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Who Was Harvey Milk?

Every year, May 22nd marks Harvey Milk Day; a day to remember the hugely influential gay rights activist. Milk’s activism throughout the 1970s has had long-lasting effects on the LGBTQ+ community not just in the US but across the world. I first learned about Harvey Milk whilst reading Robin Talley's novel, Music From Another World, and was immediately captivated by the gay icon, despite knowing very little about him. In honour of this year's Harvey Milk Day, here is a brief history of the icon Harvey Milk and why his day is so important for the LGBTQ+ community.

Milk was born on the 22nd of May 1930, in the suburb of Woodmere in New York City. Raised by Lithuanian Jewish parents, Milk’s grandfather had helped assemble the first synagogue in their neighbourhood. In 1951 Milk graduated from the New York State College for Teachers in Albany, majoring in maths. Following graduation he joined the United States Navy, serving as a diving officer during the Korean War. However, he was forced to resign from the Navy in 1955, receiving an “other than honourable” discharge, due to his sexuality as a gay man.

After leaving the army Milk had a variety of jobs; a high school teacher, an actuarial statistician at an insurance firm, and a researcher on Wall Street. In 1972 he moved to the Castro District of San Francisco, an area that was undergoing a high immigration of LGBTQ+ people. Milk opened a camera store on Castro Street with his partner at the time, Scott Smith. It was here that his passion for politics blossomed and he became a popular figure in the gay community.

In 1974 he began working with the local community, earning himself the title “Mayor of Castro Street”. Milk launched the inaugural Castro Street Fair and co-founded the Castro Village Association to unite more LGBTQ+ business owners. Milk also aided the Teamsters Union Coors beer boycott; this alliance led to the union hiring more gay drivers. Milk ran for the San Francisco Board of Supervisors in 1973 and 1975, and although placed respectably, he lost both times, leading him to found the San Francisco Gay Democratic Club.

In 1976, Milk was appointed to the Board of Permit Appeals. This was a monumental moment, making Milk the first openly gay politician in California, and the first openly gay city commissioner in the US. The following year he was inaugurated as the San Francisco City Supervisor, marking a historic moment for the LGBTQ+ community and making international headlines.

During his time as supervisor Milk proposed a bill to ban sexual orientation-based discrimination in employment and housing, which was an enormous leap for gay rights. Milk spent much of his final year campaigning against the State Senator John Briggs’ Proposition 6 ballot initiative, which banned gay teachers, as well as anyone actively supporting gay rights from working in Californian schools. His campaigning gathered the support of Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan, and the proposition was beaten by over a million votes.

However, Milk was committed to serving the whole constituency, not just the LGBTQ+ community. He led campaigns to reform the tax code, establish daycare centres for working parents, and more low-income housing.

On the 27th of November 1978, Milk and George Moscone, the Mayor of San Francisco, were assassinated by former Supervisor Dan White in San Francisco City Hall. White had been refused reinstatement by Moscone following his resignation, with Milk actively supporting this decision. Milk’s death sent shockwaves through the LGBTQ+ community, as never before had a gay political figure been able to have such a powerful influence. Just five months earlier, Milk had stood on the steps of San Francisco City Hall and delivered his infamous Hope speech, to a mass of supporters celebrating California Gay Freedom Day.

Forty-four years after his death, Milk’s legacy lives on through the Harvey Milk Foundation, founded in 2009 by his nephew Stuart Milk and Anne Kronenberg, Milk’s campaign manager. From supporting the first pride parade in Istanbul in 2008 to bringing transgender leaders from five continents for a global summit in Milan, Italy in 2012, the foundation continues Milk’s work of bringing positive change to the world. In 2008 a biographical film entitled Milk was released, receiving eight Oscar nominations and winning two: Best Actor and Best Original Screenplay.

Milk was just 48 years old when he died, and only had eleven months in office. However, the work he did for the LGBTQ+ community was monumentally important. The seventies are remembered as one of the most notable decades regarding gay rights, beginning with the Stonewall riots in June 1969 that sparked the gay rights movement in the US. From debating against anti-gay figures such as Antia Bryant and John Briggs, to his campaigning, to simply his presence as a gay man in office, Milk will always be remembered as a pivotal figure in the gay rights movement.


Image via The Washington Post

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