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You Gotta Give Them Hope!

  • Harvey Milk (1930–1978)

Harvey Milk was the first openly gay person to hold a major political position. He began his political career in the 1970s, at a time when psychologists still considered homosexuality a mental disorder. In 1977 he became a member of San Francisco's Board of Supervisors.

Milk believed that the "invisibility" of gays contributed to the negative social stigmas of the time. Many gay and lesbian people of the late 1970s lived in the closet, so the election of an openly gay man was a major milestone in the gay political world and in the personal lives of gay individuals. Milk said, "You gotta give them hope." His visibility gave many people the hope they badly needed.

It was important to Milk that he be seen as a person, not just as a gay man, in politics. After sponsoring a dog mess bill that forced owners to clean up after their pets on the sidewalks, Milk said, "All over the country, they're reading about me, and the story doesn't center on me being gay. It's just about a person who is doing his job."

Prior to his political career, Milk served in the Korean War and upon his return became an investment banker on Wall Street. In 1972 Milk moved to San Francisco. He settled with his partner Scott Smith and opened a camera store, Castro Camera, in the Castro neighborhood. He emerged as a community leader, founding the Castro Valley Association of local merchants, and represented the neighborhood businesses in dealing with the city government.

Milk ran for the San Francisco Board of Supervisors unsuccessfully twice, in 1973 and 1975. Through these efforts he emerged as a figurehead for San Francisco's large gay community, and was known as the "Mayor of Castro Stree,t" a title that he himself coined. With each campaign, he garnered a larger number of supporters.

In 1977, after San Francisco switched from at-large to district elections, Milk was elected to the Board of Supervisors. It was his third attempt, and he became the first openly gay elected official of any large city in the United States.

In his 11 months as a Supervisor, he sponsored a gay rights bill for the city as well as his famous “pooper-scooper” ordinance. He was also instrumental in defeating Proposition 6, the Briggs Initiative, backed by State Senator Briggs, which would have allowed openly gay men and lesbians who were teachers to be fired based on their sexuality. In November 1978, Proposition 6 was soundly voted down by Californians.

Amid death threats, Milk said, "If a bullet should enter my brain, let that bullet destroy every closet door."

On November 27, 1978, Harvey Milk was shot twice in the head by the disgruntled former San Francisco Supervisor Daniel White. Mayor George Moscone was also killed. White confessed to his crime, but was only given five years in prison plus parole. His lawyers argued that junk food caused his depression. That argument, dubbed the Twinkie defense, was later banned.

Milk's death made him a martyr. His Supervisor seat was given to Harry Britt, another openly gay politician. A year after Milk's death, 100,000 people demonstrated for gay rights in Washington D.C., chanting "Harvey Milk Lives." He was also the inspiration for Cleve Jones'sAIDS quilt and his bravery was the catalyst for the modern-day gay rights movement. Today, many gay social institutions are named after Harvey Milk, including the Harvey Milk School in New York City and the Harvey Milk Civil Rights Academy in San Francisco.