LGBT History Part II: Harvey Milk
“If a bullet should enter my brain, let that bullet destroy every closet door in the country.” This was a message Harvey Milk had recorded prior to his death after receiving many death threats simply because he was gay. Violence against the LGBT community is not new as many LGBT people have been a victim of hate crimes. In 2015, the FBI reported 1,337 hate crime
offenses based on sexual orientation and gender identity. This was almost a 4% increase from 2014.
Harvey Milk was assassinated 38 years ago on November 27, 1978. He was the first openly gay person to be elected to public office in California and was elected to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. During his campaign, he offered an ambitious agenda including not only protecting gay rights, but also establishing day care centers for working mothers and converting military facilities into low-cost housing. He promoted safe neighborhoods, improving services, and he was very outspoken about issues involving LGBT people, racial and ethnic minorities, and other marginalized communities. He served for 11 months before being assassinated.
During his brief term as Supervisor, Milk sponsored a very important bill that outlawed discrimination based on sexual orientation and he was instrumental in fighting a California ballot initiative, Proposition 6, commonly referred to as The Briggs Initiative. This initiative would have banned gays and lesbians, and possibly anyone who supported gay rights, from working in California’s public schools.
On November 27, 1978, a former city Supervisor, Dan White, assassinated Milk and the Mayor, George Moscone. White avoided the metal detectors at the official City Hall entrances by sneaking in through a basement window. He walked to Moscone’s office and killed him. He then continued down the hall to kill Milk. Dianne Feinstein heard the gunshots and quickly called police. She found Milk face down on the floor. He had been shot five times, including twice in the head.
White turned himself in to police and was arrested and charged with first-degree murder. After turning himself in to police, he was placed in a cell while his former colleagues on the police force told Harvey Milk jokes and openly wore “Free Dan White” T-shirts, illustrating the severe tensions between the population and the city’s police force. During the trial, the jury, made up of white, mostly Catholic, middle-class San Franciscans, heard White’s tearful recorded confession. White’s attorney argued that he was not responsible for his actions because he had diminished capacity. The attorney argued that White’s mental deterioration was demonstrated and made worse by his junk food binge. This argument became known as the “Twinkie defense.”
On May 21, 1979, the verdict came down. White was acquitted of first-degree murder and was given a mild sentence for manslaughter. He was sentenced to eight years in prison. The citizens of San Francisco were enraged with the sentence and stormed City Hall and setting rows of police cars on fire in what became known as the White Night Riots. The police retaliated by raiding the Elephant Walk Bar on Castro Street, vandalizing gay businesses, and beating people on the street. White served five years in prison for the murder of Moscone and Milk. Two years after his release, White was found dead in a running car in his ex-wife’s garage.
Milk’s legacy will not be forgotten. There are many schools and buildings named after Milk and at the intersection of Market and Castro streets, an enormous Gay Pride flag flies in Harvey Milk plaza to make the historic and sacred grounds for LGBT civil rights history. In 2014, the White House, the US Postal Service, and the Harvey Milk Foundation hosted a first day of issuance ceremony at the White House to celebrate the USPS ‘Harvey Milk Forever’ stamp. This was the first time that an openly LGBT official had joined the limited number of “great and accomplished Americans to grace the corner of an envelope and represent the U.S. to the world.”