Who is Harvey Milk? A Legacy in The Castro Neighborhood

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Who is Harvey Milk? This question comes with a very long and historic answer that takes place in our very own neighborhood.

The vibrant and colorful neighborhood of Castro has been a hub for the LGBTQIA+ community since the end of World War II, as many US soldiers who returned home thru the port of San Francisco decided to settle here instead of returning to their hometowns, where they were suppressed from expressing their true identities. As a result, the Castro district became synonymous with LGBTQIA+ culture and its historically progressive inhabitants.

One of Castro’s most iconic residents is Harvey Milk, who in 1977 became one of the first openly gay elected officials in California. His election was a massive victory for the LGBTQIA+ community and demonstrated that significant progress was being made. Milk was an eccentric individual with a complicated connection to The Castro, but his impact and legacy are arguably one of the district’s most important and long-lasting.

The Life of Harvey Milk

We’ll start with Harvey Milk’s early life and move into how he got to The Castro.

Early Childhood and School Years

Harvey Milk was born in New York and, as a young child, was known by his peers for being a class clown. However, by the time he graduated from high school, he was already showing diverse interests — he played for the school football team and developed a passion for opera, an unlikely pairing of activities, even more so in the conservative times of the 1940s.

A Colorful Career Path

He went on to become a teacher, specializing in mathematics and writing for his college newspaper. Upon completing college in 1951, he joined the US Navy and climbed the ranks as a diving officer and instructor, eventually becoming a junior lieutenant. Unfortunately, the Navy’s intolerance of gay men and women meant that Milk was unfairly forced into resigning just a few years into his service. His alternative was to face a Navy-led court martial over his sexuality. 

After his Navy service, Milk moved to Long Island and began working as a public school teacher before launching his acting career. In New York City, he worked as a stock analyst and, in the Broadway musicals Jesus Christ Superstar and Hair, as a production associate. He became more involved in politics and activism during the 1960s and early 1970s, staging protests against the Vietnam War.

During this time, he met and fell in love with a man he met in Queens, Joe Campbell. Bored with their lives, they relocated to Dallas, Texas. Still, they were dissatisfied there and returned to New York, where Milk secured a position as an actuarial statistician at an insurance firm. After almost six years together, Campbell and Milk broke up; it would be his longest relationship. After this, Milk tried to keep his professional and personal life separate.

Harvey Milk and The Castro

In 1972, Milk moved to San Francisco’s Castro district after hearing about its growing gay community. He and his partner at the time decided to open a camera store with their last $1000. This business idea came about after one of their rolls of film had been ruined at their local store, so they found a storefront for rent on Castro street and set up shop as ‘Castro Camera.’ Thus began Harvey Milk’s direct connection to the Castro district, a quietly innocuous beginning to the pioneering impact he would go on to make here.

Civic and Political Annoyance

In owning and running a business, Milk had to deal with civic issues and policies that annoyed him and stoked his interest in getting involved with local political matters. After witnessing injustices and bewildering government priorities – not to mention the Watergate scandal – Milk finally decided he had to be active in the political process to influence the type of changes he wanted to see.

After some merchants in the area tried to stop two gay men from opening a store, Milk and a few other business owners founded the Castro Village Association. This was the first time in the US that there was an association of predominantly LGBT businesses. Milk served as president of this association and helped organize the Castro Street Fair in 1974. This event was successful and drew more customers to companies in the area. This strengthened the association’s power base and served as a model for other LGBT communities across America.

The same merchant association that had previously objected to gay business owners operating in their vicinity had their most profitable day; unsurprisingly, they never interfered with the ambitions of gay businesses again.

Politics and LGBTQ+ Rights

He ran for the combined San Francisco City/County supervisor seat in 1975 and lost by a small margin. However, he gained notoriety as the leading political spokesman for Castro’s gay community. His close friend and ally, Mayor George Moscone, appointed him to the city’s Board of Permit Appeals–making Milk the first openly gay city commissioner in America.

Milk decided to run for state assembly but lost his race. He realized that he would have a better chance of success if he relied on the vote from the Castro district. With the help of his campaign manager and Mayor Moscone, Milk helped pass an amendment to replace at-large elections for the Board of Supervisors with district elections. In 1977, he was elected as a San Francisco City County Supervisor. This was an important and symbolic victory for the LGBT community and a personal triumph for Milk. His election made national and international headlines.

The Harvey Milk Effect and Final Campaign

In what would be his final campaign, both Harvey Milk and Castro’s influence were obvious – 17 candidates from Castro were in the running for city supervisor, and over half of them were openly gay men.

Milk favored a broad approach for this campaign — aside from advancing LGBTQIA+ causes, he promoted cheaper childcare, free public transportation and a civilian board that would oversee the police. But, again, his personable nature was in full effect, meeting voters and rallying them with his compassionate diatribe. Even the San Francisco Chronicle endorsed his platform, which proved to be a successful one.

