Harvey Milk Once Said
Harvey Milk once said “we will not win our rights by staying quietly in the closets” (Dreier, 2012). As one of the first openly gay politicians in the United States of America, Milk certainly did not stay quietly in the closet. During his brief time as a City Supervisor for San Francisco, he fought to change stereotypes about the LGBT* community, promote equality, and pass a landmark gay rights ordinance. When he was brutally assassinated by his former coworker Dan White, he left behind a legacy of hope, tolerance, and representation. In one of his famous speeches he said the following: “If a gay person can be elected, it’s a green light. You have to give people hope” (Milk, 1978).
Harvey Milk was born in Woodmere, a growing suburb of New York City, on May 22, 1930. His parents, William and Minerva, both of Lithuanian descent, raised Harvey and his brother Robert as a small, middle-class, Jewish family (“The Official Harvey Milk Biography”). He attended a local high school, Bayshore High, where he played football for many years. It was during this formative time in his life that he came to the realization that he was gay, although he kept it a secret for many years. In fact, one of his friends that knew him at the time said the following: “He was never thought of as a possible queer- that’s what you called them then- he was a man’s man” (Dreier, 2012). However, it is speculated that Harvey was leading an actively homosexual lifestyle by the age of fourteen, meeting up with men after seeing shows at the opera or in the “gay” section of Central Park (Shilts, 1982).
It is understandable why Harvey would keep this part of his identity a secret, given the political attitudes towards homosexuals during this time period. In Nazi Germany, homosexuals were being distinguished from their “normal peers” by the presence of a pink triangle, and were rounded up and sent to death camps (Shilts, 1982). Even in the United States, they were still socially and legally discriminated against. The FBI kept files on people who were suspected of being homosexual (“Bringing People Hope: Harvey Milk and the Gay Rights Movement in America”), and, according to Meghan Springate, editor of LGBTQ America, an Introduction to Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer History (LGBTQ History) in the United States, “courts and legal institutions have facilitated the broad and sweeping use of sodomy statutes and state and local gender codes to police, imprison, and constrain LGBTQ people’s lives through the twenty-first century” (pg. 15).
However, this time period was also a time period of progress, change, and shifting attitudes. One key event during this time period was the Stonewall Riot of 1969, during which police raided a gay bar in New York City. Instead of running, the patrons, lead by trans women of color, pushed back, and protested their right to visit the bar. This event started the Gay Liberation Front, the first gay rights organization in the United States. This was also the time period where thousands of gay people were moving to San Francisco, seeking haven and refuge in the progressive city (“Bringing People Hope”). The Foggy City became a mecca for gay people and other non-conformists, and by 1970 it had more gay people per capita than any other city in America (Dreier, 2012).
Harvey Milk was a part of this cross-country migration, as he left his closeted Wall Street life behind to embrace the counter-cultural movement. He moved to the Castro District, the main gay district of San Francisco, and opened a camera shop with his partner (Young, 2013). Shortly after, he, along with other gay business owners, founded the Castro Valley Association. His assistance in helping other merchants make dealings with the government soon earned him the title of the “mayor of Castro Street”.
Harvey Milk soon became very well known among the gay community in San Francisco, and decided to run for a spot on the Board of City Supervisors, saying that “I finally reached the point where I knew I had to become involved or shut up” (Dreier, 2012). He ran twice, both unsuccessfully, mostly due to the fact that he looked like a hippie, and not like a respected politician. However, these runs made him a visible presence, and he ran a successful campaign in late 1977, making him one of the first openly gay politicians to be elected to major office in the United States. He believed that the only way to truly achieve equality for the LGBT* community was to have a gay elected official, saying that “there is a major difference-and it remains a vital difference-between a friend and a gay person, a friend in office and a gay person in office… It’s not enough anymore to just have friends represent us. No matter how good that friend may be” (“Bringing People Hope”).
Milk worked hard to build alliances and trust with other groups of people. He supported and was supported by local unions, other minority groups, small businesses, and working mothers (Young, 2013). He worked to pass laws and legislation that would make everyday life easier for the average person living in San Francisco.
Harvey Milk’s election was a landmark event because it worked to change stereotypes about the LGBT* community. He also became a role model for younger members of the community, who may not have previously seen people like themselves represented in positions of power.
Harvey Milk became a very visible figure in politics, partly because of his incredible oratory skills and speeches. In one of his most famous speeches, titled “The Hope Speech”, he speaks of how him being in office will bring hope to thousands of people across America. In this speech he says:
I can’t forget the looks on the faces of people who’ve lost hope…. I stand here here tonight in front of my gay sisters, brothers, and friends because I’m proud of you. I think it’s time that we have many legislators who are gay and proud of the fact that they do not have to remain in the closet…. They were strong, but even they needed hope. You have given them hope. Hope for a better world, hope for a better tomorrow…. Hope that all will be alright (Milk, 1978).
