CW: hate crime; homophobic violence; gun violence; murder
Harvey Milk is an important figure in queer history, especially in the United States, due to his commitment to living openly gay in combination with his political success. Famous for the tragedy that ended his life, Harvey is remembered for his activism, the community he bolstered, and the many ways that his death changed the course of progress and politics. The anniversary of Harvey’s death falls in November; this article will make space to remember Harvey for who he was, the work he did, the legacy he left, and the other members of the community who have left their own mark, but may be less remembered in our queer historical record.
If you’ve heard of Harvey Milk, it’s likely you’ve seen the 2008 film, or that you’re aware of its prominence. Younger generations of queer people were first exposed to Harvey’s story with Dustin Lance Black’s film Milk because, unfortunately, there is a shocking lack of exposure to queer history unless an individual intentionally seeks it out. In addition to Black’s film, there are dozens of books and other ways to learn more about Harvey beyond what is covered in this article.
Like most of us, Harvey Milk was many things at different stages of his life. Harvey was born in New York in 1930, though most people know him for his time in San Francisco. Raised in a Jewish family, Harvey’s religion and spirituality, and later his separation from organised religion, informed much of his character and the choices he made. He joined the navy after studying mathematics in college, served for four years, and then was forced to resign from the navy due to his homosexuality. During his early adulthood, Harvey moved often, changed jobs every few months, and was politically conservative as well as closeted to all but a few individuals. All of these experiences were foundational to the Harvey that is remembered in the stories we tell.
There was not just one moment or event that changed Harvey from a conservative, wandering man into the focused, liberal activist that he became. Harvey witnessed the distinct targeting of his community, the arrests, the discrimination, and each instance built on the last. When Harvey was growing up and well into his adult years, it was fully illegal to be a gay man with consequences ranging from fines to imprisonment, depending on the area and “offence”. Unhelpfully, homosexuality was still classified as a mental illness during the 1970s. Harvey lived in New York, California, Texas, and in those places he encountered many civil rights activists and equally as many disenfranchised queer people. Harvey turned to activism and political office as a response to the way his community was treated, as well as his support for other needed reforms, including action on gun violence, police brutality, and institutional racism.
In 1973, Harvey moved to the Castro district in San Francisco and opened a camera store with his then partner, Scott Smith. The store became a community hub, with Milk earning the nickname “The Mayor of Castro Street” for the influence he had in the local queer community and the way he organised and led the people who were drawn to his store for the safety it offered. From unofficial community leader to important political force, San Francisco is where Harvey decided to make his role official, to run for public office multiple times, to keep putting himself on the ballot until finally, in 1977, Harvey was elected to be one of the first openly gay men to serve in public office. Harvey’s elected position was as a city supervisor, a representative from the community elected to work with others on the Board of Supervisors to pass legislation for San Francisco, among other duties.
One of the reasons that Harvey was successful was his commitment to solidarity with other marginalised communities and human rights groups. Harvey was pro-union, famously asking, through his role as a writer and community leader, for the gay community to support the Teamsters Union in their struggle with the Coors company in 1974. In exchange, Milk asked that gay truck drivers be hired (employment was difficult to find and harder to retain for openly queer people). He wrote, “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.” This was a common, successful tactic in the fight for queer rights and civil liberties during the 20th century, and Harvey was smart to engage the community in this way.
Harvey’s political rivals were not just conservatives, but also those within the queer community. For example, Harvey was at least partially responsible for outing someone from his circle on a national level. Oliver Sipple was a gay man, a friend of Harvey. Oliver saved the life of then President Ford during an assassination attempt. Harvey decided it would be great exposure and publicity to show that a gay man had been responsible for such an act of heroism, despite Oliver’s desire to keep his identity private. Instead, national headlines outed Oliver, estranging him from his family among other consequences. I mention this incident because Harvey was not morally perfect. He made bad decisions and sometimes he hurt people. Even if the outing of Oliver led to a small amount of progress for the public perception of gay men, it ruined Oliver’s life. It’d be dishonest to remember Harvey and leave out the less inspiring parts of his life for the sake of narrative.
It’s important to recognise the historical figures we remember through more than one lens, to see them in a more full picture of their humanity. Because Harvey was more than his death. It would be a disservice to only remember that moment and not the person that was lost. Recognising that Harvey was fully human, and capable of both wonderful and damaging acts, is necessary to understand his importance and to learn from his legacy to build our own path forward.
What Harvey is most famous for, his one year as a public official, is only one part of his legacy. Harvey was complicated, nuanced, and while he’s been made a martyr, he was not only that. Harvey had sexual and romantic relationships, deep friendships, family connections, political rivals. Ambitious, driven, determined, charismatic, Harvey died before he could reach his potential. Harvey was gone before the AIDS epidemic, but we can imagine how he would fight with other activists for the right to survive. Harvey died decades before same sex marriage was legalised at a federal level, and we’ll never know how he would have celebrated. And on a related note, think of all the others like Harvey who did not make the news, those killed for being gay, for being trans, for daring to believe in a world where being queer isn’t illegal, the millions of people who have died from AIDS that didn’t have to be lost if only the world had cared. Harvey wasn’t the only member of the LGBTQIA community that was killed for his identity, but we can learn about his life and his legacy and know that he was not alone in life or in death.
During his time in office, Harvey was responsible for passing one of the first protections for queer people in the United States. He knew he was risking his personal safety to push this legislation through, but he did it anyway. In his own words, “A person can go to court if his rights are violated once this is passed.” For some of us it might be hard to imagine a world where we have zero protections for our identity, but this was a huge milestone. While the ordinance was local, the effects were far reaching. As with today, every inch towards progress is a victory, informing and protecting the future for those granted a measure of freedom with the legislation. If Harvey managed to pass such an ordinance in a political environment so fiercely opposed, imagine what he could have accomplished given the time and life to do so. Think of the others who were killed or pressured into hiding before they could do what Harvey did. Harvey was aware that his work was not accomplished alone; he recognised that being loud and collaborative was the way forward.
