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Associated Press

Happy Birthday, Harvey Milk, Gay Rights Icon

May 22, 2009
by findingDulcinea Staff
Harvey Milk was one of the first openly gay Americans to hold elected office, winning a seat of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors in 1978. A crusader for gay rights, he sponsored a bill banning anti-gay discrimination and fought against an initiative targeting gay teachers, but his life was cut short when he was murdered by a fellow city politician.

Harvey Milk’s Early Days

Harvey Bernard Milk was born on May 22, 1930, and grew up in Long Island. He understood as a teenager that he was a homosexual, but he kept it a secret. He spent four years in the Navy and served on a submarine during the Korean War. He was honorably discharged in 1955, though he would later claim to have been dishonorably discharged due to his homosexuality.

Milk spent time teaching and working on Wall Street in the 1960s. He had boyfriends during this time, but he hid his relationships from his family and held generally conservative political views. In the late ‘60s, when he began to spend time at a theater where his boyfriend performed, he “began to come to terms with his homosexual identity,” according to the Encyclopedia of World Biography.

Milk’s Life in San Francisco

Milk moved to San Francisco in 1972 and owned a camera shop on the city’s Castro Street, a center of gay culture. He made a name for himself advocating for the rights of gays and small business owners, earning the nickname “The Mayor of Castro Street.”

He ran several times for public office and won an election for city supervisor in 1977, becoming one of the first openly gay elected officials in the United States. The flamboyant Milk was not only open about his sexuality, but proud. He wanted to set an example to homosexuals across the country that they should not be ashamed.

“There was a time when it was impossible for people—straight or gay—even to imagine a Harvey Milk,” writes Time’s John Cloud. “The funny thing about Milk is that he didn’t seem to care that he lived in such a time. After he defied the governing class of San Francisco in 1977 to become a member of its board of supervisors, many people—straight and gay—had to adjust to a new reality he embodied: that a gay person could live an honest life and succeed.”

In his 11 months as supervisor, Milk pushed through a city ordinance outlawing discrimination based on sexual orientation. “You could just see that people stood a little taller,” said Walter Caplan, Milk’s lawyer, to NPR. “There were always gay teachers, gay nurses, gay health-care people who lived quiet little lives and feared for losing the security of the jobs that they had.”

He also led the opposition to Proposition 6, also known as the Briggs Initiative, which would have required the firing of all homosexual public school teachers. It was in opposition to the Briggs Initiative that he gave his most famous speech.

“And you’ve got to elect gay people, so that thousand upon thousands like that child know that there is hope for a better world; there is hope for a better tomorrow,” he said. “Without hope, not only gays, but those who are blacks, the Asians, the disabled, the seniors, the us’s: without hope the us’s give up. I know that you can’t 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.”

The Rest of the Story

Milk received many death threats during his political career, prompting him in 1977 to record a will to be read if he was assassinated. “If a bullet should enter my brain,” he said, “let that bullet destroy every closet door.”

On Nov. 27, 1978, Milk and Mayor George Moscone were murdered by Dan White, a former supervisor who had voted against Milk’s anti-discrimination initiative. That night, tens of thousands of San Franciscans held an impromptu candlelight vigil in Milk’s honor.

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