When Harvey Milk became the first openly gay elected public official in 1977, Uncle P was merely Nephew P, a naive high-schooler who was still struggling with his own sexuality. Being a gay teen in the 70's was a lot different than it is today. Not to say that gay teens have an easy life today. Far from it. But it is easier. And they can thank Harvey Milk for that, in part.
Milk, a former New Yorker who relocated to the growing gay San Francisco neighborhood known as The Castro in the early 70's, ran two unsuccessful campaigns for the San Francisco Board of Supervisors before he was finally elected. The news of the first openly gay public official resonated even way out here in Eastern Suburbia. I remember thinking "Someone's going to try to kill that guy."
In his short 11-month tenure, the Korean War veteran managed to get a gay rights bill passed in San Francisco (the first of its kind) and the 'Mayor of Castro Street' cemented his place as the single most significant figure in the history of the burgeoning gay rights movement. We all know how it sadly ended on November 27th, 1978. Fellow City Supervisor Dan White shot and killed Milk and Mayor George Moscone in their offices, later using the defense that depression, combined with a 'junk food sugar high' had driven him temporarily insane (what came to be known as the "Twinkie Defense"). White served 5 years of a 7 year sentence for voluntary manslaughter. The verdict resulted in the "White Night Riots" in San Francisco. After his release in 1984, Mayor Dianne Feinstein requested that White not return to San Francisco. He eventually committed suicide in 1985.
I remember being very upset by the news that Harvey Milk had been assassinated, though at the time I kept my distress to myself, crying in my pillow because I thought Milk's death meant the end of hope for people like me. Of course, 34 years later we have the first sitting President to publicly endorse same-sex marriage and public opinion about LGBTQ people is evolving quickly.
In 2008, actor/activist Sean Penn portrayed Harvey in the Gus Van Sant film Milk, written by Dustin Lance Black and co-starring Emile Hirsch, sexually ambiguous James Franco and Josh Brolin as Dan White. Black won the 2009 Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay and gave a rousing acceptance speech in which he told young gay people not to let other people treat them as "less than." In 2010, the state of California officially recognized Harvey's birthday as 'Harvey Milk Day.' The Harvey Milk Center for the Arts serves San Francisco's large gay community and the camera shop Milk owned (now an HRC store) is a city landmark.
Harvey Milk would have been 82 years old today. He remains one of my personal real-life heroes. If there is an afterlife, I hope he is smiling down on the strides we have made since his election.