Know Your Queerstory: Harvey Milk

Today would have been Harvey Milk's 88th birthday. To honour the gay political activist, here is everything you should know about Milk and his legacy.

Harvey Milk

Harvey Milk would have celebrated his 88th birthday today if he was still alive and May 22 is now observed as Harvey Milk Day in the US. For anyone who may not know, here is a quick queerstory lesson in the remarkable activist.

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 official in the United States in 1977 when he was elected to San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors.

Gay brothers and sisters you must come out… Destroy the lies and distortions. For your sake. For their sake. – Harvey Milk

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.

As a result of White’s downgraded conviction, peaceful demonstrations held outside City Hall turned violent. More than 5,000 policemen responded by entering nightclubs armed with truncheons and assaulted patrons.


By the end of these riots, known in history as “The White Night Riots”, 124 people were injured including 59 policemen.

If a bullet should enter my brain, let that bullet destroy every closet door in the country. – Harvey Milk

The impact Milk made in LGBT+ society and the wider community was substantial. Milk has become an LGBT+ icon and numerous books and films have been made about his life.


Milk’s Legacy

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.

Coming out is the most political thing you can do. – Harvey Milk

His story continues to inspire many people and there are a number of films that are essential viewing. In honour of Harvey Milk’s birthday, watch or re-watch these two powerful Academy Award-winning films.

The Times of Harvey Milk 1984

Winner of the 1984 Academy Award for best documentary, this is the moving and ultimately life-affirming portrait of Harvey Milk.

Using original news footage and interviews The Times of Harvey Milk recreates the tumultuous story of Milk’s grass-roots political organizing and election, through the shocking murders and their repercussions—from the eloquent candle-light memorial joined by tens of thousands of San Franciscans on the evening of the assassinations, to the angry mobs who stormed City Hall in the aftermath of the lenient sentence Dan White received at his murder trial.


Milk (2008)

Academy Award nominee Gus Van Sant directs Academy Award winner Sean Penn as the gay rights icon in the powerful biographical film meticulously written by Dustin Lance Black.

Milk begins on Harvey Milk’s 40th birthday (in 1970), when he was living in New York City and had not yet settled in San Francisco. It chronicles his foray into city politics, and the various battles he waged in the Castro neighbourhood as well as throughout the city, and political campaigns to limit the rights of gay people in 1977 and 1978 run by Anita Bryant and John Briggs.

His romantic and political relationships are also addressed, as is his tenuous affiliation with troubled Supervisor Dan White; the film ends with White’s double homicide of Milk and Mayor George Moscone. The film’s release was tied to the 2008 California voter referendum on gay marriage, Proposition 8 when it made its premiere at the Castro Theatre two weeks before election day.

© 2018 GCN (Gay Community News). All rights reserved.

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