- Frederick J. Simonelli
Milk, Harvey (22 May 1930–27 November 1978), politician and gay rights activist, was born Harvey Bernard Milk in Woodmere, Long Island, New York, the son of William Milk and Minerva Karns. His father operated a department store in Woodmere that was founded in 1882 by his grandfather, Morris Milk (originally Milch), a Lithuanian immigrant. Before she married his father, Milk’s mother was an early feminist activist who joined the Yoemanettes, a group agitating for the inclusion of women in the U.S. Navy during World War I.
Milk graduated from Bayshore High School in 1947 and from the New York State College for Teachers at Albany, where he majored in math and minored in history in 1951. In college Milk was a sportswriter for the State College News, serving as sports editor during his senior year. He was also active in Kappa Beta, a Jewish fraternity. Following graduation, Milk joined the U.S. Navy in September 1951. He attended Officer Candidate School (OCS) in Newport, Rhode Island, and was commissioned a lieutenant (j.g.). Milk was based in San Diego, California, where he served until his discharge in August 1955.
After leaving the navy Milk taught high school math and history in Woodmere from 1955 to 1957. In 1957 he moved to Dallas, Texas, where he worked in a department store. The following year he took a position as an actuary at the Great American Insurance Company in New York City. In 1963 he began working as a statistical analyst and supervisor of the information center at Bache & Company in New York City. Milk remained with Bache & Company for several years, building a reputation as an astute financial analyst. After leaving Bache he held a series of positions with various companies in the finance field in both New York and San Francisco.
As with many gay men and lesbians of his generation, the Stonewall Riot marked Milk’s emergence as a political and social activist. In the early morning hours of 28 June 1969 New York City police engaged gay men and lesbians in a fierce and protracted clash outside the Stonewall Bar, a popular gay gathering spot in Greenwich Village. Claiming that the Stonewall was operating in violation of the bar’s liquor license, the police conducted a raid. Although that was the immediate spark, the riot was actually a response to long-simmering hostility within the gay community over regular and repeated police harassment and officially sanctioned “gay bashing.”
In 1972 Milk moved permanently to San Francisco, which since the end of World War II had become a relatively safe haven for openly gay men and women and the center of gay culture in the United States. Milk opened a camera store on Castro Street, in the center of the gay community, and quickly moved to the forefront of gay political activism. Outspoken, brash, impulsive, passionate, and charismatic, he challenged San Francisco’s traditional gay political leadership and its strategy of crafting alliances with the city’s liberal establishment in exchange for modest, incremental advances in political recognition and power. Milk’s confrontational style brought him into conflict with Jim Foster and the other gay power brokers of the Alice B. Toklas Memorial Democratic Club. In 1973, a San Francisco resident for little more than a year, he declared his candidacy for the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, the powerful legislative body for the combined city and county of San Francisco. Although he was opposed by Foster and the gay power structure, Milk commanded the support of many in the angry and impatient younger gay community. His candidacy received an important boost when José Sarria, a prominent San Francisco gay activist since the 1940s, endorsed him. Although he lost that race, Milk garnered more than 17,000 votes and finished tenth in a 32-candidate field for five at-large seats.
Milk emerged from the 1973 campaign as a new force in San Francisco politics, an urban populist whose platform, while founded on gay rights, also embraced those who sought an uncompromising political voice against the real estate developers, tourist industry, and downtown corporate interests that controlled the city’s governance. Milk provided a model of involvement in community and political affairs that encouraged others in the gay community to follow. In 1974 he revitalized the Castro Village Association as a vehicle for gay merchants to exercise economic power. After a second race for supervisor in 1976, which he barely lost, finishing seventh behind six incumbents, Milk was firmly established as the leading political spokesman for the city’s gay community, and the election of his friend and ally George Moscone as mayor gave him access to the center of power.
In 1976 Mayor Moscone appointed Milk to the city’s board of permit appeals, making him the first openly gay city commissioner in the United States. Less than five weeks after taking office, however, Milk alienated Moscone by filing candidacy papers for the state assembly. His candidacy in the Sixteenth Assembly District disrupted a carefully crafted agreement among the city’s top Democratic politicians—Moscone, John Foran, and Leo McCarthy—to divide the political spoils in the wake of Moscone’s mayoral victory. Milk lost the race to the Moscone-Foran-McCarthy choice, Art Agnos, a young aide to Assembly Speaker Leo McCarthy. Politically savvy, Milk then sought passage of an amendment to the city-county charter that would replace at-large elections for the board of supervisors, which served to diffuse the gay vote, with district elections, which would result in a concentration of voting power. In 1977, following the achievement of that structural change, Milk was elected to the board of supervisors from District 5, the Castro area. Receiving more than 30 percent of the vote in a sixteen-candidate field, Milk far out-polled his nearest rival.
From his first day as a San Francisco supervisor, Milk pursued an ambitious agenda of political, economic, and social reform that included protection of gay rights, reform of the city’s property tax structure to entice light industry back to the deserted factories and warehouses of the inner city, an innovative proposal for citywide day care centers for working mothers run by senior citizens, the enactment of a commuter tax on the 300,000 corporate commuters who worked in the city and used its services but lived—and paid taxes—in the suburbs, the enactment of an antispeculation tax to combat escalating housing costs that were driving moderate and low-income San Franciscans from the city, the conversion of soon-to-be abandoned military facilities within the city to low-cost housing for senior citizens, and the preservation of the integrity and character of the city’s varied neighborhoods. Though his success with these reforms was mixed, given his short tenure in office, many of the programs he promoted were established after his death.
Milk emerged as an ardent proponent of strong, safe, cohesive neighborhoods as essential to high-quality urban life. He paid special attention to his own district, relentlessly pressuring the Moscone administration to improve traffic control, make street repairs, expand library services, and augment street cleaning and police patrols.
As the nation’s first and only openly gay elected official, Milk also spoke out on state and national issues affecting gays, including pending antigay legislation in Florida, Minnesota, Kansas, Oregon, and California, among other states. His promising career abruptly ended within a year of his election to the board. Milk and Mayor Moscone were assassinated in their city hall offices by Dan White, a former supervisor and political opponent.
The most complete and accurate source of information is the biography by Randy Shilts, The Mayor of Castro Street: The Life and Times of Harvey Milk (1982). Milk’s significance to, and role in, gay political liberation is discussed in Karen A. Foss, “Harvey Milk: You Have to Give Them Hope,” Journal of the West (Apr. 1988): 75–81. Foss’s “The Logic of Folly in the Political Campaigns of Harvey Milk,” in Queer Words, Queer Images: Communication and the Construction of Homosexuality, ed. R. Jeffrey Ringer (1994), provides useful insight into Milk’s campaign rhetoric and style. Two works concentrate on Milk’s murder and include valuable biographical information and political analysis: Mike Weiss, Double Play: The San Francisco City Hall Killings (1984), and Emily Mann, Execution of Justice (1986). The Academy Award–winning documentary The Times of Harvey Milk (1986) is a compelling portrait of Milk’s life and career through television news footage and interviews. An obituary is in the New York Times, 28 Nov. 1978. His murder and White’s subsequent trial and reaction to it received extensive press coverage, especially in San Francisco.