door.”
White was acquitted of murder charges and given a mild sentence for manslaughter, partly as a result of what became known as the “Twinkie defense.” His attorney claimed that White had eaten too much junk food on the day of the killings and thus could not be held accountable for his crimes. He was sentenced to less than eight years in prison, which ignited what came to be known as the White Night Riots. Enraged citizens stormed City Hall and rows of police cars were set on fire. The city suffered property damage and police officers retaliated by raiding the Castro, vandalizing gay businesses and beating people on the street.
On Aug. 12, 2009, Harvey’s nephew, Stuart Milk accepted the posthumously awarded Medal of Freedom from President Barack Obama, who praised Milk’s “visionary courage and conviction” in fighting discrimination.