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A compendium of queer people in the 19th and 20th centuries // Drawn and researched by Michele Rosenthal

Harvey  Milk

Harvey Milk 1930to –1978

Gay activist, “Mayor of Castro Street,” and the first out politician to be elected in the United States. He grew up in a Jewish family in New York, and when he left school he switched between a variety of careers. He taught high school, served in the Navy, and worked on Wall Street. He also pursued a number of relationships, but at the time he was careful to keep his sexuality a secret. In 1969, Milk first moved to San Francisco, and more specifically to Castro Street, where queer people from across the country were taking up residency. In San Francisco, Milk encountered hippie culture and liberal politics. He left his job at an investment firm, and in 1973 used the remainder of his money to open up a camera shop on Castro Street, along with his boyfriend at the time Scott Smith. From the vantage point of his storefront, Milk became more and more frustrated with the policies and priorities of the city, and that same year he decided to run for city supervisor. He whipped up support in the community with his large, friendly personality and a disorganized but energetic campaign—and lost twice. But in 1977, it was decided that supervisors should be elected from within each neighborhood instead of city-wide. With a backdrop of anti-gay legislation cropping up around the country, Harvey Milk was elected on a platform of small business rights and gay liberation. He became a close ally of Mayor George Moscone, and accomplished as much as he could during his short time in office. He sponsored a bill that banned discrimination based on sexual orientation, and another popular one that required dog owners to pick up their pets’ poop. He was also instrumental in voting down a proposition that would ban gay people from teaching, and that year at Gay Pride, he famously urged folks across the country to come out of the closet. Tragically, only 10 months after his swearing in, Harvey Milk along with Mayor Moscone were both assassinated by fellow supervisor Dan White. The city was devastated, but that devastation turned to outrage when White was sentenced to only seven years in prison. His lawyer had argued diminished capacity because, as a white Catholic firefighter, White didn’t “seem” like the type who would kill in cold blood, and furthermore he had been binging on junk food the night before, which was quickly dubbed the “Twinkie defense.” The verdict was met with rioting in the streets. Milk himself had been aware of the risk of assassination, and left behind a recording of his wishes in that event, adding, “If a bullet should enter my brain, let that bullet destroy every closet door.” He has since become an icon of queer political action.

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