Harvey Milk and the Candidacy of the LGBT Movement

by the San Francisco LGBT Pride Celebration Committee

May 22 marks what would have been former San Francisco City Supervisor Harvey Milk’s 78th birthday.

Milk has been widely referred to as a martyr for the LGBT movement, but it is not his death that first launched Harvey into the public’s eye.

Milk’s election to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors in 1978 was an historic moment. His win came after two unsuccessful bids in 1973 and 1975.

In 1977, when voting for San Francisco City Supervisors transitioned from city-wide elections to district elections, Milk managed to win a seat on the Board and in so doing became the first openly gay elected official of any major U.S. city.

When Milk addressed a crowd of supporters after his victory, he noted the significance of his election for the LGBT community, “This is not my victory — it’s yours. If a gay man can win, it proves that there is hope for all minorities who are willing to fight.”

As a supervisor, Milk rallied the city council in 1978 to pass the city’s landmark Gay Rights Ordinance, which barred employers from firing employees because of their sexuality.

Milk’s fellow supervisor Dan White resigned from the Board in opposition to Milk’s bill.

White would later return to City Hall and shoot then-Mayor George Moscone and Milk, killing them both.

White was arrested and tried in a trial that would make famous the “Twinkie defense” (which formed part of White’s diminished capacity defense). When White’s 7-year prison sentence for manslaughter was announced, the San Francisco LGBT community was outraged. Many in the community saw the sentence as excessively lenient for the dual assassinations.

On May 21, 1979, members of the San Francisco LGBT community gathered in San Francisco’s Civic Center to protest the verdict and the White Night Riots broke out, chanting, “We want justice!,” and “Remember Harvey Milk!.” Protestors outrage spilled over into property destruction. Twelve police cruisers were burned and windows were smashed.

To those who lived through those years, Harvey Milk’s life and times are fairly well-known, but youth face significant hurdles to receiving LGBT history in the present education system.

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