Harvey Bernard Milk was born in May 22 of 1930 in Woodmere, New York. He was the first openly gay elected official in California and was assassinated, together with mayor George Moscone by Dan White, another city supervisor.
Milk’s family was of Lithuanian-Jewish heritage. His father William Milk served in the U.S navy as did his mother, Minerva Karns, who served as a “Yeomanette” during World War I after the Naval Act of 1916 opened the door for women to enlist due to its usage of unassuming language.
Milk already knew that he was gay in his teens, but he kept it closely guarded due to fear of his parent’s possible negative reaction. He graduated from Bay Shore High School in 1947 and attended New York School of Teachers in Albany from 1947 to 1951 where he majored in mathematics.
After graduation, Milk joined the United States Navy. He attended the Officer Candidate School in Newport, Rhode Island and served during the Korean war as a diving officer. He was later transfer to San Diego to serve as a diving instructor, and in 1955 was discharged with the rank of lieutenant, junior grade. About his departure from service, some sources mention that he resigned instead of being discharged after he was questioned about his sexual orientation.
A Start in Politics
Milk transitioned into civilian life first by becoming a teacher at Long Island’s George W. Hewlett public High School, then a stock analyst in New York, and later as a production associate for Broadway musicals. During the 1960s and early 70s, he became more actively involved in politics and advocacy and he demonstrated against the Vietnam War.
By the end of 1972 Harvey Milk moved to San Francisco where he opened a camera store on Castro Street, a street already in the process of becoming center if the city’s growing gay community.
He became a popular figure due to his perceived innate charisma. In 1974 Milk organized the Castro Street Fair to attract more customers to the area, while at the same time he created and became president of the Castro Village Association, one of the first organizations predominantly construed by LGBT business owners trying to fight against other store owners who wanted to prevent gay men from opening stores in the Castro area. During the next year, Milk ran for a second time for a seat as San Francisco supervisor and lost again, but by now he had become a recognized leading political figure for the Castro’s gay community.
After loosing another race to represent the Sixteenth Assembly District, Milk realized that he had a better chance of winning if he could rely on the voters coming from the Castro area, so he worked with his campaign manager Anne Kronenberg and his friend Mayor George Moscone to pass an amendment to replace at-large elections with district elections. The successful pass of the amendment resulted in Milk winning his third bid in 1977, which had him inaugurated as a San Francisco Supervisor the next year.
This victory was important and symbolic for the LGBT community and it made national and international headlines, but it was his commitment to serving a broad constituency, not just the LGBT community, which helped Milk become an effective and popular public servant. Harvey Milk’s agenda included protecting gay rights by sponsoring an anti-discrimination bill, establishing day care centers for working mothers, the conversion of military facilities in the city to low-cost housing, and a reform of the tax code to attract industry to deserted warehouses and factories among other important issues.
One of these issues, was a California ballot initiative that proposed the immediate firing of gay teachers at state’s public schools, marshalled by a senator keen on benefiting from the anti-gay sentiment for political gain. Milk’s opposition, together with others, helped prevent this ballot from being passed in a time when many similar initiatives were being accepted and eagerly passed in other states. It was the positive influence of Milk that helped pressure the mayor’s administration to improve various services in the Castro area. He provided a voice to issues of interest to LGBT people, women and racial and ethnic minorities living in the area, which in turn helped increase attendance at the gay pride marches in San Francisco and the Los Angeles area.
On November 27 of 1978, a disgruntled former city supervisor by the name of Dan White assassinated both Milk and Mayor Moscone. The night of his assassination, a crowd of thousands gathered on Castro Street and marched towards the City Hall where they held a silent candlelight vigil.
Harvey Milk had been a long-time target of the hatred directed at gay people and had received countless death threats. He recorded several versions of his will, in one of which can be found a famous quote of his: “If a bullet should enter my brain, let that bullet destroy every closet door.” This quote is considered to have motivated countless to come out the day of his assassination, including his nephew Stuart Milk.
Milk’s assassin was acquitted of the murder charges related to the assassination due to what became known as the “twinkie defense”, in which his attorney claimed that White had eaten too much junk food and should not be held accountable for his crimes. He got a very mild sentence of eight years in prison for having killed two public servants the day before Harvey Milk’s birthday, which led to the White Night Riots where enraged citizens stormed City Hall, burning police cars and causing property damage. Police retaliated after this by vandalizing the Castro, destroying gay businesses and beating gay people in the streets.
The life and career of Harvey Milk has inspired numerous books and films. There are several public schools named after him, and public buildings have also been named in his honor. A statue was placed at the center rotunda in San Francisco City Hall in 2008, and a day was introduced to celebrate his legacy. Harvey Milk’s nephew Stuart and his former campaign manager Anne Kronenberg established the “Harvey Milk Foundation” dedicated to realizing his vision of equality and authenticity for everyone.