Born in New York in 1930, Harvey Milk was a community activist and leader who became known as ‘The Mayor of Castro’. He made history by becoming one of the first openly gay officials in the United States in 1977 when he was elected to San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors.
Harvey’s election was a victory over the anti-gay rhetoric at the time. Milk’s ability to mobilize gays and straights alike resulted in the downfall of a statewide scheme to severely limit gays’ employment rights.
“If a bullet should enter my brain, let that bullet destroy every closet door in the country” – Harvey Milk
He quickly noticed that his fight for equality was supported by not only gays but also straight working-class, elderly and minority voters, who symbolised a significant part of the voting population in San Francisco. According to the gay community magazine Advocate, “[Milk] moulded the gay community into a united voting bloc, and his populist agenda, which attracted straight families, working-class voters, and senior citizens gave him a powerful base.”
Milk was remembered by Cleve Jones, Harvey Milk’s student intern in 1978, as “charismatic, funny and something of a father figure to me. He was one of the first people to tell me that I had value as a human being and that I didn’t need to change.”
One year into his term in office, he was tragically shot and killed by fellow board member Dan White. In White’s trial, a jury convicted White of voluntary manslaughter rather than murder, and White subsequently served just six years in prison.
His legacy of fighting for LGBT+ rights has motivated a new generation of civic activists across the United States, fighting for sexual equality and the expansion of civil rights for gays and lesbians.
Harvey Milk became a symbol of hope for not just the LGBT+ community but for all minorities who found themselves voiceless in mainstream American society. Since his death, the LGBTQ community has blossomed, as a new wave of equal rights has emerged and has lead to Pride Month.
In 2008, Milk, a Hollywood film of Harvey’s life, was released, bringing Milk’s voice to the present-day LGBT+ movement in the United States.
“All young people, regardless of sexual orientation or identity, deserve a safe and supportive environment in which to achieve their full potential” – Harvey Milk
The film was nominated for eight Oscars, winning two for Best Actor and Best Original Screenplay. In his Oscar speech, screenwriter Dustin Lance Black described his own experience with Milk’s story:
“I heard the story of Harvey Milk, and it gave me hope. It gave me the hope to live my life. It gave me the hope that one day I could live my life openly as who I am…”
Despite his tragic death in 1978, Harvey Milk’s legacy lives on through the Harvey Milk Civil Rights Academy, an alternative school in the Castro district of San Francisco with a strong emphasis on teaching non-violence and tolerance.
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