*Note: Once you start reading this, you’ll realize it was originally posted in November 2012.*
As Americans go to the polls in three days to decide whether President Barack Obama gets a second term, history was made 35 years ago today.
On November 3, 1977, Harvey Milk was elected to San Fransisco’s Board of Supervisors. By securing that position, he became the first openly gay person to serve on the board and one of the nation’s highest gay profile figures.
These days, we’re fortunate enough to have openly gay members of Congress (Barney Frank, Tammy Baldwin, and Jared Polis) and openly gay mayors across the country, including Annise Parker in Houston, Texas, Sam Adams in Portland, Oregon, and David Cicilline in Providence, Rhode Island.
It’s amazing how things have change in the past 30-plus years.
After growing up in New York and serving in the Navy in the Korean War in the early-1950s, Milk, who was not open about his sexuality, moved to the Castro district of San Francisco, California, in 1972, and he quickly got involved in politics because of the injustices he noticed in his neighborhood.
In his career, Milk unsuccessfully ran for office three times before winning in November 1977.
His first campaign, in 1973, was socially liberal. He opposed government interference in private sexual matters and favored legalizing marijuana. While he got a lot of press, he placed 10th out of 32 candidates earning almost 17,000 votes.
Two years later, he decided to run for city supervisor again and this time he changed his appearance by cutting his hair, wearing suits, and swearing off marijuana and visiting the bath houses. He also got support from the Teamsters, firefighters, and construction unions. Milk lost the election, but ended up in seventh place.
In 1976, he ran for State Assembly and against the political machine losing by only 4,000 votes.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the country in Miami, Florida, gay activists got a civil rights ordinance passed that prohibited anti-gay discrimination. Fundamentalist Christians led by former beauty queen and singer Anita Bryant led the charge to overturn that ruling.
The fear and lies that Bryant spewed, along with her “Save Our Children” campaign, worked and 70% of Dade County, Florida, voted to repeal the law. More cities across the country (Saint Paul, Minnesota, Eugene, Oregon, and Wichita, Kansas) rode that wave of success in Florida and overturned the advancements made by gay activists.
While Harvey Milk lost the State Assembly election in November 1976, San Francisco voters in that same election changed the supervisor elections guidelines so that supervisors would be chosen from their neighborhoods instead of being elected in city-wide ballots. This gave Milk the chance he needed to win the supervisor seat in the November 1977 elections from the Castro district, which he did rather easily by 30% against sixteen other candidates.
In Milk’s first year in office, he worked hard and passed one of the strongest gay rights ordinance in the country (only one Supervisor, Dan White, voted against it). And, he didn’t just work for gay issues. He also got an ordinance passed that required dog owners to scoop their pets’ poop, he worked to get less expensive and larger child care facilities, free public transportation, and to establish a board of citizens to oversee the police.
As Harvey worked to make his mark on San Fransisco politics, conservative state legislator John Briggs sponsored California Proposition 6, which became known as the “Briggs Initiative”, which would have made it mandatory to fire gay or lesbians teachers in California’s public school. It could have also included anyone that supported gay rights.
That proposition was opposed by then President Jimmy Carter, future President Ronald Reagan, and then and current California Governor Jerry Brown. Luckily, it failed 58-42%, by more than a million votes. In San Fransisco, 75% voted against it. Also, in 1978, Briggs sought to become the Republican nominee for Governor, but lost in that bid, too.
Shortly after Harvey Milk celebrated the one-year anniversary of being elected to the Board of Supervisors, another supervisor Dan White resigned from his position because he wasn’t making enough money to support his family.
Early on in Milk’s supervisory career, White was opposed to a mental health facility for troubled adolescents moving into his district. While Milk was initially behind White about the facility not being placed there, Milk educated himself more on the matter and decided to vote against White’s proposal. It failed and White never forgave Milk and voted against every thing that Harvey proposed.
After thinking about his resignation, White asked Mayor George Moscone for his job back and initially Moscone was going to give it to him. However, after talking to other supervisors, including Milk, the Mayor decided not to give him his job back.
On November 27, 1978, just 30 minutes before Mayor Moscone was to announce White’s replacement in a press conference, White crawled through a basement window to avoid metal detectors and went to the mayor’s office. After a loud argument, White shot Mayor Moscone four times (in the shoulder and chest and then twice in the head when he fell to the floor). He quickly left the office and summoned Milk inside his old office and shot Harvey five times, twice in the head at close range.
Dianne Feinstein, who would become Mayor of San Fransisco for ten years, and is currently a senior U.S. Senator in California, made this announcement to reporters, “”Today San Francisco has experienced a double tragedy of immense proportions. As President of the Board of Supervisors, it is my duty to inform you that both Mayor Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk have been shot and killed.” She added, “and the suspect is Supervisor Dan White.”
On the evening of their deaths, a spontaneous candlelight vigil to remember Milk and Moscone moved from the Castro to City Hall brought out 40,000 people.
At his trial, White’s lawyers and their forensic psychiatrist claim that White was depressed and that led to him giving up healthy food for sugary foods and drinks that alter his thinking. (The term, “Twinkie Defense”, is now synonymous with the Dan White trial although the snack cake was never mentioned in court!)
For that reason, his lawyers convinced the jury that he was not capable of first-degree murder and premeditation. On May 21, 1979, the jury found White guilty of only voluntary manslaughter. He was sentenced to only seven years in prison.
The San Francisco gay community was outraged and many marched from the Castro to City Hall. This protest became violent and would be known as the “White Night Riots”.
After hours of violence at City Hall and in Castro district gay bars, at least 61 police officers and 100 gays and activists were hospitalized and dozens were arrested.
After serving five years of his sentence, Dan White was released from prison in January 1984. His marriage fell apart and on October 21, 1985, he committed suicide by carbon monoxide poisoning in his San Francisco garage.
If you’d like to know more about the wonderful man and trailblazer, Harvey Milk, there’s the 2008 Oscar-winning movie, “Milk”, which won Academy Awards for Sean Penn’s performance as Milk and for Dustin Lance Black’s original screenplay.
Also, there’s the book by Randy Shilts, “The Mayor of Castro Street”. (Irrelevant to my blog, Shilts was born in Davenport, Iowa, in 1951.)
Harvey Milk, I’m thinking of your accomplishments today, I’ll think of you later this month on the horrible anniversary of that day that your life was ended way too soon, and I’ll remember you each May on your birthday. I’m so grateful for all that you accomplished in those few short years in San Francisco. I’m honored to continue your fight for equality and for what is right.
And, I’ll close this with a fantastic picture of two of the most inspirational men that I know, Harvey Milk and President Jimmy Carter from 1976.
On the day that Supervisor Milk and Mayor Moscone were assassinated, President Carter released this statement:
“I know I speak on behalf of the Nation when I express a sense of outrage and sadness at the senseless killings today of San Francisco Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk.
George Moscone had long and ably served the people of the San Francisco area. At age 33 he became one of the youngest members ever elected to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. He was elected three times to the California State Senate before becoming San Francisco’s mayor in 1976.
In every conversation with Mayor Moscone, I always knew that the people of San Francisco and California were uppermost in his mind and heart. He was a good and kind man, and he will be sorely missed.
Supervisor Milk was a hard-working and dedicated supervisor, a leader of San Francisco’s gay community who kept his promise to represent all his constituents.
Rosalynn and I express our deepest sympathies to the families and friends of both men.”
Harvey, thank you.