On November 27, 1978, tightly clutching his .38 revolver, Dan White climbed through an open basement window, being careful to avoid setting off any metal detectors. He didn’t want anyone to know what he had brought into the government building, for fear he would be stopped before he could complete his goal. White strode into the mayor’s office, they had a heated conversation and shortly after shots rang out. Four of them, two in the head and two in the chest. With his first task done, White moved on to kill Harvey Milk, openly gay and a member of the Board Supervisors, who he shot five times. Once the slaughter was over, former police officer White turned himself into the station that he used to work at.
In the trial that ensued, the defense argued that White was driven to commit this horrible crime because of all the junk food he had been eating; this is known as the “Twinkie Defense.” The jury had a big decision to face. Would they convict Dan White of murder, or manslaughter? The courtroom was quiet as the jury walked in, ready to state their conviction. In a shocking twist, they convicted White of only manslaughter, not murder, giving him just six years in jail.
You may be wondering why Dan White only got 6 years for murdering the mayor and a member of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. It is argued that Milk was killed because he was the first openly gay city officer in San Francisco and one of the first gay people to hold a political office in the United States. White was another member of the board who was extremely homophobic, as many were during the ‘70s, and quit the year after Milk was elected, citing a too low of a salary. Evidently he changed his mind, as on the day that he walked into the mayor’s office with his gun, he was trying to get reappointed. However, Mayor Moscone, a gay rights supporter, listened to people like Harvey Milk who wanted him to appoint a more liberal member, and refused his request. This lead to the assassination of both him and Milk.
Harvey Milk knew it would be very dangerous to be an openly gay politician during the 1970s, since it was a time of intense anti-gay sentiment and homophobia. He famously said: “If a bullet should enter my brain, let that bullet destroy every closet door.” He suspected that he wouldn’t live past 50 when he finally won the seat on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors in 1977, after two failed campaigns. By this point he had amassed a large following, and was affectionately called the “Mayor of Castro Street,” the street on which he lived and where the San Francisco gay community thrived. In his position, Milk had many goals including of course gay rights but also child care, housing, and a civilian police review board. He got the influential Gay Rights Ordinance passed in 1978, which protected LGBT people from being fired over their sexuality.
The fact that he managed to do this in his incredibly short time as a board member, not to mention the fact that he was elected as an openly gay man, was and is an inspiration to LGBT people everywhere. After White’s conviction, the gay community in San Francisco was outraged, and took to the streets in what was later known as the White Night Riots. Over 5,000 policemen, armed with truncheons, flooded into nightclubs to violently put down the riots. In the end over 124 people were injured, including 59 police officers.
The legacy of Harvey Milk lives on today. In the years since his death, as society has become more accepting of gay people, there have been many films and books about him. In 2008, Sean Penn won the Academy Award for Best Lead Actor for his role as Harvey Milk in the movie Milk. In 2016 the U.S. Navy named a ship to honor his time in the navy, the USNS Harvey Milk. This was seen by many as a sign of the military becoming open to people of all sexualities. This came as a huge difference from years ago when Milk was forced to lie about who he was just to be able to serve our country.
Harvey Milk’s philosophy was vital in shaping the LGBT movement as it is today. In his short time on earth, he inspired people to not only celebrate the victory of his election, but to continue his legacy. He said, “…you’ve got to keep electing gay people…to know there is better hope for tomorrow. Not only for gays, but for blacks, Asians, the disabled, our senior citizens…Without hope, we give up. I know you cannot live on hope alone, but without it life is not worth living. You and you and you have got to see that the promise does not fade” (Harvey Milk). What he said, stood for, and achieved inspired people to not give up hope, and to continue to fight for LGBT rights as well as equal rights for all Americans. As President Obama summed up, “In the brief time in which he spoke and ran and led, his voice stirred the aspirations of millions of people (legacy.com).”
Although Harvey Milk certainly did not start the LGBT movement, he played a large role in the advancement of it. This is why on June 27th, 2015, the White House lit up in rainbow colors and millions of people around the country cheered as gay marriage was finally legalized. This is why the Milk Foundation can honor his legacy by seeking global equality for LGBT people. This is why people can proudly march down the streets of the major cities in June, National Pride Month, waving rainbow flags and banners. Without people like Harvey Milk to overcome discrimination and inspire many, it is likely the world would be a very different place.