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 in 1977 he won a seat on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. Milk’s unprecedented loud and unapologetic proclamation of his authenticity as an openly gay candidate for public office, gave never before experienced hope to Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgendered people everywhere. Hope at a time when the community was encountering widespread hostility and discrimination.
Harvey was born May 22, 1930, in Woodmere, New York. He came from a small middle-class Jewish family that had founded a Jewish synagogue, and was well known in the New York 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 in Albany, he wrote a popular weekly student newspaper column where he began questioning issues of diversity. In 1951 he graduated and enlisted in the Navy. He attended Officer Candidate School and served as a diving instructor in San Diego. 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, as a stock analyst, and as a production associate for Broadway musicals. During the 1960s and early 70s, he became more actively involved in politics and advocacy.
In 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. Castro Camera quickly became a neighborhood center.
In 1973 Milk ran for the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. He lost the 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. The Association was the first in the nation to organize predominantly LGBT businesses, where Milk served as association 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 United States.
In 1975, he ran for the combined San Francisco City/County supervisor seat and narrowly lost. Establishing himself 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.
In 1976 he filed candidacy papers for the state assembly, but lost his race to represent the Sixteenth Assembly District.
In 1977, working with with his campaign manager, Anne Kronenberg he easily won his third bid for Board of Supervisors, 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.
A commitment to serving a broad constituency, not just LGBT people, helped make Milk an effective and popular supervisor. His ambitious reform agenda included protecting gay rights—he sponsored an important anti-discrimination bill—as well as establishing day care centers for working mothers, the conversion of military facilities in the city to low-cost housing, reform of the tax code to attract industry to deserted warehouses and factories, and other issues. He was a powerful advocate for strong, safe neighborhoods, and pressured the mayor’s administration to improve services for the Castro, such as library services and community policing. In addition, he spoke out on state and national issues of interest to LGBT people, women, racial and ethnic minorities and other marginalized communities.
One of these was a California ballot initiative, Proposition 6, which would have mandated the firing of gay teachers in the state’s public schools. State Senator John Briggs, seeking to marshal anti-gay sentiment and an agenda of hate and diminishment for political gain, spearheaded the initiative. With strong, effective opposition from Milk and others, it was defeated at a time when other political attacks on gay people were being successfully waged around the United States.
Attendance swelled at gay pride marches in San Francisco and Los Angeles as Milk and others campaigned against the Briggs Initiative. In one of his eloquent Pride speeches, Milk spoke of the American ideal of equality, proclaiming, “Gay people, we will not win our rights by staying quietly in our closets. … We are coming out to fight the lies, the myths, the distortions. We are coming out to tell the truths about gays, for I am tired of the conspiracy of silence, so I’m going to talk about it. And I want you to talk about it. You must come out.”
He pioneered the building of coalitions between diverse groups – women, asians, hispanics, the disabled – and even brought together the teamsters and gay bar owners—he even brokered a pledge from the teamsters to hire more gay drivers.
Harvey was included in Time magazine’s list of the “100 most important people of the 20th century.” He has had schools, buildings, and streets named after him. A statue in the San Francisco City Hall, the Medal Of Freedom, the first openly LGBT official to have a United States Postal Service stamp in their name, a Naval ship in his name, and May 22 was declared Harvey Milk Day.
On November 27, 1978, a disgruntled former city Supervisor assassinated Milk and Mayor George Moscone. That night, a crowd of thousands spontaneously came together on Castro Street and marched to City Hall in a silent candlelight vigil that has been recognized as one of the most eloquent responses to violence that a community has ever expressed.
The life and career of Harvey Milk have been the subjects of an opera, books, and films. Including The Mayor of Castro Street, the Oscar-winning documentary The Times of Harvey Milk, and Oscar-winning drama Milk.
Harvey Milk believed that government should represent individuals, not just downtown interests, and should insure equality for all citizens while providing needed services. He spoke for the participation of LGBT people and other minorities in the political process. The more gay people came out of the closet, he believed, the more their families and friends would support protections for their equal rights. In the years since Milk’s assassination, public opinion has shifted on gay marriage, gays in the military, and other issues, and there have been hundreds of openly LGBT public officials in America, yet the work continues. The Harvey Milk Foundation, established by his nephew, Stuart Milk, and Anne Kronenberg, his campaign manager and aide, is dedicated to realizing his vision of equality and authenticity for everyone, everywhere.