Who Was Harvey Milk?

By | December 5, 2021

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Harvey Milk. (Bettmann/Getty Images)

On November 8, 1977, Harvey Milk became the first openly gay man elected to public office in California after winning a seat on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. Born on May 22, 1930 in Woodmere, New York, Milk was known for being a tough kid. He went on to serve in the Korean War as a diving officer and eventually rose to the rank of lieutenant before his sexuality earned him a "less than honorable" discharge.

During the 1960s, Milk worked on Wall Street, where his co-workers introduced him to the world of conservative politics. He even campaigned for Barry Goldwater. By 1969, however, he had been swayed by romantic partners on the other side of the political spectrum to abandon conservatism and move to San Francisco. The more tolerant culture of the Castro District, known for its acceptance of the L.G.B.T.Q. community, was a revelation for Milk, and he became deeply involved in the gay rights movement.

Milk first ran for office in 1973 for a position in the city's government, and though he won 16,000 votes by reaching out to communities of color and the working class, it was just barely enough to break into the top 10 of candidates. Later that year, however, when the Teamsters boycotted Coors beer, Milk saw an opportunity to marry the struggles of gay and workers' rights, promising to convince every gay bar in the Castro to stop selling Coors if the union began hiring gay people. Since the gay community was approximately one-fifth of their consumer base in San Francisco, Coors quickly threw in the towel, and Milk gained some much-needed political street cred, becoming known as the "Mayor of Castro Street."

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Harvey Milk with his sister-in-law in front of Castro Camera in 1973. (Stuart Milk/Wikimedia Commons)

In 1975, George Moscone was elected mayor of San Francisco thanks at least somewhat to Milk's support and offered him a position as a city commissioner, but Milk kept his eyes on the prize. In 1977, he was finally elected to the Board of Supervisors after garnering major support from the increasingly influential Castro District.

It wasn't all rainbows, however: Sworn in alongside Milk was Dan White, who had won his seat actively campaigning against the gay community. The uneasiness of the election aside, almost immediately after he took office, Milk found himself going toe-to-toe with the much more established John Briggs of Orange County. Briggs was pushing the so-called Briggs Initiative of Prop 6, which mandated firing gay teachers.

Initially, the bill garnered tempered but mainstream support, but Milk traveled around the state to attend every single function that Briggs hosted and rally opposition to the bill. When election day rolled around, it lost by over a million votes, which was seen as a major win for gay rights and a testament to Milk's tenacity. With that success under his belt, Milk set his sights even higher with a plan to run for mayor within the following decade, but his dreams were tragically cut short.