On November 8th, 1977, Harvey Milk defeated all other candidates, winning 30% of the overall vote. He returned to a hero’s welcome when he rode into the Castro that day, escorted by the Sheriff.

A Historic But Unruly Appointment

Upon being sworn into office, Milk’s penchant for the exuberant and the dramatic showed itself once more and regularly annoyed his more circumspect colleagues. It was here he was reunited with Moscone, and they became close allies, with Moscone knowing he would need Milk’s voice to win the city’s LGBTQIA+ vote.

Milk used his new position to continue his battles with large businesses and real estate developers, always siding with the residents of San Francisco over corporate interest and voting against senior colleagues if he disagreed with their stance.

Milk vs. Proposition 6

His tenure started in ideal fashion, with Milk sponsoring a civil rights bill that outlawed discrimination based on sexual orientation, which the Mayor promptly signed into effect. He then fought against Proposition 6, an ignorant proposed law that would have made firing gay teachers mandatory. Thanks to Milk’s efforts, the bigoted proposition failed after being denounced by both the Governor of California and the President.

1978 Gay Pride and the Hope Speech

Milk’s campaigns and speeches were heightening public awareness of LGBTQIA+ issues, especially in the face of homophobic opponents. In the summer of 1978, the Los Angeles and San Francisco Gay Pride marches had their largest-ever attendance, with as many as 375,000 people celebrating in San Francisco.

In typical charismatic fashion, Milk requested attendees hold up signs with their hometown written on them to show how far and wide people were attending from. Here, he gave his most famous speech, dubbed the ‘Hope Speech,’ where he called on the LGBTQIA+ community to fight for their rights by coming out and speaking their truths. 

Milk explained how living in silence and secrecy only fueled the lies and myths about the community. By being vocal about their identity, they would have a greater chance of getting the equality they wanted. It is a beautiful and rousing speech and would sadly be one of his last.

The Assassination of Harvey Milk

Harvey Milk and Mayor Moscone were assassinated on November 27th, victims of a resentful former colleague named Dan White. Less than 3 weeks prior, White had resigned as one of the Supervisors on the San Francisco Board. He then had a change of heart and asked to be reinstated a few days later, which the Mayor originally agreed to.

After reflecting further and discussing with the other Supervisors, the Mayor decided he would find a new candidate for the role, which enraged Dan White. On the night Moscone was due to announce the new Supervisor, White broke into his office and shot him, then found Harvey Milk and shot him after asking to speak to him in his former office. Just like that, all of Milk’s progress and further plans were abruptly and cruelly halted.

White turned himself in later that night, accompanied by his wife. A spontaneous candlelight vigil of 30,000 people marched from Castro Street to City Hall in tribute to Milk and Moscone. In addition, two separate memorials were held for Harvey Milk, who had become symbolic for his Castro constituents and the wider LGBTQIA+ community.

The Lasting Legacy of Harvey Milk

Although Milk’s life was tragically cut short, his accomplishments and impact have meant that his legacy continues to this day, especially here in the Castro district. 

During his brief time in politics, he successfully won several battles for the LGBTQIA+ community and increased awareness through his magnetic personality and persuasive charm. The work he and his supporters, put in to bring safety and freedom of expression to this community cannot be understated. His name is rightfully everywhere in this part of San Francisco, with several landmarks in his honor, including the Harvey Milk Plaza, Harvey Milk Civil Rights Academy, and the Harvey Milk Photo Center.

If you find yourself in The Castro on a Pride weekend or any other time of year, take some time to learn about this incredible man who did so much for those who needed it most. You can start by visiting the Castro Camera shop, owned by Harvey Milk and now a museum in his memory. From there, who knows where Harvey’s legacy will take you!

A Compassionate Politician and Visionary

While he never intended to be a politician, his journey shows what can be achieved when someone combines their passion with a purpose that is bigger than themselves. The same energy that imbued Harvey Milk to truly protect and serve Castro residents and the LGBTQIA+ community is one that we share and carry on in his name. 

Our core value at Flore is ensuring our dispensary and the Castro area are safe spaces for our LGBTQIA+ family. By doing it vocally and proactively, we are following the requests of Harvey Milk for our community to speak out, which is why we share and celebrate Harvey Milk’s legacy and achievements at every opportunity we get. So stop by, grab a joint and take a step back in time to one of America’s most fascinating and influential political figures.

Terrance Alan
Terrance Alan

Terrance Alan has over 25 years in government advocacy creating both the San Francisco entertainment commission and the cannabis taskforce. He is co-president of the Castro merchant’s and co-chair of CMAC and C2K, both working on cannabis consumption. He designed, constructed and opened a boutique dispensary in the Castro District of San Francisco called Flore dispensary featuring carefully curated cannabis selections with an emphasis on small Humboldt far grown cannabis, social justice brands, equity brands, women owned brands and operates a compassion distribution program with Sweetleaf Joe.

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