Harvey Milk: 6 Things that Will Surprise You

In honor of Harvey Milk Day today, we look at some facts about the gay rights icon you might not have known.
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Harvey Milk Photo

Harvey Milk in 1977. (Photo: Archive)

One of the first openly gay politicians elected to public office, Harvey Milk was an icon for gay rights during the 1970s. His eloquence, humor, and charm quickly made him a popular figure in San Francisco. Dubbed the Mayor of Castro Street (the center of the city’s gay community at the time), he gained a loyal following among the local LGBT community for his work as an advocate and community organizer.

After two unsuccessful bids to become the San Francisco City supervisor, he was appointed city commissioner by Mayor George Moscone in 1975. Two years later, he won his third bid for supervisor and made his mark by not only advocating for gay rights, but also for affordable childcare, low-cost housing, and small businesses. He famously led the charge against the Briggs Initiative, a proposition that would have banned gays and lesbians from working in public schools.

On November 27, 1978, former city Supervisor Dan White snuck into City Hall and killed Milk and Mayor Moscone. White, a conservative, had had frequent disagreements with Milk and Moscone. When he asked Moscone to re-appoint him to the Board, the mayor refused. The night of the shootings, thousands gathered to march to City Hall where a candlelight vigil was held.

Details of Milk’s life have been showcased in films, books, and even an opera. But here are some facts about the gay rights icon you might not have known.

1. Harvey Milk followed in his parents’ footsteps by serving in the Navy.

Harvey Milk’s parents, William and Minerva, both served in the U.S. Navy. During the Korean War, Harvey served as a diving officer aboard the USS Kittiwake, a submarine rescue ship. He later served as a diving instructor while stationed in San Diego. Milk was said to be so proud of his time in the Navy that he wore a brass buckle with his Navy insignia until the day he died.

2. Harvey Milk kicked off his political career by cleaning up the streets of San Francisco — literally.

In 1978, Harvey Milk got national attention for sponsoring a pooper-scooper law — which is still in effect today. The law required dog owners to carry a bag with them and clean up after their dogs, or else face a hefty fine. Milk’s effort to address the canine issue caught on quickly and now similar ordinances are commonplace in cities all over the United States.

3. He could have had careers in teaching or finance.

Milk attempted a variety of careers before finding his place in politics. Throughout the 60s and 70s, his jobs included being a public school teacher in Long Island, a Brooks Brothers-wearing financial analyst, and a camera-store owner.

Harvey Milk Photo

Harvey Milk (far right) campaigning for the 1976 California State Assembly in San Francisco. (Photo: Daniel Nicoletta [GFDL or CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons)

4. Activism ran in his family.

Thanks to a legal loophole, women in WWI were able to serve in the Navy alongside men in jobs other than nursing. The group was nicknamed the Yeomanettes, and comprised of nearly 12,000 women. Harvey Milk’s mother, Minerva Karns, was a feminist activist and member of the Yeomanettes, who fought for inclusion of women in the US Navy.

5. If it wasn’t for the Broadway show, Hair, Harvey Milk may never have settled in San Francisco.

Milk loved music and theater even at a young age, but not everyone knows that he also had a hand in Broadway. In the late 1960s, the native New Yorker was a producer for several stage productions, including Hair and Jesus Christ Superstar. While on tour with the cast of Hair, he visited San Francisco, instantly fell in love with the city, and decided to move there in 1972.

6. He predicted his own assassination.

Homophobia and violence toward gays was widespread as Milk began to garner more of the spotlight. Daily death threats were a constant reminder of his many enemies. In fact, he tape recorded several versions of his will, “to be read in the event of my assassination.” On one of the tapes, he famously says, “If a bullet should enter my brain, let that bullet destroy every closet door.”