Milk, Harvey (1930-1978)

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Milk, Harvey (1930-1978)

The first openly gay man to be elected into a position as a city supervisor, Milk (affectionately remembered as "the mayor of Castro Street") was assassinated just 11 months after taking up office. Arguably, he has become posthumously more famous than he was when alive, a martyr to the progress of gay rights; his political struggles during the 1970s were emblematic of the first major backlash against the gay rights movement of the late 1960s and early 1970s, and established the terms by which political clashes over issues of sexuality have subsequently been fought.

Born in Long Island, New York, on May 22, 1930, Harvey Bernard Milk was raised in a middle-class Jewish family in Woodmere. In 1951 he graduated from Albany State College, where he had majored in math. Soon after leaving college he joined the Navy, where he rose to the status of chief petty officer before being dishonorably discharged when his homosexuality was uncovered. After living a fairly closeted life in New York in the 1950s and 1960s, he moved to San Francisco in 1972. At the time, San Francisco's reputation as the gay capital of the United States was forming; post-Stonewall, previously invisible lesbians and gay men in rural locations and small towns began to migrate towards major cities. By the mid-1970s, it was estimated that 20 percent of the population of San Francisco was homosexual.

In San Francisco, Milk impulsively opened a camera store on Castro Street. Following an alleged extortion attempt against him, Milk decided to run for council office in 1973. In doing so, he challenged the city's more conservative gay establishment—including Jim Foster's Society for Individual Rights (SIR)—who believed that San Francisco would not be able to cope with a gay councillor. Milk, however, garnered populist support—including that of several of the toughest unions—by presenting himself as a "man of the people," fighting for democratic American values: life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Milk portrayed himself as someone who just happened to be gay; when talking of sexuality, he argued for acceptance of homosexuals as human beings.

Milk's popularity grew; on his third attempt at office in 1977, he was elected. At this time, anti-gay sentiment was starting to build in the United States. Political sympathies were moving to the right, and television evangelism was beginning to grow in popularity. Opponents of gay rights championed the threatened nuclear family, and claimed that homosexuals were "unnatural" and "perverted," recruiters of heterosexuals to their cause, and molesters of children. Individuals like Anita Bryant—pop singer, born-again Christian, orange juice publicist, and head of the anti-gay organization Save Our Children, Inc.—campaigned and sometimes won; for example, several states repealed their gay rights legislation. The Briggs Initiative, or Proposition 6, suggested that openly gay individuals should be prevented from teaching in California's public schools; at the last moment, however, it was defeated by a three-to-two victory.

At the same elections which saw Milk taking up office, Dan White, a former police officer, was also elected as a city supervisor for the first time. White's allegiances made him almost the political opposite of Milk: he represented a more conservative, Irish, working-class constituency. The San Francisco media were fascinated by the two men, and they often appeared on talk shows together. Initially Milk and White courted each other's support, but after disagreements over juvenile offenders and a gay rights bill, their relationship became one of enmity. In the autumn of 1978, White resigned from his post; ten days later, he appealed to Mayor George Moscone to reinstate him. Under pressure from White's political opponents, Moscone refused. On November 27, 1978, White entered City Hall with a.38 Smith and Wesson and killed both Moscone and Milk.

In court, in front of a jury composed mostly of white, working-class Catholics, the defense was made that White had been suffering from depression, and that he had been eating a great deal of junk food, which, by causing alterations in blood sugar levels, can cause antisocial behavior; this tactic would later be known as "the Twinkie defense." The case for the prosecution was weak; it made no attempt to outline White's motivations. White was found guilty, on May 21, 1979, of two counts of voluntary manslaughter; after the announcement, a crowd besieged City Hall and police stormed the Castro. One hundred homosexuals and 61 police officers were hospitalized; the evening's events were subsequently termed the "White Night Riots." White was paroled in 1985; unable to obtain employment, he committed suicide before the end of the year.

Harvey Milk serves as a model example of how integrationist politicians can intelligently and sensitively handle issues of sexuality to their advantage. But to define him solely as a gay rights activist is a disservice to his memory; he was a champion of minorities, of the working person's interests, in a patchwork city of segregated communities. His version of "American values," and its contrast with those espoused by the Right, established the field for similar battles in subsequent decades.

—Glyn Davis

Further Reading:

Shilts, Randy. The Mayor of Castro Street. New York, St. Martin's Press, 1982.

Weiss, Mike. Double Play: The San Francisco City Hall Killings. Reading, Massachusetts, Addison-Wesley, 1984.