Harvey Milk Day
annually on May 22nd (since 2010)
California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger on October 11th, 2009
Harvey Milk Day honors gay rights activist Harvey Milk and also focuses on stopping discrimination against gays and lesbians. Harvey Milk was born in Long Island, New York, on May 22, 1930. He served in the U.S. Navy during the Korean War, and worked at a Wall Street investment firm for a time afterward, living a closeted gay life at the time. In the early 1960s, his political views were conservative, and he campaigned for Barry Goldwater in 1964. Once he got involved in the New York bohemian theater scene, he began befriending a more avante-garde crowd, and his politics began to shift more progressive. He moved to the San Francisco Bay area in 1969, became involved in the gay social scene, and protested against the Vietnam War. After being fired for participating in an antiwar rally, he returned to New York City in 1970.
After some time working in New York theater, he returned to San Francisco in 1972 and opened a camera shop on Castro Street—the epicenter of the gay community. The following year he ran for a seat on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors for the first time, in part because he thought a tax on small businesses was unfair. He did not win a seat but did manage to finish 10th out of 32 contestants. Afterward, he co-founded the Castro Village Association, which supported gay business owners on Castro Street. He started the Castro Street Fair in 1974, and became known as "Mayor of Castro Street."
He once again lost an election for Board of Supervisors in 1975, and ran for the California State Assembly and was not successful in that bid either. In 1977, he worked to broaden his appeal beyond the gay community, by focusing on taxes, housing, and day-care centers for working mothers. In November 1977, Harvey Milk became the first openly gay person elected to California office, and the first openly gay person elected in a major U.S. city. The rise of Harvey Milk reflected the rise of the gay rights movement across the country, and he was at the forefront of it.
During his tenure in office, Milk pushed for visibility of gay people as well as for social equality. He worked to pass a gay rights ordinance—to ban discrimination in housing, employment, and public accommodations. He spent the summer of 1978 working to defeat Proposition 6—also known as The Briggs Initiative—which would have banned gays and lesbians, or anyone supporting gay rights, from teaching or working in public schools in California. It was defeated at the ballot box that November.
On November 27, 1978, Harvey Milk was assassinated by Dan White, a former Board of Supervisors member, who had resigned a few months earlier and wanted to be reinstated. White first killed San Francisco Mayor George Moscone, and then walked across the building and shot Harvey Milk five times. Dianne Feinstein, who was President of the Board of Supervisors at the time, announced to the press what had taken place. Dan White was convicted of voluntary manslaughter instead of murder, in part because his team used the "Twinkie defense". He was released early and committed suicide in 1985.
Harvey Milk's profile continued to rise after his assassination. In 1982, a biography titled The Mayor of Castro Street was released, bringing Milk's attention to a wider audience. This was followed by an Academy Award-winning documentary, The Times of Harvey Milk, in 1984. Many buildings in California were named after Milk. In 2008, another Academy Award-winning film, Milk, was released. Harvey Milk was posthumously given the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Obama in 2009. That same year, Harvey Milk Day was established by the California legislature and signed into law by Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger on October 11. California schools commemorate Milk with activities, events, and projects, and equal rights are focused on. The Harvey Milk Foundation organizes events worldwide.
How to Observe
Celebrate the day by honoring Harvey Milk and working to support gay rights. Learn more about Harvey Milk by reading The Mayor of Castro Street or watching The Times of Harvey Milk. You could also watch the 2008 film, Milk, or visit some locations in San Francisco related to Harvey Milk. As the day is also about carrying on Harvey Milk's work, you could support the Human Rights Campaign, the Harvey Milk Foundation, or other groups that support LGBTQ rights.