As LGBTQ people, we have had so many great leaders and role models in our history. For me, one that stands out is Harvey Milk. He was the first openly gay elected official and bucked the system to get where he was. He started small and grew to lead an entire neighborhood while welcoming LGBTQ people from all over the country and giving them a place. His vision and movement started a fire that consumed and changed the Gay Rights Movement. His vision lead others, like Cleve Jones, to shape our country and open the doors to the freedoms we have this very day. This month will be 40 years since his murder, and he would have turned 80 next year.
Milk was not always open about his sexuality; in fact, he did not fully come out until he was 40. Neither was he into politics and activism until he moved to California, from New York. His time with the counterculture movement in the 60s is what led to his change of mind. With the migration of bi and gay men to California, Milk, too, decided to pick up and move to the Castro District in 1972. It was here and witnessing the growth and economic power, as well as, seeing a need for the gay community that he decided to start running for office. He ran and was beaten three times before he was finally elected in 1977. He was always known for bucking the system, especially with policies he did not agree with. However, when he decided to run for office, he swore of marijuana and gay bathhouses, cut his hair and started wearing suits. He had already been proven as a leader in Castro and had coined himself as the Mayor of Castro. Milk’s philosophy was that LGBTQ people should support LGBTQ businesses.
Milk was smart, he knew that being an openly gay man he would not win the support of most of the people. So, he traded favors with the local teamsters, supported firefighters, and local unions. This grew his support base and as his reputation grew, so did his supporters. Milk was a community minded person, favoring support of local small businesses and growing neighborhoods. By taking care of the people he most directly interacted with, he gained support from Castro and the surrounding neighborhoods, like few others. “There was always a miraculous quality he had…” says Harry Britt in his article Remembering Harvey Milk “Of being able to bring people together, of being able to say to people who have been treated like scum all their lives, and had desperately tried to maintain some sort of relationship with society, to let go of all their protection without killing themselves. To be supporting enough and loving enough and reassuring enough that he could take people as screwed up as people like me and convince us to march with him, or to hand out leaflets with him, or to somehow identify as gay people, with the possibilities that we was ostracized. That’s a magnificent thing for a person to do. I suspect that’s what parents do, if they’re honest, with their children.”
While Milk was running for office, he met Dan White, former firefighter and police officer. White had decided to resign from office due to not being able to support his family on the wages he was earning. White’s constituents urged him to change his mind. Mayor George Moscone had originally decided to let White stay, but Milk eventually convinced him to not let White come back. The morning of November 27th, 1978, White snuck into City Hall through an open basement window to avoid going through the metal detectors that would have found his police issued .38 revolver and extra hollow point ammo. White went to Moscone’s office to ask for his job back, but he refused. White then shot him repeatedly and then proceeded to leave the office and ran into Milk. He then also shot Milk. In both shootings, White leaned over the bodies and shot each of them twice in the head. White was taken into custody and police taped his tearful confession. He was taped by a friend who later said that he felt White did it because was overcome with pressures and thought Milk and worked against him with Moscone to prevent him from coming back. His friend and policeman, Frank Falzon, said he did not believe the shootings were premediated. Let’s look at this logically. Dan White got up that morning, looked for his revolver and spare ammunition, proceeded to City Hall and snuck through a basement window to avoid the metal detectors, headed to the office of Moscone and shot him repeatedly and then fired two shots into his head, and he left the office to find Milk and do the same thing. Somehow all of this is not premeditated. The prosecutors even played the confession for the jury, sadly it backfired. Four jurors also teared up listening to the confession, according to an article on LGBTQNation. They found him, instead, guilty of voluntary manslaughter and sentenced to only eight years in prison.
The verdict sparked mass outrage and Cleve Jones pushed for people to focus their rage and march. This sparked the White Night Riot and the crowd marched towards City Hall in protest. Chats of “He Got Away With Murder,” “We Want Justice,” and “No More Violence” were being yelled as the crowd move down Castro Street. Windows were broken, trash cans were lit on fire, and people attempted to flip police cars in outrage. Soon the police and crowd erupted into violence and soon the crowd was dispersed. In retaliation, the police marched to Castro where they descended upon the bar Elephant Walk and began clubbing patron. The night reached a crescendo when residents of Castro had congregated at a local drug store while the cops were attacking people and began singing Happy Birthday to Harvey Milk.
Harvey Milk was a gay man, but he was also a man that worked with the people and for the people. He shaped a neighborhood and an entire nation. His murder, no matter how tragic, shaped LGBTQ civil rights movement for the next years to come. He moved a community to action in life and in death. He fought for our people inside the beast that is politics and working with people that opposed us. As we have just ended LGBTQ History month and moved into November and technically being All Soul’s Day, it is fitting to offer him tribute. To hold his memory close to us and use it to move us forward. He fought with intensity and bravery, but never with violence. It is a lesson we all can take to heart.