Harvey Bernard Milk was born on May 22, 1930 in Woodmere, New York, on Long Island, to William Milk and Minerva Karns. He was the younger son of Lithuanian Jewish parents and the grandson of Morris Milk, a department store owner who helped to organize the first synagogue in the area. As a child, Harvey was teased for his protruding ears, big nose, and oversized feet, and tended to grab attention as a class clown. He played football in school, and developed a passion for opera; in his teens, he acknowledged his homosexuality, but kept it a closely guarded secret. Under his name in the high school yearbook, it read, “Glimpy Milk—and they say WOMEN are never at a loss for words”.
Milk graduated from Bay Shore High School in Bay Shore, New York, in 1947 and attended New York State College for Teachers in Albany (now the State University of New York at Albany) from 1947 to 1951, majoring in mathematics. He wrote for the college newspaper and earned a reputation as a gregarious, friendly student. None of his friends in high school or college suspected that he was gay. As one classmate remembered, “He was never thought of as a possible queer—that’s what you called them then—he was a man’s man”.
Milk was an American politician who became the first openly gay man to be elected to public office in California when he won a seat on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. Politics and gay activism were not his early interests; he was not open about his homosexuality and did not participate in civic matters until around the age of 40, after his experiences in the counterculture of the 1960s.
Milk moved from New York City to settle in San Francisco in 1972 amid a migration of gay men to the Castro District. He took advantage of the growing political and economic power of the neighborhood to promote his interests, and ran unsuccessfully for political office three times. His theatrical campaigns earned him increasing popularity, and Milk won a seat as a city supervisor in 1977, part of the broader social changes the city was experiencing.
Milk served almost 11 months in office and was responsible for passing a stringent gay rights ordinance for the city. On November 27, 1978, Milk and Mayor George Moscone were assassinated by Dan White, another city supervisor who had recently resigned but wanted his job back. Milk’s election was made possible by and was a key component of a shift in San Francisco politics. The assassinations and the ensuing events were the result of continuing ideological conflicts in the city.
Despite his short career in politics, Milk became an icon in San Francisco and a martyr in the gay community. In 2002, Milk was called “the most famous and most significantly open LGBT official ever elected in the United States”. Anne Kronenberg, his final campaign manager, wrote of him: “What set Harvey apart from you or me was that he was a visionary. He imagined a righteous world inside his head and then he set about to create it for real, for all of us.” Milk was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2009.
The City of San Francisco has paid tribute to Milk by naming several locations after him. Where Market and Castro streets intersect in San Francisco flies an enormous Gay Pride flag, situated in Harvey Milk Plaza. The San Francisco Gay Democratic Club changed its name to the Harvey Milk Memorial Gay Democratic Club in 1978 (it is currently named the Harvey Milk Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender Democratic Club) and boasts that it is the largest Democratic organization in San Francisco. In New York City, Harvey Milk High School is a school program for at-risk youth that concentrates on the needs of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender students and operates out of the Hetrick Martin Institute.
In 1982, freelance reporter Randy Shilts completed his first book: a biography of Milk, titled The Mayor of Castro Street. Shilts wrote the book while unable to find a steady job as an openly gay reporter. The Times of Harvey Milk, a documentary film based on the book’s material, won the 1984 Academy Award for Documentary Feature. Director Rob Epstein spoke later about why he chose the subject of Milk’s life: “At the time, for those of us who lived in San Francisco, it felt like it was life changing, that all the eyes of the world were upon us, but in fact most of the world outside of San Francisco had no idea. It was just a really brief, provincial, localized current events story that the mayor and a city council member in San Francisco were killed. It didn’t have much reverberation.” Milk’s life has been the subject of a musical theater production, an opera, a children’s picture book, and the biopic Milk, released in 2008 after 15 years in the making. The film was directed by Gus Van Sant and starred Sean Penn as Milk and Josh Brolin as Dan White, and won two Academy Awards for Best Original Screenplay and Best Actor. It took eight weeks to film, and often used extras who had been present at the actual events for large crowd scenes, including a scene depicting Milk’s “Hope Speech” at the 1978 Gay Freedom Day Parade.
Milk was included in the “Time 100 Heroes and Icons of the 20th Century” as “a symbol of what gays can accomplish and the dangers they face in doing so”. Despite his antics and publicity stunts, according to writer John Cloud, “none understood how his public role could affect private lives better than Milk … [he] knew that the root cause of the gay predicament was invisibility”. The Advocate listed Milk third in their “40 Heroes” of the 20th century issue, quoting Dianne Feinstein: “His homosexuality gave him an insight into the scars which all oppressed people wear. He believed that no sacrifice was too great a price to pay for the cause of human rights.”
In August 2009, President Barack Obama posthumously awarded Milk the Presidential Medal of Freedom for his contribution to the gay rights movement stating “he fought discrimination with visionary courage and conviction”. Milk’s nephew, Stuart, accepted for his uncle. Shortly after, Stuart co-founded the Harvey Milk Foundation with Anne Kronenberg with the support of Desmond Tutu, co-recipient of 2009 Presidential Medal of Freedom and now a member of the Foundation’s Advisory Board. Later in the year, California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger designated May 22 as “Harvey Milk Day“, and inducted Milk in the California Hall of Fame. Since 2003, the story of Harvey Milk has been featured in three exhibitions created by the GLBT Historical Society, a San Francisco–based museum, archives, and research center, to which the estate of Scott Smith donated Milk’s personal belongings that were preserved after his death.
Harry Britt summarized Milk’s impact the evening Milk was shot in 1978: “No matter what the world has taught us about ourselves, we can be beautiful and we can get our thing together … Harvey was a prophet … he lived by a vision … Something very special is going to happen in this city and it will have Harvey Milk’s name on it.”
- SOCIAL ACTIVISM: Harvey Milk Day (alwaysquestionauthority.com)
- Harvey Milk Day Recognizes Fallen San Francisco Hero (PHOTOS) (huffingtonpost.com)
- Happy Harvey Milk Day! Event Notice and Video (bilerico.com)
- Harvey Milk’s legacy is progress (sfgate.com)
- Happy Birthday, Harvey May 22, 1930 – November 27, 1978 (ronskemp.wordpress.com)
- Harvey Milk’s Nephew Remembers, as San Diego Plans Street Dedication on Third Official ‘Harvey Milk Day’ (towleroad.com)