This Saturday, May 22nd, 2010, is the first official Harvey Milk Day in the
state of California. Thanks to the film "Milk" starring Sean Penn, a
new generation of young people are now aware of Milk’s history and influence in
the continuing battle for LGBT Equality. May 22nd is Harvey Milk’s actual
birthday. He was 48 years old when he was shot and killed by Dan White in 1978.
Harvey Milk was born to Jewish parents in New York in 1930. He grew up as
any other child, played football in high school, he was gregarious, but kept
his homosexuality a secret. He later joined the Navy during the Korean war and
afterwards worked as a teacher.
Milk’s story is very different than the stories of many of today’s LGBT
activists, who become involved in one way or another in the battle for equality
at very young ages. Not only did Harvey Milk not get involved in the movement,
and politics in general, until he was in his forties, for most of his life
before that, he was actually opposed to open rebellion in the political arena.
In fact, one partner’s activist status and subsequent conflicts with the police
disturbed Milk, and contributed to the end of the relationship.
Milk first experienced San Francisco in the late 1960’s. Gay life was vastly
different at that time. Gay sex was illegal in many ways, and those caught were
arrested and sometimes jailed. Milk drifted from California back to New York
where he met Scott Smith. In the early 1970’s, the two relocated back to San
Francisco. Milk spent more time around the hippie culture of that time,
witnessing their liberal view of life, and as he became more aware of the
conservative and corporate attitudes which threatened to harm small, local
neighborhoods, both in terms of shifting employment away from them and imposing
higher fees and taxes on individuals, Harvey’s political shift began to form.
Soon, he was moving with Scott into the Castro in San Francisco and opening his
own camera business, where he continued to feel the influence of big brother as
well as the hatred, discrimination and violence against gays.
Harvey morphed from a quiet conservative to a vocal liberal, making his
presence known to all around him. It wasn’t until he was in his forties that
Harvey truly found his calling and his place in the world, and it was a far cry
from the passive, conservative stance he’d taken most of his life.
A major shift occurred in 1975 when the former partner of a former partner
of Milk’s interceded in an assassination attempt on President Gerald Ford. Bill
Sipple was heralded as a hero in thwarting the attempt on Ford’s life, but
wished to remain in the closet, despite Harvey’s urgings for him to come out of
the closet publicly. Harvey felt it would gain a lot of ground in the country
for gays is a homosexual could be seen as just as heroic as anyone else,
helping to take them out of the stereotypes they were mired in. Sipple, who was
out to friends but not his family or the public, refused, so Milk broke the
story, gaining a good deal of the spotlight on himself as well, pushing him
farther into the public consciousness.
Milk was disappointed in gay groups of the time, feeling they were too
afraid to really stand up for what was right, too willing to conform to
societal standards, and decided it might be time for him to get into politics.
Since he was a newcomer, the road was rough, and he failed several times before
becoming a member of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors in 1978.
In his brief stint in politics Harvey had a major victory in helping
Proposition 6, which would have allowed gay teachers and their supporters to be
fired, fail. It was a crushing blow at the time to the religious movement
across the nation to restrict the rights of LGBT Americans.
Unfortunately Harvey was a Supervisor at the same time that Dan White was.
White was deemed by many to have a hatred for gays, although publicly he stated
otherwise. White suffered many failures as a Supervisor, some in which White
felt that Milk inappropriately reversed his promise to support White (Milk initially
agreed to support White’s bill to bar a mental health clinic from opening in
his district, although after researching the project Milk felt it should not be
blocked). White was also seeking Milk’s support in suggesting an increase
in Supervisor annual salaries (which at the time were around $9,600 a year)
as well as confronting Mayor Moscone about it, to no avail.
Dan White eventually submitted his resignation, only to change his mind
later and request his job back. The denial of that may have been the thing that
sent White over the edge. White entered City Hall through an open window, with
a loaded gun, and murdered Mayor George Moscone after a disagreement in his
office. White then moved to his office, where he lured Milk for a meeting, and
murdered him as well. Both victims were shot and killed at point blank range,
and then shot in the head several times after they had fallen to the ground.
Dan White fled the scene, only to turn himself in later.
Dan White’s trial ended in a ruling of voluntary manslaughter, thanks to an
incredibly weak prosecution, who felt sympathy for White, and to the defense,
who used what is commonly known as the "Twinkie defense" to get White
a reduced sentence. The defense claimed that White, who was already severely depressed,
spent the night before the murders gorging himself on high sugar, junk food,
which created an imbalance in his system allowing him to carry out the acts of
murder. While the jury and even the prosecution allowed themselves to be
cajoled into this travesty of a defense, the "diminished capacity"
scenario, as it was formally known, was later thrown out as a defense in
This was due in great part to the public outrage over the ruling, which led
to the "White Night Riots" that took place on May 21st, 1979. Rioters
attacked City Hall, attempted to set it on fire, and overturned and burned
police vehicles in the streets.
While police were ordered to show restraint toward the rioters, later that
night a police force infiltrated the Castro District in San Francisco and
randomly beat citizens. The riots went on for hours, resulting in hundreds of
injuries and dozens of arrests. Afterward, the gay community refused to
apologize for the riots, which ironically resulted in increased political power.
Dan White served just over five years in prison, only to commit suicide a
year and a half later.
Harvey Milk may have come to politics late in
life, and his stint trying to create positive change for the LGBT community may
have been brief, but his impact lives on to this day. In 2009 President Obama
posthumously issued Milk a Presidential Medal Of Freedom Award, and May 22,
2010 marks the first Official Harvey Milk Day in the state of California.