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Milk, Harvey (1930-1978)  
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Elected to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors in 1977, Harvey Bernard Milk was among the first openly gay men to be elected to public office in the United States. (Allan Spear was elected to the Minnesota State Senate as an openly gay man in 1974, the same year that Kathy Kozachenko, was elected to the Ann Arbor, Michigan City Council and Elaine Noble was elected to the Massachusetts State Assembly.) His tragic assassination in San Francisco's City Hall made him the American gay liberation movement's most visible martyr.

Milk was born May 22, 1930, in Woodmere, New York, and grew up in a middle-class Jewish home on Long Island. Milk was aware of his sexual orientation from an early age. His biographer Randy Shilts has written that Milk's first homosexual experiences were as a teenager in the "standing-room-only" balcony section at matinee opera performances in Manhattan.

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Milk graduated from Albany State College in 1951, and he intended to become a high school teacher. Shortly after graduation, however, Milk entered the U. S. Navy, where he served on active duty during the Korean War. He trained as a deep-sea diver, and advanced to the rank of chief petty officer on the U.S.S. Kittiwake.

Milk was proud of his military service, and wore a brass belt buckle bearing his Navy insignia until the day he died. After Milk entered politics, a rumor circulated that he had been dishonorably discharged from the military when his homosexuality was discovered, but this was untrue.

Milk worked in the insurance and financial services industries in the 1950s and 1960s. Except for a brief period living in Dallas, Texas, Milk's life during these years was centered in New York, where he maintained an apartment on the fashionable Upper West Side of Manhattan, near Central Park.

He was an avid patron of the arts, particularly opera and theater. This avocational interest, coupled with his financial experience, led to his becoming an associate producer for several Broadway and off-Broadway productions in the late 1960s, including Hair and Jesus Christ, Superstar. Milk's lover in the later 1960s, Joe Campbell, a member of the Andy Warhol crowd, achieved pop cultural fame as "Sugar Plum Fairy" in Lou Reed's classic rock song, "Walk on the Wild Side."

Milk in San Francisco

When Harvey Milk traveled to San Francisco with the touring company of Hair in the early 1970s, he fell in love with what was to become his adopted city. By the time he moved there in 1972, Milk had experienced a counter-cultural awakening, and he threw himself into San Francisco's burgeoning post-Stonewall gay liberation scene. He replaced his Brooks Brothers suits with Guatemalan peasant shirts and ripped blue jeans, and opened a camera store on Castro Street, in the heart of San Francisco's new gay enclave.

Milk wholly embraced the new militant gay sensibility, and his decision to move to San Francisco was motivated in part by his desire to "come out" and live in society as an openly gay man. He also wanted to bring the politics of gay pride to City Hall, and began to think about a career in politics almost as soon as he arrived in San Francisco.

Milk was initially regarded as an upstart maverick by San Francisco's established gay community, as well as by the local political establishment, but against all expectations he succeeded in mobilizing gay voters and eventually winning election to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors.

The secret of Milk's eventual electoral success was his intuitive grasp of grass-roots activism, combined with a flair for grand theatrical gestures and a great deal of hard work to organize the Castro neighborhood as a political and economic force. Milk founded the Castro Valley Association to represent the needs of small business owners, and launched the first annual Castro Street Fair in 1974. By the later 1970s, the Castro's economy was generating nearly $30 million a year.

Milk also forged pioneering alliances between the gay community and organized labor. In addition, he cast himself in the role of a populist champion representing San Francisco's dense patchwork of ethnically diverse neighborhoods against the interests of downtown corporate culture.

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Harvey Milk filling in for Mayor Moscone in 1978. Photograph by Dan Nicoletta.
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