One of the first items on Harvey Milk’s ‘Gay Agenda’ was a piece of legislation known as Proposition 6. This anti-gay law was launched by state representative John Briggs, and, if passed, would have forced the firing of any California teacher who was gay, and prevent any other gay people from getting hired by schools (Woolman, 2017). In order to help stop this referendum in its tracks, Milk traveled all over the state of California to campaign against it, and even held a televised debate against Briggs in order to gain support. In one heated part of the discussion, Briggs claimed that all homosexual teachers abused their students, and Milk countered with the statistic that most pedophiles were straight, not members of the LGBT* community (Dreier, 2012). Not only did this help sway people’s’ decision about the law, but it also helped to dispel long-held prejudices against the community. At the time of this debate, many people were convinced that all members of the LGBT* community preyed on children. On November 7th, 1978, just a few short weeks before he was assassinated, Harvey Milk celebrated one of his biggest victories when the Briggs Initiative lost by almost a million votes (Woolman, 2017).
During his time in office, he helped to establish day care centers for working mothers, converted facilities into low-cost housing developments, and even helped to reform the tax code (“Official Biography”).
Harvey Milk also sponsored one of the “most stringent and encompassing [gay rights ordinances] in the nation” (Shilts, 1982). The ordinance outlawed discrimination based on sexual orientation, and was signed into effect by Mayor George Moscone. The only member of the Board of Supervisors to oppose the ordinance was Supervisor Dan White.
At the time of Harvey Milk’s election to the Board of City Supervisors, the mayor of San Francisco was George Moscone. In 1929, he was born in the city he later oversaw. He started his career as a lawyer in 1956, but later entered the political scene on the urging of his brother (Eyerman, 2012). He held seats on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, in the California Senate, and later as mayor in 1975. Moscone was known as a liberal Democrat, advocating for and writing legislation concerning minority rights. Harvey saw Moscone as his closest ally in the political scene, and the political year of 1977-1978 saw the two of them working together, challenging and working against big businesses and monopolized real estate developers (Dreier, 2012).
Another key figure in this historical time in San Francisco was Dan White, who was raised in a working class family on the outskirts of the city. He grew up Catholic, was a high school athlete, and spent time as a paratrooper in the US Army; upon his return to the states, he briefly served as a police officer before becoming a firefighter. He had cultivated the image of a small town boy, a local hero, and a conservative Democrat, whose political platform focused on urban violence, demographic shifts, and restoring neighborhoods.
Dan White easily won his election for a spot on the Board of Supervisors in 1977 (Eyerman, 2012), giving up his position as a firefighter in order to serve. Just over one year later, he resigned his position, having not been able to follow through on any of his campaign promises. However, he quickly came to his senses and changed his mind, and asked Mayor George Moscone to reinstate him on the Board, which the mayor considered to do. Dan White felt betrayed when he realized that the mayor would not reinstate him, and in fact was about to announce who the new City Supervisor was.
On November 27th, 1978, Dan White had a friend drop him off at City Hall, where employees were hard at work. He had his old service revolver that he used during his time as a police officer, along with extra rounds of ammunition. In order to avoid the metal detectors that covered the main doors, Dan White entered the building via a basement window, and moved throughout City Hall as a familiar face (Eyerman, 2012). He requested to meet with the mayor, in order to try and persuade him to have his seat on the Board of Supervisors back.
The mayor took Dan White into a back office in order to make the whole ordeal less public and embarrassing for the both of them. It was in this back office that Dan White drew his old police revolver on his mayor, shooting him twice in the chest from a distance and twice in his skull at point-blank range. He stood over the dead mayor as he reloaded his pistol (Eyerman, 2012).
Dan White then proceeded in the direction of his old office, and on his way he ran into Harvey Milk, who invited him into his own office to talk. Just a few short seconds later, Dan White emptied his revolver at his former coworker. Harvey Milk foresaw his own assasination, and recorded a message before his death, where he said the following:
This is only to be played in the event of my death by assassination. I fully realize that a
person who stands for what I stand for, an activist, a gay activist, becomes the target or the potential target of someone who is insecure, terrified, afraid, or very disturbed themselves. Knowing that I could be assassinated at any moment or any time, I feel it is important that people know my thoughts… I have always considered myself part of a movement… everything was done through the eyes of the gay movement (Eyerman, 2012).
The night that Harvey Milk was murdered, thousands of people came together for a spontaneous march from Castro Street to City Hall in a “silent candlelight vigil that has been recognized as one of the most eloquent responses to violence that a community ever be expressed (“Official Biography”).
Dan White later turned himself in to the police station, where his old police colleagues arrested him and took his confession (Eyerman 2012). Thus, there was no question about his guilt. At his trial, the main question was the motive of the assassination, which would then determine what his sentence would be, whether or not he would receive the death penalty.
