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Who is Harvey Milk?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 23, 2024
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Harvey Milk was a San Francisco politician who is unfortunately probably most famous for his death at the hands of ex-supervisor Dan White; at White's trial, the notorious “Twinkie Defense” was used to excuse his actions. However, Milk made a number of remarkable accomplishments during his lifetime, most notable of which was his election as an openly gay candidate in an era when homosexuality was still widely regarded as a mental illness. When Harvey Milk became San Francisco's first gay supervisor in 1977, and one of the first openly gay politicians in the modern world, he became an inspiration to gays and lesbians everywhere.

He was born in New York in 1930, and joined the Navy in 1951. After being honorably discharged, Harvey Milk worked as a teacher in New York City, and ultimately moved to San Francisco in 1972. Milk had no interest in politics, but he quickly became a leader in The Castro, San Francisco's gay district. He also became a major activist in the city, fighting for gay rights and representing the gay community to City Hall.

After several unfruitful political campaigns, Harvey Milk was elected to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors in 1977. He sponsored successful anti-discrimination legislation, and also fought the Briggs Initiative, an attempt to ban gays and lesbians from working as teachers in California. Along the way, he repeatedly clashed with fellow supervisor Dan White, and White ultimately resigned, claiming that he could not afford to support his family on a city salary.

On 27 November, 1978, Mayor George Moscone was about to announce an official replacement for Dan White. White slipped into City Hall with a revolver, evading detection at the entrance, and after a brief verbal altercation, he shot Moscone and Milk. White turned himself into a police station a few hours later, and during his trial, he insisted that the crime had not been premeditated. He also claimed that he had been depressed, citing his consumption of junk food as evidence of his altered mental state. The jury convicted him of manslaughter and sentenced him to only seven years, setting off angry rioting in The Castro and around City Hall.

Harvey Milk left behind a legacy in American politics. Speaking about the possibility of assassination before his death, he once said that “If a bullet should enter my brain, let it destroy every closet door,” referencing the term “closeted” for gays and lesbians who were not open about their sexuality. Milk certainly paved the way for more gays and lesbians to come out of the closet, and today, gay politicians can be found serving at various levels of government all over the United States, in no small part thanks to Harvey Milk's first step.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a PublicPeople researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments

By momothree — On Oct 23, 2010

@anon23667: In all of the articles that I have read, I have never seen anything that provided information on the type of gun that was used to kill Harvey Milk. Most of the articles just state that Dan White entered City Hall through a basement window to avoid the metal detectors. He first went to Mayor Moscone’s office and shot him straight in the chest and then another at close range in the head.

He then walked down the corridor and reloaded his gun. He asked Harvey for a moment of his time and led him into his former office where he delivered two bullets to the brain.

There was no mention of the type of gun.

By anon23667 — On Dec 30, 2008

what type of gun was used to assassinate harvey milk?

Mary McMahon

Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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