Harvey Milk, the first openly gay elected official in California, was comprised of controversy. He is known for being the most pro-LGBT politician in the U.S. during his career, but did not actively champion for gay rights until he was in his 40s.
Milk was born in a New York City suburb in 1930. He attended New York State College for Teachers, majoring in mathematics. After graduating, he served in the navy during the Korean War. Milk moved to San Francisco in 1969 and worked for an investment firm. He was fired after refusing to cut his hair as a way to express his frustration with the political climate after the U.S. invasion of Cambodia. This frustration and his contact with the counterculture “hippie” movement during the time influenced his move away from conservatism. In his own words, Milk had “finally reached the point where I knew I had to become involved or shut up.”
Milk was not received well by the pre-established gay political community in San Francisco; politician Jim Foster and others resented the untested newcomer in town. His support stemmed from bar owners dealing with police harassment and looking for more radical social change. Milk started his political campaign with no money or staff. It was only after demonstrating community leadership in his district that Milk started to be taken more seriously as a candidate. He cut his hair, stopped smoking marijuana and worked on cultivating a more professional persona. In 1976 he became the first openly gay city commissioner in the U.S.
Milk was involved in several situations that cast him in a somewhat less than flattering light, including when he forcefully outed a friend without his consent in hopes of improving public perception of homosexuality (Oliver Sipple had stopped an assassination attempt on President Gerald Ford but did not want his sexuality known to the public and later sued for invasion of privacy). He also briefly defended Jim Jones’ character (before the massacre, obviously.). Needless to say, the guy had flaws.
In 1977 Milk ran for district supervisor again and won by a 30 percent margin against the other candidates. As supervisor, he sponsored a civil rights bill outlawing discrimination based on sexual orientation that was signed into law with only one opposing vote. He also campaigned against what is known as the Briggs Initiative, a proposition by John Briggs to make the firing of gay and gay-supporting teachers mandatory. The proposition lost by over a million votes, with 75 percent of San Franciscans voting against it.
On November 27, 1978, Harvey Milk, along with Mayor George Moscone, was shot by former colleague Dan White. Milk was 48 years old. White was angry at being replaced and blamed Milk and Mayor Moscone. The tragic event and subsequent sentence of only seven and two-thirds years in prison for White catalyzed what became known as the White Night riots: City Hall protests that escalated to violence.
The life and legacy of Harvey Milk defies five hundred words. As always, dear reader, I invite you to discover this fascinating, imperfect man for yourself.
Caroline Fritz is a third-year student majoring in English with minors in French and linguistics. ✉ CF853302@wcupa.edu.