Nov. 27 will mark the 30th anniversary of the assassination of Harvey Milk, the first openly gay politician elected to public office in the United States. Milk served on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors in the late 1970s before his untimely death at the hands of a right-wing, racist, anti-gay former city supervisor.
Milk’s life continues to be a symbol of both what has been achieved and what remains to be done. Homosexuality was once taboo for the film industry, yet Hollywood is about to release a major motion picture starring Sean Penn on Milk’s life. At the same time, just this past September, California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger vetoed a bill that would have made Milk’s birthday a statewide day of celebration for the LGBT struggle.
The struggle that has recently broken out in California and elsewhere against that state’s bigoted Proposition 8, which amends the state constitution to define marriage as a union between a man and a woman, goes to show that Milk’s legacy of struggle is still alive.
In the wake of the Stonewall Rebellion in New York in 1969, the gay liberation movement was mobilized and making significant gains. The political establishment saw the gay community as a growing and potentially powerful constituency and began opportunistically courting their votes. Yet they demanded the LGBT community move slowly and with restraint.
Milk challenged all this by encouraging the gay community to be open about their sexuality and aggressive in the pursuit of their goals. “We don’t want sympathetic liberals, we want gays to represent gays,” Milk said. “We have to make up for hundreds of years of persecution.” (New York Times, Nov. 6, 1977)
Milk ran for public office three times before his 1977 election to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, each time gaining support from larger and larger sectors of the population. He was immediately embraced by San Francisco’s LGBT community, but his positions of inclusiveness and economic populism also won him broad support among people of color and large sectors of the city’s working class, including Longshoremen, construction workers and the Teamsters union.
While attacking the giant corporations and real estate developers that were invading San Francisco at the time, Milk fought to improve public schools and infrastructure. He pushed for free public transportation, expanded access and reduced cost for childcare and the development of a public board to monitor police actions.
A strong advocate for the LGBT community, Milk introduced legislation to prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation that passed and was signed into law. At San Francisco’s 1978 Gay Freedom Parade, Milk said: “I ask my gay sisters and brothers to make the commitment to fight. … We will not win our rights by staying quietly in our closets.” (Randy Shilts, “The Mayor of Castro Street,” 1982)
Milk also led a nationwide fight-back movement against homophobic bigotry. In Dade County, Fla., he fought against Anita Bryant and the right-wing “Save Our Children” campaign, which worked to repeal a gay rights ordinance. In California, he took on Proposition 6, known as the Briggs Initiative, which would have banned gay and lesbian teachers from teaching in public schools. Due in large part to Milk’s intervention, the Briggs initiative failed overwhelmingly with over 75 percent of the electorate voting against it.
On Nov. 27, 1978, at the peak of Milk’s career, Dan White, a disgruntled former Board of Supervisors member and ex-cop, broke into San Francisco City Hall and shot and killed Milk and Mayor George Moscone. Both victims were shot multiple times in the head at point-blank range.
In the trial that followed, the jury was stacked with conservative, middle-class whites sympathetic to White, while the LGBT community and people of color were deliberately excluded. White’s lawyers claimed that White suffered from severe depression, as evidenced by his excessive consumption of junk food. Despite the outrageousness of the argument, later dubbed the “Twinkie Defense,” White was acquitted of the murder, found guilty of voluntary manslaughter and sentenced to less than eight years in jail.
In what came to be known as the White Nights Riots, the Castro District, the heart of San Francisco’s LGBT community, erupted in outrage when the unjust verdict was announced. Over 3,000 people descended on City Hall, chanting, “Avenge Harvey Milk,” and, “He got away with murder.”
The angry crowd threw rocks through windows and set police cars on fire. Later that night, police in riot gear attacked the Castro District’s Elephant Walk bar, beating patrons indiscriminately. The fighting spread to the streets, and by the end of the night 100 civilians and 61 police were hospitalized.
Prior to his death, Milk had been receiving death threats with increasing frequency. Preparing for the possibility of an assassination, he recorded a message in which he said, “If a bullet should enter my brain, let that bullet destroy every closet door.” That prophetic line not only foreshadowed his tragic death, but also the tremendous gains the LGBT community subsequently fought for and achieved.
Today, Milk remains a symbol of empowerment not only for the LGBT community but for all oppressed people fighting for justice. His legacy reminds us that progressive gains are only possible if we unite on the broadest possible lines, rejecting homophobia, sexism, racism and all forms of discrimination.