Harvey Milk, was a visionary civil and human rights leader who became one of the first openly gay elected officials in the United States when he won a seat on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors in 1977. Milk’s unprecedented loud and unapologetic proclamation of his authenticity as an openly gay candidate for public office, and his subsequent election gave never before experienced hope to Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgendered (LGBT) people everywhere at a time when the community was encountering widespread hostility and discrimination. His remarkable career was tragically cut short when he was assassinated nearly a year after taking office.
Harvey was born May 22, 1930, in Woodmere, New York. Harvey and his one sibling, Robert, worked in the family’s department store, “Milks”; his Lithuanian born father, William, served in the U.S. Navy and as did his spirited, independent mother Minerva, also of Lithuanian heritage, who was a “Yeomanette” during World War I. Harvey came from a small middle-class Jewish family that had founded a Jewish synagogue and was well known in the New York “Litvaks” community for their civic engagement. He knew he was gay by the time he attended Bayshore high school, where he was a popular student with wide-ranging interests, from opera to playing football.
While in college at New York State College for Teachers (now State University of New York) in Albany, where he studied math and history, Milk penned a popular weekly student newspaper column where he began questioning issues of diversity with a reflection on the lessons learned from the recently ended World War. He graduated in 1951 and enlisted in the Navy. He attended Officer Candidate School in Newport, Rhode Island, and subsequently was based in San Diego, where he served as a diving instructor. In 1955, he resigned at the rank of lieutenant junior grade after being officially questioned about his sexual orientation.
Following his time in the Navy, Milk entered the civilian working world in New York, as a public school teacher on Long Island, as a stock analyst in New York City, and as a production associate for Broadway musicals, including Jesus Christ Superstar and Hair. During the 1960s and early 70s, he became more actively involved in politics and advocacy and he demonstrated against the Vietnam War.
Late 1972, Milk moved to San Francisco, where he opened a camera store on Castro Street, in the heart of the city’s growing gay community. It quickly became a neighborhood center. Milk’s sense of humor and theatricality made him a popular figure. Little more than a year after his arrival in the city, he declared his candidacy for the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. He lost that race, but emerged from the campaign as a force to be reckoned with in local politics.
After some area merchants tried to prevent two gay men from opening a store, Milk and a few other business owners founded the Castro Village Association, a first in the nation organizing of predominantly LGBT businesses, with Milk as president. He organized the Castro Street Fair in 1974 to attract more customers to area businesses. Its success made the Castro Village Association an effective power base for gay merchants and a blue print for other LGBT communities in the US.
In 1975, he ran again for the combined San Francisco City/County supervisor seat and narrowly lost. By now, he was established as the leading political spokesman for the Castro’s vibrant gay community. His close friend and ally Mayor George Moscone, appointed him to the city’s Board of Permit Appeals, making Milk the first openly gay city commissioner in the United States.
Milk soon filed candidacy papers for the state assembly, but lost his race to represent the Sixteenth Assembly District. Realizing that he would have a greater chance of political success if he relied on voters in the Castro, he then worked with with his campaign manager, Anne Kronenberg and Mayor Moscone for the passage of an amendment that would replace at-large elections for the Board of Supervisors with district elections. In 1977, he easily won his third bid, and was inaugurated as a San Francisco City-County Supervisor on January 9, 1978. This was an important and symbolic victory for the LGBT community as well as a personal triumph for Milk. His election made national and international headlines. (Continue reading from Milk Foundation)
Harvey Milk (Encyclopedia Britannica)
Harvey Milk (Biography)
Harvey Milk (The Legacy Project)
Harvey Milk: Messenger of Hope (SFO Museum)
Harvey Milk Day Resources (GSA Network)
Primary Source Set: Harvey Milk (GLBT Historical Society)
What Were the White Night Riots? (History Channel)
10 Facts About the White Night Riots (Mental Floss)
The Mortician in San Francisco: A Poem by Randall Mann (Poetry Foundation)