Being such a public proponent of gay rights came with threats to his life, and Harvey knew the risk. Harvey famously debated Senator Briggs in an effort to stop Proposition Six, a bill presented by Briggs to ban queer people from working in California public schools. Harvey’s face and name became synonymous with queer rights, especially in California. This notoriety and his unashamed, outspoken gay public persona is both what earned him his public office and made him a target for attack.
Similar to other public figures who have been assassinated, Harvey Milk had a sense of impending danger. He knew that people hated him for being an advocate for gay rights, for being an openly gay man in public office. Shortly before he died, Harvey recorded a series of messages in the event that he was killed, thinking of them as a personal will and updated every few months. Harvey was only in office for ten months before his assassination and he accepted that his time may be short, both as a politician and for his mortality.
In one of Harvey’s just in case messages he said, “All I ask is for the movement to continue, and if a bullet should enter my brain, let that bullet destroy every closet door.” Harvey was firmly committed to gay and lesbian individuals coming out to everyone in their lives, showing family members, neighbours, and friends that gay people were not the monsters that people like Anita Bryant would have them believe. Harvey Milk’s out and proud public life was a firmly held personal conviction; Harvey saw his place as an elected official as a sign of hope and a promise of resistance.
On November 10, 1978, Dan White murdered both George Moscone and Harvey Milk. Dan had previously resigned as a city supervisor (the same position held by Harvey Milk and others), but due to pressure from his former colleagues at the San Francisco Police Department (SFPD), Dan decided he wanted the position back and asked the mayor to reappoint him. Mayor George Moscone refused, and when Dan confronted him for the same reason again, this time with a gun that he snuck in through a basement window, Dan refused to take no for an answer. He shot George before moving next door to Harvey Milk’s office, killing him as well. Dan clashed politically, and later personally, with both George and Harvey over many issues, and their murders were premeditated.
George and Harvey were discovered by a familiar name: Diane Feinstein. Diane was the president of the Board of Supervisors at the time. It was their murders that opened the spot for Diane to become mayor of San Francisco, and eventually a United States Senator. Diane was the person who shared the news with the public. And just before she did, Dan White turned himself over to the police with his wife by his side. He never indicated any remorse.
The night of the murders, one of Harvey’s friends and fellow activists, Cleve Jones, organised a candlelit march of almost 40,000 people to the city capitol. It was a peaceful show of respect and a way for the community to mourn together the loss of both their ally George Moscone and their own, Harvey. The murders were national news. Harvey had become famous for his public disagreements with people like Senator Briggs and his calls to action for the gay community.
Despite Dan White’s clear premeditation and targeting of the victims, he was not convicted of murder. Instead, his lawyers used what came to be known as the “twinkie” defence, saying that Dan had eaten a large amount of junk food the day of the murders and therefore was not in his right mind. He was convicted of voluntary manslaughter instead and only sentenced to seven years and eight months in prison (he only served five). The news of White’s sentencing led to the White Night riots, a night where the queer community of San Francisco and SFPD fought for hours. What began as a protest march through the Castro district became violent closer to city hall, and after the protest was over, SFPD raided several bars in the Castro district, injuring dozens of gay men in the process. The White Night riots were also the night before what would have been Harvey Milk’s 49th birthday.
The assassinations of both George Moscone and Harvey Milk changed California politics and affected the national conversation on gay rights in ways that are hard to clearly identify. Harvey’s work was just beginning when he was killed, but there were so many who worked with Harvey, and who came after, that continued that work. Harvey’s murder was a shocking tragedy for some, a sad inevitability to others, and worst of all, a moment of celebration for his strongest opponents (including SFPD who reportedly cheered when they heard the news).
Harvey Milk’s legacy is one of political activism and community organisation. Harvey was successful because he knew that the gay rights movement was built on the civil rights movement and could only be accomplished in collaboration with other social justice movements. He was intelligent, well spoken, and passionate, a natural leader who found his purpose a few decades into his life. Harvey’s nephew, Stuart Milk, founded the Harvey Milk Foundation, a way to honour his uncle’s legacy and continue his work.
Harvey didn’t accomplish anything alone. A few names that I suggest looking into include: Anne Kronenberg, Sally Gearhart, Cleve Jones, and Gwenn Craig. There were many, many others, but those listed were all part of Harvey’s success, either close friends or collaborators (in some cases both).
Learning about our queer history can often be negative: frightening, repulsive, unbelievable in some ways. But even a story like Harvey’s that ended with horrible violence is more than just the negative. Harvey was an inspiration, both in his life and well after his death. There are countless queer ancestors who have paved the way for us, who have fought with everything they had. The Stonewall riots with Marsha P Johnson and Sylvia Rivera. Those who fought for queer rights in the midst of the AIDS crisis, like David Wojnarowicz. Bayard Rustin and his decades of activism, including time working with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and later, as a public advocate for gay rights. Queer history is a mixture of triumph and pain, setbacks and victories. What I’ve written here about Harvey Milk is just the beginning. I encourage you to read deeper, to learn about other important figures in queer history and to recognise the people today who continue their work.
I’ll leave you with another quote from Harvey Milk: “I know that you cannot live on hope alone, but without it, life is not worth living. And you and you and you and you have got to give them hope.” Harvey’s famous Hope speech for Freedom Day can be found linked in the sources.