Today I give thanks for the life work of Harvey Milk on the anniversary of his death. He was shot and killed 25 years ago this day by San Francisco city supervisor Dan White, who also shot and killed Mayor George Moscone.
Harvey Milk was known as the “Mayor of Castro Street”, a pioneer and leader in every sense of the word, speaking out for the rights of gay people when it was a far more dangerous and rebellious act than it is today. It was a position that eventually cost him his life.
When Milk moved to the Castro and opened a small camera shop it was not the organized gay ghetto that it is today. He started the Castro Street Fair on August 18, 1974 in order to unite the local gay community in defiance of discrimination by the Eureka Valley Merchants Association. It has since become an annual institution.
As a sarcastic reaction to the notion that homosexuals recruited people to join their community, he started out his stump speeches with the line, “My name is Harvey Milk and I’m here to recruit you.”
In 1977, Harvey Milk became the first openly gay official elected to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. He would serve eleven courageous months before being brutally murdered at City Hall in a homophobic attack by supervisor Dan White, who had eluded metal detectors by climbing in through a basement window. White also murdered mayor George Moscone.
In a stunning sentence, White was convicted of two counts of involuntary manslaughter and sentenced to seven years and eight months. The main defense that White’s lawyer gave was that he had eaten too much junk food the day of the murders which had somehow influenced his actions. It was labeled by critics as “the twinkie defense.” White was paroled after six years and committed suicide soon after.
Milk had been paranoid about a threat of assassination because of his outspoken role in the community and his views on gay rights. On one of many audio tapes that was discovered after his death, on which he had recorded a will, he said:
“If a bullet should enter my brain, let that bullet destroy every closet door.”
In my opinion, Harvey Milk has not yet been given his due in history. There are so few younger gay people that know about the extraordinary power and courage this man gave a community and a movement. I recommend that everyone view the incredibly compelling documentary The Times of Harvey Milk. You can rent it at video stores, but it’s hard to find a copy for purchase. It’s a MUST see. Randy Shilts also wrote a book on the topic.
The Times of Harvey Milk is a film that will stick with you forever. The image of Dianne Feinstein standing before a phalanx of reporters and uttering the news of the murders is gut-wrenching.
Were it not for Harvey Milk I am fully convinced the gay rights movement might still be in the dark ages. We certainly wouldn’t be on the verge of being able to marry. Long live his memory!
***Uncle Donald’s Castro Street is another fascinating read. It’s an incredibly engrossing website full of images of gay life in the Castro and memories from the 70’s. I was on the site for hours.
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