Harvey Milk

HistoryHero Portrait Harvey Milk.png

This is Gay Pride Week in London, where I currently reside. This coming Saturday, 7 June 2018, the city's ancient streets and notoriously gray skies will be awash in the light of thousands of rainbow flags. If you look at the Gay Pride Calendar -- as I just did -- you will see that celebrations of the LGBTQ community are happening all year round, all over the world, in cities both large and small. It's not possible to pin down a single day, week, or month when this community, and it's supporters, are not cheering their hard-earned rights to live their truth, openly and with acceptance from the general population. But it was not that long ago when discrimination and fear of homosexuality and bisexuality caused far too many people to retreat from their true identities to live unfulfilled, dishonest, but "acceptable" lives.

As I type this, I'm reminded of the line in the musical Hairspray when the main character, Tracy Turnblad, says, "Every day should be Negro day." Well, today's History Hero spent his life advocating that gay individuals be openly, publicly proud of their birthright. Sadly, he lost his life in the battle he waged for Gay Rights. But thanks to him everyday is Gay Pride day today.

Meet Harvey Milk...

Sometime this year, the United States Navy is scheduled to launch a new ship: the USNS Harvey Milk. It's the first vessel -- the first ever piece of military hardware -- named for an openly gay person.

If that doesn't tell you that kind of impact Harvey Milk had on society, then you're not paying attention. It's why Harvey Milk is a true #HistoryHero.

US Navy portrait of then Ens. Harvey Milk

US Navy portrait of then Ens. Harvey Milk

Harvey Milk, like most of us, was just an everyday sort of person -- a sailor, a school teacher, a stock analyst, a theatre production assistant, a shop owner -- until he went into politics. Then everything changed for him and for everyone else, too.

Born in 1930 on Long Island, New York, Harvey made his way to San Francisco in 1972. By then, he was openly gay and, owing to his charisma and humor, his camera store in the city's Castro District became something of a neighborhood gathering place. As a popular local character, he decided to go into politics and began running for office. He didn't win, at least at first, but he galvanized an underground, mostly invisible community around him nonetheless.


After a few defeats, he was nominated to a position by then-San Francisco Mayor George Moscone. Finally, Harvey broke the electoral barrier when was voted onto the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. That made Milk an international news story as the first openly gay city commissioner in the US. It was January 1978.

From that platform, Harvey Milk became a tireless advocate for the minority gay community that was so violently discriminated against that many of its members chose to remain in the shadows -- or, as Milk would say, in the closet:

"Gay people, we will not win our rights by staying quietly in our closets. … We are coming out to fight the lies, the myths, the distortions. We are coming out to tell the truths about gays, for I am tired of the conspiracy of silence, so I’m going to talk about it. And I want you to talk about it. You must come out.”

The movement for Gay Rights was not Harvey Milk's only concern as commissioner. He served all his constituents, particularly minority populations, pushing for better child-care, low-cost housing, and community libraries. But his biggest, most controversial battle was to fight against a San Francisco initiative that would lead to openly gay teachers being fired from their posts in the city's public schools.

June 25, 1978: Supervisor Harvey Milk leads the pack during the Gay Freedom Day Parade in 1978.

June 25, 1978: Supervisor Harvey Milk leads the pack during the Gay Freedom Day Parade in 1978.

Thanks to his efforts, and his willingness to speak out openly against such discriminatory measures, gay San Franciscans and their non-gay supporters took to the streets with banners and flags. They marched for the first time, demanding the right to live in peace with acceptance and without violent retribution for simply being who there are.

Now, they march with pride everywhere, all over the world, week after week after week.

In November 1978, a former colleague on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, Dan White, assassinated Harvey Milk and Mayor George Moscone while they were at work in their offices at the City Hall. He entered through a window, carrying a .38 revolver and 10 rounds of ammunition, aware of the building's newly-installed metal detectors. While history is still not entirely sure of White's motivations, an article in The New York Times at the time stated that as a supervisor, White saw himself as the board's "defender of the home, the family and religious life against homosexuals, pot smokers and cynics." 

While Milk's life ended prematurely, his legend has done nothing but grow, evidenced by every Gay Pride event the world over. That's why we're honored to name him a Time Traveler Tours #HistoryHero. Read the books about Harvey Milk; watch the movie and documentary. You'll be better for it.

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Who's your #HistoryHero?

Tell us in the comments below, or message us the name of your #HistoryHero here. We’ll let you know when we feature him or her on the #HistoryHero BLAST.