October 19, 2010
Harvey Milk is considered a luminary within the world of gay, lesbian and
transgender equality activists. He held two positions in the San Francisco city council,
but the importance of holding these positions was that he was the first openly gay
politician to be elected to office in California.
Milk was a well educated man from New York, graduating from New York
College for Teachers, serving four years in the navy, teaching math and history at a Long
Island high school, and also working in finance. He was loved and considered an
inspiration by people who followed and supported him. He gave powerful and brilliant
speeches, and while it took a few tries this was a major reason why he was elected to
office. His fight for political office and representation gave hope to gays, lesbians, ethnic
groups, and other minorities to also believe they too deserved equal rights. Milk believed
that a gay man in office would be a positive influence in San Francisco and would allow
for more information to fall into the hands of those who were undecided and lacked
understanding about the debated issue of homosexuality.
Milk was the first openly gay elected official to win supervisor in the state of
California in 1977. Before this final victory he had attempted to campaign for the same
supervisor position in 1973 and 1975 and lost both times. After losing the second time he
was appointed commissioner of the Board of Permit Appeals by Mayor George Mascone.
This alone stirred up a negative backlash from homophobic politicians and their
constituents, ranging from public denunciation to acts of violence in response to Milk’s
new position. Senator John Briggs, for example, was only one of many who opposed
Milk’s supervisor position. Briggs wanted to put a stop to gays and lesbians trying to step
into not only the political realm, but within the educational system as well by coming up
with “Prop 6”. Prop 6 stated that gay and lesbians could not teach in public school
systems. Fortunately, this law did not pass.
Milk knew people were against him, but he continued to fight for gay and lesbian
rights. One way he tried to do this was through supporting gay and lesbian job security.
Milk pleaded with the council to pass a Gay Rights Ordinance in 1978, which stated gays
and lesbian were protected form being fired from their jobs. In Milk’s campaign he also
fought for anti-discrimination legislation and the rights of senior citizens, making him an
advocate for not only the gay community but all minority social groups.
Knowing the animosity towards him for being an openly gay supervisor, Milk had
the intuition to record a tape in case he was ever assassinated. In the tape he asserted that
if he ever had been killed to “Let that bullet destroy every closet door.” 1 “Closet door”
referring to those who have not yet openly come out as gay or lesbian. In 1978, Milk was
assassinated by Dan White, a fellow politician, who had shot him five times. White
clearly held hatred towards Milk because before the assassination they had attempted to
team up before realizing all the oppositions Milk had.
Lawrence Ferlinghetti, “Harvey Milk, Hero and Martyr,” 1978.
Milk’s supporters loved and respected Milk so much that when they had heard of
White’s “Twinkie” defense, claiming he had eaten too much junk food causing him to
think unclearly, and of his seven year prison sentence they were outraged. The Milk
supporters considered him a martyr of their cause and they rioted outside of City Hall.
This day became known as “White Night.”
Studying Harvey Milk in a classroom would relive and highlight the legacy of one
of the first openly gay politicians. Students might enjoy learning about Harvey Milk
because of his controversial life and accomplishments. Perhaps some could even relate
and find inspiration in his courageous battle for office. The topic of gays and lesbians is
somewhat overlooked in most classes and to incorporate this into history and the
government lessons could be a significant step in the future of American history classes.
Milk is still relevant today because the fight for gay and lesbian rights is still on-going
and he is known as an influential man who paved the way for equality activists. He also
paved the way for gay marriage supporters, minority groups and human rights
organizations in general. He gives hope to minorities of all kinds looking for their
Constitutional rights. His passion, kindness and brilliance led him to be the first openly
gay elected supervisor in California and this legacy will be passed on for generations.