LGBTQ History: Assassination anniversary of gay rights pioneer Harvey Milk

Harvey Milk was the first LGBTQ elected public servant in California history. He spent less than a year in office, but left a legacy that helped change hearts and minds.

Monday was the 39th anniversary of Milk’s assassination.


The man who would become known as the “Mayor of Castro Street,” initially was politically conservative — he campaigned for Republican presidential hopeful Barry Goldwater in 1964— and content to live a closeted life.

RELATED: Long Beach has nation’s first park named for Harvey Milk


In 1972, Milk moved from New York City to the Golden State and opened a camera shop, Castro Camera, on Castro Street, the heart of San Francisco’s gay community. He ran for a seat on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors in 1973, but lost.

The following year, Milk co-founded the Castro Village Association to unite gay business owners, and launched the inaugural Castro Street Fair in 1974.

Milk also forged an alliance with the Teamsters Union by supporting a boycott of Coors beer, and the union returned the favor by promising to hire more gay drivers.

RELATED: LGBTQ leaders inducted into Harvey Milk Park


Thanks to his charisma, enthusiasm, and political skills, Milk was soon called the “Mayor of Castro Street.”

After losing another bid for the Board of Supervisors in 1975, Milk was appointed by Mayor George Moscone to the Board of Permit Appeals, making him the first openly gay city commissioner in the nation. He left that post after running for the California State Assembly, but lost.

Harvey Milk, left, meets presidential candidate Jimmy Carter in this 1976 photo. Photo: Harvey Milk Foundation.


A short time later, Milk founded the San Francisco Gay Democratic Club and successfully pushed to reorganize the Board of Supervisors election from an at-large format to a district format.

Milk returned to campaigning in 1977. While gay rights was always a priority, Milk’s agenda also included affordable housing, public transportation, and daycare centers for working mothers.

RELATED: Gay rights pioneer Lee Glaze lead a pre-Stonewall rebellion in Los Angeles


The November election was historic. Milk became California’s first openly gay elected official. He represented the Haight-Ashbury and upper Market Street neighborhoods, where the city’s gay population emerged as a political force.


As supervisor, Milk spearheaded an ordinance to ban sexual orientation discrimination in employment, housing, and public accommodations. It was one of the nation’s strongest gay-rights measures.

The lone dissenting vote was Supervisor Dan White. Mayor Moscone signed the measure into law March 21, 1978.


That summer and fall, Milk spent a lot time campaigning against State Senator John Briggs’ Proposition 6 ballot initiative, which wanted to ban gay and lesbian teachers and anyone supporting gay rights from working in California schools. The anti-gay and lesbian initiative lost by more than 1 million votes.

On November 27, former Supervisor White, armed with a .38 revolver, went to San Francisco City Hall. White had resigned his position months earlier and had unsuccessfully asked to be reinstated.


Angered that he wasn’t returning to the board, White shot and murdered Moscone, then went to Milk’s office and fatally shot him.

Thousands of Milk supporters marched to city hall that night for a candlelight vigil.

At the trial, the defense argued that White had been under severe mental distress due to losing his job, citing his junk-food diet as evidence of low morale.

The strategy was ridiculed as the “Twinkie Defense,” but the jury apparently bought it. On May 21, 1979, White was sentenced to less than eight years in prison for voluntary manslaughter.


Milk supporters and the gay community were furious and took to the streets. Protesters stormed city hall and set police cars on fire, and the San Francisco police retaliated by smashing gay bars and beating patrons. The evening was dubbed the “White Night Riots.”


Milk’s story was told to a larger audience through Randy Shilts’s 1982 biography, “The Mayor of Castro Street,” and Rob Epstein’s 1984 Oscar-winning documentary, “The Times of Harvey Milk.”


At the same time, other elected officials, including Massachusetts Congressmen Gerry Studds and Barney Frank, came out of the closet.

Milk’s story made it to the silver screen in 2008 with Gus Van Sant’s acclaimed biography, “Milk.” Sean Penn won a best actor Oscar for his portrayal of Milk. Screenwriter Dustin Lance Black also won an Academy Award.


In 2009, Milk’s May 22 birthday was formally recognized in California as Harvey Milk Day, and he was honored with the nation’s highest civilian honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, by Barack Obama.

About the author

Phillip Zonkel

Award-winning journalist Phillip Zonkel spent 17 years at Long Beach's Press-Telegram, where he was the first reporter in the paper's history to have a beat covering the city's vibrant LGBTQ. He also created and ran the popular and innovative LGBTQ news blog, Out in the 562.

He won two awards and received a nomination for his reporting on the local LGBTQ community, including a two-part investigation that exposed anti-gay bullying of local high school students and the school districts' failure to implement state mandated protections for LGBTQ students.

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