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Harvey Milk was a human and civil rights leader and one of the first openly gay officials to be elected to office in the United States on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. He promoted gay rights, women’s rights, and other civic matters as an advocate and politician. He was assassinated by another city supervisor, Dan White, along with Mayor George Moscone.

Young Life and Education

Harvey Bernard Milk was born on January 8, 1978, in Woodmere, New York to Lithuanian-Jewish parents, Minerva Karns and William Milk.[1] He had one brother, Robert. William Milk served in the U.S. Navy and his mother served as a World War I “Yeomanette.”[2] His grandfather, Morris Milk, organized the first synagogue near Woodmere and owned a department store. Growing up Milk acted as the class clown and his large nose, ears, and feet led to teasing.

Milk attended Bay Shore High School in New York. He played football and fell in love with opera. Milk realized he was gay, but did not share it. His yearbook quote stated, "Glimpy Milk—and they say WOMEN are never at a loss for words.”

In 1947, Harvy Milk graduated and enrolled at Albany’s New York State College for Teachers. He majored in mathematics and wrote articles for the school’s newspaper. A biographer of Milk quotes his classmate describing him, "He was never thought of as a possible queer—that's what you called them then—he was a man's man.”[3] He graduated with a Bachelors in 1951.[4]

Military Service and Career Beginnings

Harvey Milk enlisted in the Navy and went to Newport, Rhode Island for Officer Candidate School. The Navy assigned him as a diving instructor in San Diego. He resigned in 1955 as a Junior Lieutenant after official questioning regarding his sexual preferences.[5]

Harvey Milk feared the reveal of his sexual orientation as a child, but as he grew older, it did not keep him from fighting for his beliefs as he got older.

Milk returned to New York and taught at Long Island’s George W. Hewlett High School. In 1956, Milk first met Joe Campbell at Jacob Riis Park. He began dating the man seven years his younger and they moved in together. They moved to Dallas, Texas for a brief time before returning to New York. The relationship ended after six years.

During this time, Harvy Milk worked as at an insurance firm as a statistician. He quit after breaking up with Craig Rodwell, a young, rebellious gay-rights advocate, and began work at Bache & Company. Milk began a relationship with 16-year-old Jack Galen McKinley in 1964 and McKinley connived him to work on Barry Goldwater’s Presidential campaign.[6]

Move to San Fransisco

In 1969, Harvey Milk and McKinley arrived in San Francisco, California with the Broadway production of Hair. Milk decided to stay when McKinley accepted a job on a production of Jesus Christ Superstar in New York. He worked in an investment firm that fired him in 1970 after he grew his hair out in protest of the invasion of Cambodia by the U.S.

Milk returned to New York, where he worked as an aid at O’Horgan’s Theater Company and served as an associate producer for Inner City and Lenny.[7] The New York Times described Milk as "a sad-eyed man—another aging hippie with long, long hair, wearing faded jeans and pretty beads,” which took many of his former acquaintances by shock.[8]

Milk soon started a relationship with Scott Smith, 18 years younger than him, and they moved back to San Fransisco. They opened a camera store in March 1973 on Castro Street. Milk found passion in civic matters and politics. He decided to run for city supervisor.[9]

Political Foundation

Harvey Milk found it difficult to break into the gay political scene in San Fransisco. Jim Foster turned down his request for endorsement of his city supervisor campaign as a newcomer. He gained supporters from unhappy gay bar owners with the “Alice” Club’s weak approach towards the city’s officials while still fighting police harassment. Milk ran on a liberal social platform. He supported the legalization of marijuana and the reorganization to district ballots rather than city-wide ballots for supervisor elections. In 1973, this last change would have won him the election.

Harvey Milk participated in more social campaigns, like the boycotting of beer by gay bars in return for the Teamsters Union hiring more gay drivers. He considered himself “the Mayor of Castro Street.” Milk cofounded the Castro Village Association to help two gay men open an antique shop when they were denied a business license and he encouraged gays to patron gay businesses. In 1974, he put together the Castro Street Fair to get more attention to the area and succeeded in bringing 5,000 people to the district.[10]

City Supervisor

In 1975, Harvey Milk decided to run for City Supervisor again and found support in construction unions, teamsters, and firefighters. The City elected George Moscone, a gay rights and labor supporter, mayor and offered Milk the job of city commissioner.[11] Milk lost the city supervisor election and, in 1976, Mayor Moscone chose him for the Board of Permit Appeals.

Harvey Milk crossed boundaries and succeeded in a public arena during a time when homosexuals suffered severe harassment and oppression.

Harvey Milk became the U.S. city commissioner to be openly gay. He then lost in a race for State Assembly. He helped Moscone and Anne Kronenberg pass an amendment to change the Board of Supervisor Elections to district ballots. Milk ran for City Supervisor again in 1977 and won. On January 9, 1978, he became the San Francisco City-County Supervisor.

As Supervisor, Milk protected gay rights, established day cares for working mothers, and reformed the tax code to attract businesses to the city’s deserted factories and warehouses. He also improved library services, community safety, and prevented the passing of Senator John Briggs’ Proposition 6, known as the Briggs Initiative, which would require California public schools to fire openly gay teachers.[12]

Assassination of Harvey Milk

On November 27, 1978, Dan White, the enraged former city supervisor, assassinated Havry Milk and Mayor Moscone. Candlelight vigils followed and many gay people came out publicly while marching on Washington, D.C. for gay rights. He is the subject of the 2008 movie Milk, winning two Academy Awards with Sean Penn playing Harvey Milk.

International Harvey Milk Day is put on by the group, The Harvey Milk Foundation, and takes place on May 22 every year across the nation with a dedicated exhibit in Sacramento, California.[13]

References

Bibliography

Shilts, R. (1982). The Mayor of Castro Street: The Life and Times of Harvey Milk. New York: St. Martin’s Press.

The Harvey Milk Foundation. The Official Harvey Milk Biography. MilkFoundation.Org.[2]

Footnotes

  1. Shilts, 1982
  2. The Harvey Milk Foundation, n.d.
  3. Shilts, 1982
  4. The Harvey Milk Foundation, n.d.
  5. The Harvey Milk Foundation, n.d.
  6. Shilts, 1982
  7. Shilts, 1982
  8. Gruen, J. (1972, January 2). ’Do You Mind Critics Calling you Cheap, Decadent, Sensationalistic, Gimmicky, Vulgar, Overinflated, Megalomaniacal? “I don’t read reviews very much,” answers Tom O’Horgan. The New York Times Archives. http://www.nytimes.com/1972/01/02/archives/-do-you-mind-critics-calling-you-cheap-decadent-sensationalistic.html?_r=0
  9. Shilts, 1982
  10. Shilts, 1982
  11. Shilts, 1982
  12. The Harvey Milk Foundation, n.d.
  13. The Harvey Milk Foundation. (2016). About - Education and Harvey Milk Day. MilkFoundation.Org.[1]

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