(May 22, 1930- November 27, 1978)
Harvey Milk was a city supervisor of San Francisco and the first openly gay officer in the city’s history. He, along with San Francisco mayor George Moscone, was shot and killed on November 27, 1978 by Dan White, a former supervisor who had resigned his post in protest of Milk’s only significant piece of legislation—a landmark gay rights ordinance.
A graduate of Albany State College in 1951, Milk intended to become a high school teacher but, shortly after graduation, entered the U.S. Navy and served on active duty during the Korean War. He then worked in the insurance and financial services industries in the 1950s and 1960s, living in the fashionable Upper West Side of Manhattan. An avid patron of the arts, particularly opera and theatre, Milk was a producer of several Broadway and off-Broadway production in the late 1960s, including Hair, and Jesus Christ, Superstar. After travelling to San Francisco with the touring company of Hair in the 1970s, he relocated to the city in 1972, and threw himself into the burgeoning gay liberation scene, opening a camera store on Castro Street.
After two unsuccessful campaigns, Milk was elected in November 1977 to the district that represented Haight-Ashbury and upper Market Street, where much of San Francisco’s gay population and movement was centered. He campaigned on a broad platform that included expanded childcare facilities, low-rent housing, and a civilian police-review board. His tenure in office was tragically short-lived, as he was assassinated only 11 months after taking office. Milk’s murder in San Francisco’s City Hall made him “the American gay liberation movement’s most visible martyr” (GLBTQ: 1). Time Magazine later chose him as one of the 100 most influential politicians of the 20th century.
Haunted by the possibility of assassination, Milk had tape-recorded several versions of his political will ‘to be read in the event of my assassination.’ One of the tapes included the following statement, “If a bullet should enter my brain, let that bullet destroy every closet door.” His life and legacy have been the subject of a specially-commissioned opera, Harvey Milk: Opera in Three Acts, as well as numerous books and films, including Rob Epstein and Richard Schmeichen’s Academy Award winning documentary The Times of Harvey Milk (1984), and most recently, a Focus Features Film, Milk (2008).
The life and death of Harvey Milk demonstrate the opportunities and the costs of political action. On the one hand, his life and that of the community were much enriched by his cultural and other contributions. On the other, his penalty, like that of recent martyrs in Syria and the suffragettes who were force-fed in Holloway Prison early in the 20th century, reminds us that democratic advances have often entailed terrible sacrifice.
New York Times. ‘Harvey Milk.’
‘Harvey Milk.’ GLBTQ: An Encyclopedia of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender & Queer Culture. www.glbtq.com/social-sciences/milk_h.html
Uncle Donald’s Castro Street Harvey Milk Pages.
Cloud, John. 1999. ‘The Pioneer Harvey Milk.’ http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,991276,00.html