Posted on May 19 2020
When Harvey Milk won a seat on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors in 1977, he became one of the first elected U.S. government officials who was openly gay. The first had been Kathy Kozachenko, who was elected to the Ann Arbor, Michigan, City Council in 1974. A student at the University of Michigan at the time, Kozachenko, by her own admission, chose to make “social justice” and not sexual orientation her overriding message. In contrast, Harvey Milk placed the fact that he was gay front and center. His forthrightness about his sexual orientation while in public office still inspires people today.
Harvey Bernard Milk was born in Woodmere, New York, in 1930. Growing up, he and his brother worked in his family’s department store. Harvey Milk’s charisma, athleticism, and sense of humor made him popular with fellow students. He played on his school’s football and basketball teams. He also had a passion for singing opera. By the time he started high school, Milk says he already knew that he was gay, although he kept it a secret from his classmates.
After graduating, Milk attended college, where he studied mathematics and history. Upon graduating, he enlisted in the U.S. Navy, attending Officer Candidate School in Newport, Rhode Island. Eventually, Milk served as a diving instructor based in San Diego, California. After serving for four years, Navy officials questioned Milk about his sexual orientation. At that time, the U.S. did not allow people who were gay, lesbian, or bisexual to serve in any military branch. Because of this, Milk resigned from the Navy. In 1955, he was discharged with the rank of lieutenant junior grade.
After leaving the Navy, Milk returned to New York State where he spent time working at different jobs. He worked as a schoolteacher, a stock analyst, and as a production associate for musicals.
In 1972, Milk moved to San Francisco, California. There, he opened and operated a camera store on Castro Street, a street that today is still at the center of San Francisco’s gay community. Milk’s magnetism and sense of humor made him popular, and his store, Castro Camera, became a neighborhood center.
Although San Francisco had a large gay population, Milk found that gay people still faced a lot of discrimination. In response, he boycotted, or refused to spend money on, businesses that discriminated against gays. He also said that gay people should make a point of spending their money at gay-owned businesses. Milk united the city’s gay community with his personality and talent to organize. As one Milk supporter said, “Harvey could galvanize people. He was like a lightning rod—he had the electricity in him.”
Milk turned his attention to politics. He ran for a seat on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. Although he lost, the attention he received transformed him into a leading political figure in the city.
In the early 1970s, tensions developed between long-time residents of the Castro District and gay people who were newly moving into the area. In 1973, two men who were gay wanted to open an antique store there. However, a local business group tried to prevent the men from getting a business license. In response, Harvey Milk and other gay business owners formed the Castro Village Association, for which Milk served as president.
In 1974, Milk organized the Castro Street Fair in an attempt to bring more attention to businesses in the Castro District. Over 5,000 people attended, and business boomed. One owner told Milk that his store sold three times more goods in one day than on any other day in his years in business. As a result, membership in the Castro Village Association grew. The association supported gay business owners and set an example for other LBGT communities in the U.S. The Castro Street Fair is a large event that is still held annually in San Francisco.
Harvey Milk again tried running for political office. In 1975, he ran for the combined San Francisco City/County supervisor seat. Again, he was defeated. However, San Francisco’s mayor, George Moscone, appointed Milk to the city’s Board of Permit Appeals. With that appointment, Harvey Milk became the first openly gay city commissioner in the U.S.
Next, Milk ran as representative of the Sixteenth Assembly District, but he lost. Milk thought that he would have a better chance at winning political office if he could use his support of voters in the Castro District. With that idea in mind, he worked to pass an amendment to San Francisco city law that would replace citywide elections for the city’s Board of Supervisors with district elections. With the support of the Castro District, Milk was easily elected as a San Francisco City-County Supervisor in 1978. That an openly gay man was elected to such an important office made headlines around the world.
“Gay people, we will not win our rights by staying quietly in our closets,” Harvey Milk said in a speech that urged gay people to come out, or publicly proclaim their sexual orientation. “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.”
Even with his popularity, Harvey Milk continued to face both discrimination and threats of violence because of his sexuality. He became suspicious that someone might try to kill him. For example, he recorded several versions of his will “to be read in the event of my assassination.” Sadly, Milk’s suspicions proved to be true. On November 27, 1978, Dan White, a former San Francisco city supervisor, killed both Milk and Mayor George Moscone.
Today, people honor the legacy of Harvey Milk. Several U.S. public schools are named for him. In San Francisco, Harvey Milk Plaza sits in the Castro District where there is a memorial plaque that reads, “His life is an inspiration to all people committed to equal opportunity and an end to bigotry.”
In 2009, Milk’s nephew, Stuart Milk, accepted a posthumously awarded Medal of Freedom from President Barack Obama. Then, in December 2019, the U.S. Navy honored Harvey Milk when it started construction of the U.S.N.S. Harvey Milk. When it is completed, the ship will replenish fuel to other Navy ships at sea and jet fuel for aircraft on aircraft carriers.
Stuart Milk said that the Navy honoring his uncle sends a needed message. “This sends an important green light message to anyone who was ever marginalized, diminished and not given their full recognition for who they were,” he stated.