The prosecution argued that it was murder in the first degree, that Dan White had thoroughly planned out and executed the murders, and therefore should receive the death penalty. He was clearly bent on revenge, and had full intent to kill when he arrived at City Hall fully armed. On the opposite side of the courtroom, the defense argued that Dan White was an upstanding citizen, a good family man, who would never murder on his own. According to the defense, he was pushed over the edge, driven to kill because of factors outside of his control. In their eyes, financial and familial pressure, combined with an unhealthy diet, lead to a “diminished mental capacity” (Eyerman, 2012), and he therefore could not be held responsible for his actions. This defense was known as the “Twinkie Defense”.
The trial of Dan White essentially split the city of San Francisco in two. One one side was the liberal community, represented in the legacies and slayings of Harvey Milk and George Moscone. On the other side was the more conservative, traditional people, who sympathized with the hard-working, ex police officer and fireman Dan White, who simply crumbled under mounting pressures. During the six months of the trial, tensions were high in the Golden Gate City.
The defense was successful in making White out to be the victim rather than the perpetrator, using a combination of psychological and moral arguments (Martinez, 2004), and instead of being convicted of first degree murder, Dan White was found guilty of voluntary manslaughter. He was sentenced to only seven years in prison.
The conviction of Dan White was met with anger, as riots broke out across the city. People were extremely disappointed in the justice system, they felt as if they were not protected. In what became known as the White Night Riots, City Hall was vandalized and police cars were burned. The police force retaliated by vandalizing gay businesses in the Castro district. In the end, over one hundred injuries were reported and there were almost a million dollars’ worth of damages (Martinez, 2004).
Harvey Milk was the representative face of the LGBT* community in San Francisco, as Ron Eyerman (2012) says “he became their leader, and later their martyr and icon, because he was gay and proud of it, but not because they necessarily shared a broader worldview” (pg.407). In fact, many of Milk’s politics were more conservative. The reason he resonated so well with the community came almost entirely from the fact that he was a part of it. In Milk’s eyes, the gay movement was one of counter-culturalism, an oppressed minority group, who deserved rights just like any majority group.
Harvey Milk was always known as the gay politician, as someone who represented something larger than himself. The fact that he, a public, civic official, was slain in his place of work, cemented him as a martyr for the community, willing to lay down his life in order to exist unapologetically and authentically. According to the Official Harvey Milk Biography, written by his nephew, Harvey Milk spoke and fought for the rights of individuals, the regular people, and minority groups. He also “spoke for the participation of LGBT people and other minorities in the political process” (p. 2), believing that members of a minority group should represent themselves in government in order to fully meet their needs.
Harvey Milk’s legacy is one of hope. His memory and legacy lie with the LGBT* community, who he helped gain rights and respect. In doing so, he helped to create a new generation of activists, and foster a sense of community and pride. His presence in a very public space “gave hope to disenchanted and alienated gay youth” (Bringing People Hope: Harvey Milk and the Gay Rights Movement in America”). He fought for a more inclusive, diverse America. At the Gay Freedom Day Parade in June of 1978, only a few months before he was assassinated, he spoke about the need for inclusion:
On the Statue of Liberty it says: ‘Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to be free…’ In the Declaration of Independence, it is written: ‘All men are created equal and they are endowed with certain inalienable rights…’ And in our National Anthem, it says: Oh say does that Star Spangled Banner yet wave over the land of the free’. That’s what America is. No matter how hard you try, you cannot erase those words from the Declaration of Independence. No matter how hard you try, you cannot chip those words off the base of the Statue of Liberty and no matter how hard you try you cannot sing the Star Spangled Banner without those words. That’s what America is. Love it or leave it (“Bringing People Hope”).
His legacy was one of a free America, of an America where each and every person had a voice, had a chance to live their most authentic lives. In fact, in one of the tapes he recorded in anticipation of his assassination, one of his wishes was the following: “if a bullet should enter my brain, let that bullet destroy every closet door. I urge [people] to come out. Only that way will we start to achieve our rights” (Dreier, 2012). Harvey Milk’s hope was to inspire people everywhere to come out of their closets of fear, to let the world know who they really were, and to live their lives unapologetically.
In 2008, the film Milk was released, a biographical depiction of the famous politician’s life. It was a landmark film that won numerous Academy Awards and Oscars, and brought the memory and legacy of Harvey Milk back to the forefront of people’s’ minds. The screenwriter for the film, Dustin Lance, upon accepting the award for Best Original Screenplay, said that Milk’s story “gave me hope. It gave me the hope to live my life. It gave me the hope that one day I could live my life openly as who I am” (“Bringing People Hope”). Harvey Milk was an inspiring member and leader of the LGBT* community, who fought tirelessly for their rights and acceptance, to lead to a better future.