Harvey Milk Day

by Kilian Fitzgerald

Harvey and Audrey Milk, 1973 (Wikimedia Commons)
Harvey and Audrey Milk, 1973 (Wikimedia Commons)

Harvey Bernard Milk was born on May 22, 1930 in Woodmere, New York, to a middle class Jewish family. After graduating from Bayshore High School, Milk attended New York State College for Teachers. Graduating in 1951, Milk enlisted in the US Navy and was discharged in 1955. Milk then moved to New York City where he worked on Broadway, Wall Street, and as a teacher. Milk also got involved with several political causes and demonstrated against the controversial Vietnam War. During this time Milk, who had been aware of his homosexuality since high school, began working with radical gay activists.

Milk campaigning for Assembly, 1976 (Wikimedia Commons)
Milk campaigning for Assembly, 1976 (Wikimedia Commons)

In 1972 Milk moved to San Francisco and established a camera store on Castro Street. In the heart of San Francisco’s gay community, Milk prospered. He ran for the San Francisco Board of Supervisors a year later, but lost due to his inexperience; he tried again in 1975 with the same results. Despite these two failures, Milk was not deterred.  In between his two failed campaigns, Milk worked to improve Castro Street, creating the Castro Village Association which united LGBTQ (acronym for lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, and queer, but can also be extended to include intersex, asexual, pan/poly sexual, and others) businesses and organized the Castro Street Fair for the purpose of attracting customers. Milk’s activism and community work led the locals to dub him the “Mayor of Castro Street.”

Milk ran his third campaign for the San Francisco Board of Supervisors in 1978. With the assistance of his friend and ally San Francisco Mayor George Moscone, his campaign manager Anne Kronenberg, and an amendment that allowed Board of Supervisors elections to be held in districts, Milk won the Board of Supervisors election for his district, making him one of the first openly gay people to be elected in the US. Milk advocated for gay rights, an anti-discrimination bill for LGBTQ people, and improvements to Castro Street that benefited the community.

Milk at the 1978 San Jose Gay Pride (Wikimedia Commons)
Milk at the 1978 San Jose Gay Pride (Wikimedia Commons)

During Milk’s brief tenure, California Senator John Briggs spearheaded Proposition 6, also known as The Briggs Initiative.  If passed, the proposition would have prevented LGBTQ teachers from obtaining employment in California public schools.  Prop 6 was highly controversial and publicly denounced by Ronald Reagan, former Governor of California and future President, current California Governor Jerry Brown, President Jimmy Carter, and Supervisor Harvey Milk.

Milk aggressively campaigned against the initiative, and it was partly due to his rallies, marches, and protests that the initiative failed to pass. Tragically, Milk did not get to celebrate his victory for long. Former Supervisor Dan White was a Vietnam veteran who also worked for a time as a police officer and firefighter. He was dismayed at San Francisco’s embracement of the LGBTQ community and believed his traditional values were being displaced. After resigning from the Board of Supervisors over salary issues, White attempted to return. However, Moscone denied his reappointment, wanting to fill White’s spot with a candidate that shared Moscone’s more liberal positions. On November 27, 1978, White broke into City Hall through an open window, bypassed security, and shot Moscone and Milk with a .38 revolver. Harvey Milk was 48-years-old when his life was cut short. White turned himself in to the police and was given a lighter sentence due to his lawyer’s use of the “Twinkie defense,” a defense strategy that stressed that White was not in his right mind at the time of the shooting because of his consumption of junk foods such as soda and Twinkies.


Today the Mayor of Castro Street is honored with several public schools named after him, including an elementary school on Castro Street, his own postage stamp, and a posthumously granted Presidential Medal of Freedom. In front of San Francisco City Hall stands a statue of Milk which displays a memorial plaque with the words: “His life is an inspiration to all people committed to equal opportunity and an end to bigotry.” The Harvey Milk Foundation, founded by Stuart and Anne Kronenberg, continues to advocate for Milk’s dream of tolerance and the end of bigotry. California honors Milk with a state holiday that takes place every year on May 22, Milk’s birthday.

Although Harvey Milk had no direct connection to Napa, his legacy can still be felt. LGBTQ Connection (the Napa branch of the Spectrum organization), PFLAG Napa, Napa Valley LGBTQ Pride, and school-based Gay Straight Alliances work to further local gay rights. Napa County has celebrated Pride Month in June since 2002.




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Spectrum LGBT Center. “Napa LGBTQ Project.” spectrumlgbtcenter.org. Accessed May 17, 2016. http://www.spectrumlgbtcenter.org/programs/napa-lgbtq-project/#.