In 1977, a charismatic camera shop owner named Harvey Milk won a seat on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. The triumph made him the first openly gay man elected to public office in the state of California, and one of the first openly gay individuals to hold public office in all of America. Although the race was a local one, Milk had a nationwide influence on the LGBTQ rights movement—both in life and in death.
1. As a young man, Harvey Milk worked on Wall Street—and Broadway.
Harvey Milk was a man of many interests. Born in Woodmere, New York, on May 22, 1930, Milk adored opera, played multiple sports, and wrote student newspaper columns at his alma mater, the New York College for Teachers (now known as SUNY Albany). Graduating with the class of 1951, Milk built up an impressive resume: Wall Street research analyst, public school teacher, and associate Broadway producer were among the various job titles he earned before relocating to San Francisco in 1972.
2. The Vietnam War changed Harvey Milk’s political ideology.
When Milk won a seat on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors in 1977, he ran as a Democrat. Yet his earlier forays into politics were on the other side of the aisle. More than a decade earlier, Milk had been recruited to work on Republican Barry Goldwater’s 1964 presidential campaign. It was the Vietnam War that transformed his politics. "The day Nixon invaded Cambodia was the day I had to speak out against war profiteers, large corporations and so forth," Milk told NBC News in 1978. "And so I got rid of my Wall Street career … and when I walked through that door, I kept walking.”
3. Harvey Milk became known as "The Mayor of Castro Street.”
By the time Milk put his stamp on San Francisco's Castro Street, the famed street—and its surrounding district—had already become a hub for the city’s gay community. In 1973, Milk and his then-partner opened Castro Camera, a small photo development shop which turned into a neighborhood gathering spot. Milk used the store as his campaign headquarters during all of his public office bids, which ultimately earned him the nickname “The Mayor of Castro Street.”
4. Harvey Milk and the San Francisco Teamsters union worked together to organize a beer boycott.
In 1973, half a dozen large beer distributors collectively refused to hire union truck drivers. So the following summer, Allan Baird of the San Francisco Teamsters Union asked Milk to convince the city’s gay bars to take part in a mass boycott of those companies. Milk happily agreed, stating: “If we in the gay community want others to help us in our fight against discrimination, then we must help others in their fights." With Milk's help, San Francisco's gay-owned bars blacklisted the distributors, causing five of them to reverse their stances on union drivers.
5. Harvey Milk wasn’t the only LGBTQ politician to find success in the 1970s.
Milk's political success didn't happen overnight. Prior to the 1977 election, Milk had unsuccessfully mounted two previous campaigns for a San Francisco Board of Supervisors seat, and also failed to get himself elected as a California State Assemblyman. Milk wasn’t the first open member of the LGBTQ community to win an American election, however. That honor goes to Kathy Kozachenko, who was voted on to the City Council of Ann Arbor, Michigan, in 1974. Then came Elaine Noble, the first openly gay candidate to hold a statewide office in the U.S. She earned this distinction by joining the Massachusetts General Assembly in 1975.
6. Harvey Milk helped kill a state initiative that would have banned LGBTQ teachers.
After being sworn into office on January 8, 1978, Milk quickly threw himself into the fight against California Proposition 6. Better known as “the Briggs Initiative,” this ballot measure was championed by State Senator John Briggs of Orange County. Had it passed, California’s public schools would have been required to fire all gay and lesbian teachers, teacher’s aides, counselors, and administrators in their employ. Not only did Milk publicly debate Briggs over the measure, he also urged then-president Jimmy Carter to condemn it. When Californians went to the polls that November, the initiative was defeated by a margin of more than 1 million votes.
7. Dog poop was a major headache for Harvey Milk.
“I don’t want to put anybody in jail, I don’t want to fine anybody. I just want to clean up the mess,” Milk told San Francisco's KQED News in 1978. He sponsored a bill that imposed fees of $10 or more on area dog owners who didn’t curb their pets. Nicknamed the Scoop the Poop Act by future mayor (and current U.S. Senator) Dianne Feinstein, Milk’s ordinance was unanimously passed by the Board of Supervisors.
8. Harvey Milk was assassinated by a colleague at City Hall.
Former fireman and police officer Dan White was another newcomer to the board who had been elected on the same day as Milk. The two supervisors seemed to get along well enough at first, but things soured after Milk voted to open a facility for troubled youths in White’s district. Citing financial woes and other concerns, White later resigned from the board. Then—in an abrupt turn—White asked Mayor George Moscone to reappoint him to the position he had just vacated. Ultimately, the mayor refused.
Moscone’s decision was influenced by some of the board’s more liberal members, Milk included, who opposed reappointing White. On November 27, 1978, White—armed with a .38 revolver—climbed through a basement window at City Hall. Once inside, he killed Moscone, reloaded his weapon, and assassinated Milk.
9. The trial of Harvey Milk’s killer led to the “White Night Riots.”
Although he had slain two high-ranking public officials, White was never charged with murder. Instead he was found guilty of voluntary manslaughter, a lesser offense that landed him a seven-year, eight-month prison sentence. Feeling White had escaped justice, approximately 5000 protestors marched on City Hall. What followed were what became known as the “White Night Riots” of May 21, 1978, in which altercations sparked by the trial’s controversial outcome left 124 demonstrators and 59 police officers injured. (As for Dan White: He took his own life on October 21, 1985, less than two years after his release from prison.)
10. The U.S. Navy named a ship in Harvey Milk’s honor.
Milk’s name now graces a New York City high school, a San Francisco airport terminal, and street signs across the west coast. And then there’s the USNS Harvey Milk, a naval replenishment oiler now under construction. Milk himself had served in the navy before he was forced to resign on account of his homosexuality.
“Naming this ship after Harvey Milk is a fitting tribute to a man who had been at the forefront of advocating for civil and human rights,” former Navy Secretary Ray Mabus said in 2016 of the ship's namesake.
A version of this story ran in 2020; it has been updated for 2021.