The first openly gay man to hold public office in California, Harvey Milk was assassinated barely a year into his tenure on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. But, despite his short spell in office, Milk made a disproportionately impactful contribution to the LGBTQ rights revolution as it gained momentum in the late-1970s.
Here are 10 facts about Harvey Milk.
1. Milk wasn’t openly gay for much of his life
He may now be remembered as a ground-breaking representative of the LGBTQ community, but for much of his life Milk’s sexuality was a carefully guarded secret. Over the course of the 1950s and 1960s, he lived a professionally unsettled life, serving in the Navy, working in finance, then as a teacher, before finding his way into politics as a volunteer on Barry Goldwater’s presidential campaign in 1964.
Given his association with left-wing politics it might come as a surprise to learn that Milk volunteered for the Republican party. In fact, it’s consistent with his politics at the time, which could be broadly characterised as conservative.
2. He was radicalised by his opposition to the Vietnam War
The first stirrings of Milk’s political radicalisation came in the late 1960s when, while still working as a financial analyst, he began to join friends on anti-Vietnam War marches. This burgeoning involvement in the anti-war movement, and his newly adopted hippy look, became increasingly incompatible with Milk’s straight-laced day job, and in 1970 he was eventually fired for taking part in a rally.
Following his sacking, Milk drifted between San Francisco and New York before settling in San Francisco and opening a camera shop, Castro Camera, on Castro Street, an area that had become the heart of the city’s gay scene.
3. He became a prominent figure in San Francisco’s gay community
Milk became an increasingly prominent figurehead for Castro’s large gay community during his time at the camera shop, to the extent that he was known as the ‘Mayor of Castro Street’. Partly driven by a strong opposition to unfair small business taxes, he ran for a seat on the San Francisco Board of Directors in 1973. Though this initial attempt to win a place on the board was unsuccessful, his vote share was respectable enough to encourage his burgeoning political aspirations.
Milk was a natural politician and made smart moves to improve his prospects, founding the Castro Village Association to create a coalition of fellow gay business owners, and forming an alliance with the Teamsters Union.
4. Milk rallied gay support for the Teamsters Union
This strategic alliance with the Teamsters led to one of Milk’s most famous political triumphs. Identifying Milk as an influential figure in San Francisco’s LGBTQ community, the Teamsters Union sought his help in a dispute with Coors, which was trying to cease the hiring of union drivers to transport its beer.
The Teamsters Union agreed to hire more gay drivers and in return Milk campaigned to get San Francisco’s LGBTQ community behind a strike against Coors. It proved to be a great stage for his political talents. Milk succeeded in building an impactful alliance by finding a common cause that united the gay rights movement and the Teamsters.
His plea for solidarity is neatly summed up in a passage from an article he wrote for the Bay Area Reporter, titled ‘Teamsters Seek Gay Help’: “If we in the gay community want others to help us in our fight to end discrimination, then we must help others in their fights.”
5. A change to the local electoral system helped him to gain office
Despite his increasingly prominent standing, Milk was repeatedly frustrated in his attempts to gain office. It wasn’t until 1977 – his fourth run (including two runs for the Board of Supervisors and two for the California State Assembly) – that he finally succeeded in winning a place on the board.
A change to the local electoral system was crucial to Milk’s eventual success. In 1977, San Francisco shifted from all city elections to a system that elected board members by district. It was widely seen as a change that gave representatives of marginalised communities, who would typically have struggled to gain citywide support, a much-improved chance.
6. He was a brilliant coalition builder
Coalition building was central to Milk’s politics. He consistently sought to unite San Francisco’s marginalised communities in a shared fight for equality. Alongside his impassioned campaigning for gay liberation, he was concerned about the impact of gentrification in areas like the Mission District, where he saw the Latino community being displaced by an early wave of gentrification. More than 40 years later, gentrification has become a hugely divisive issue in San Francisco and Milk’s concerns look more relevant than ever.
The scope of his campaigning wasn’t limited to big civil rights issues. In fact, one of Milk’s most far-reaching political successes was his sponsorship of San Francisco’s first pooper scooper law, which aimed to rid the city’s streets of dog poo by requiring dog owners to pick up their pet’s waste or face a fine.
7. Milk was assassinated by an ex-colleague
Milk’s time in office was tragically curtailed after little more than a year on the San Francisco Board. On 28 November 1978, both he and Mayor George Moscone were fatally shot by Dan White, a former colleague on the Board of Supervisors.
Ex-police officer White, who was elected on a reactionary platform, had previously decried the “demands of large minorities” in San Francisco and predicted that residents would “react punitively”.
8. He predicted his own assassination
Following Milk’s death, a tape recording was released that he had instructed should be “played only in the event of my death by assassination.”
“I fully realise that a person who stands for what I stand for, an activist, gay activist, becomes a target or the potential target for somebody who is insecure, terrified, afraid, or very disturbed themselves,” Milk said on the tape.
He went on to make a powerful plea for closeted gay people to come out, a collective political act that he believed would have a profoundly radical impact: “If a bullet should enter my brain, let that bullet destroy every closet door in the country.”
9. Milk’s death became a trigger for change and his legacy lives on
It goes without saying that Milk’s assassination was a devastating blow for San Francisco’s gay community, for whom he had become a figurehead. But the nature of his death and the powerful message he left in his wake undoubtedly fuelled the gay rights movement at a pivotal moment in its history. His legacy cannot be underestimated.
Following his death, a succession of elected officials, including Congressmen Gerry Studds and Barney Frank, publicly acknowledged their homosexuality and there’s little doubt that Milk played a vital role in inspiring politicians, and people from all walks of life, to be open about their sexuality.
Tributes to Milk’s trail-blazing activism can be found throughout America, from Harvey Milk Plaza in San Francisco to the naval fleet oiler USNS Harvey Milk. His birthday, 22 May, has been recognised as Harvey Milk Day since 2009, when he was posthumously honoured with the Presidential Medal of Freedom by Barack Obama.
10. His story has inspired numerous writers and filmmakers
Harvey Milk has long been celebrated as a heroic contributor to gay rights movement, but his story may have disappeared into obscurity were it not for Randy Shilts’s 1982 biography, The Mayor of Castro Street and Rob Epstein’s Oscar-winning 1984 documentary The Times of Harvey Milk, which helped to foreground the achievements of a fascinating and charismatic campaigner who ultimately became a martyr to the cause.
More recently, Gus Van Sant’s Academy Award-winning film Milk (2008) featured Sean Penn in the titular role.