May 22 every year is Harvey Milk Day. Harvey Milk, a gay rights activist who held public office in California, was an influential figure throughout the twentieth century. Tragically, he was assassinated on November 27, 1978, when he was 48 years old.
May 22 is a day set aside to remember the life and work of Harvey Milk, and what his public service did for the cause of gay rights.
Harvey Milk’s Political Career
Milk moved to San Francisco in 1972 as part of a massive wave of gay and bisexual men leaving New York. San Francisco, which is now known to be a hub of LGBT culture, was growing such a reputation in the early 70s. While it’s hardly thought about now, being a gay man in the 70s was seen by some as very taboo.
That made Milk’s numerous campaigns for public office in San Francisco very noteworthy. Despite being openly gay, he ran theatrical and ostentatious campaigns. The growing gay population of the city and shifting political climate led to his eventual election. He secured a position as a city supervisor. Among the gay community, this was seen as a major turning point for politics.
On November 27, 1978, Milk and San Francisco mayor George Moscone were assassinated by Dan White. White had previously worked as a city supervisor, but he quit to pursue a business career. When that didn’t pan out, he tried to get his old job back. When Moscone wouldn’t reappoint him, White flew into a rage, killing the mayor and Milk, who had lobbied against his reappointment.
Following the killings, White turned himself in to police. He denied having premeditated the killings. While he was charged with first-degree murder, he ended up only being convicted of voluntary manslaughter. His lighter conviction led to a sentence of only five years in prison. For many in San Francisco, this seemed to be homophobia at play.
Milk’s tragic death made him a martyr to the gay community. Following White’s sentencing of only five years in prison, there were riots in San Francisco. The case was so controversial that it ended up altering California’s laws on diminished capacity defenses.
May 22 is the anniversary of Milk’s birthday, and Harvey Milk day is held in honor of his memory. He was an advocate for gay rights, and a politician far ahead of his time. He will be remembered for his public service, and for the righteous anger his tragic death elicited from a marginalized community.