Harvey Milk Day

Who Was Harvey Milk?

Harvey Milk was born in 1930 and raised in New York. In 1972, he moved to San Francisco where he opened a camera store. His "brash, outspoken, animated, and outrageous" manner drew the attention of the media. He also became well-known among the growing LGBTQ+ population of the Castro neighborhood. He decided to pursue politics.
San Francisco has a rich LGBTQ+ history, dating back to the Gold Rush. However, it wasn't until the 1970s that openly gay and lesbian officials would finally be elected to office. One of these elected officials would eventually be Harvey Milk. After a few false starts in politics, he was elected to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. He represented the City’s 5th District in November 1977.
Milk’s political career focused on resistance to anti-gay initiatives. As a result of his efforts, a bill passed almost unanimously. This bill banned discrimination in public accommodations, housing, and employment on the basis of sexual orientation.  Only District 8 Supervisor Dan White opposed the bill.  

Dan White and the Assassination of Harvey Milk  

Dan White and Harvey Milk had a complex working relationship. They had initially worked well together. Over time, the relationship soured. White eventually resigned his seat on the Board of Supervisors. He cited dissatisfaction with what he saw as corrupt practices in San Francisco politics. He also cited financial issues due to legal restrictions on his employment while serving on the board. He attempted to reverse his resignation a few days later. Although Mayor George Moscone initially accepted this request, he changed his mind at the urging of several others including Milk.
Two weeks later, White visited City Hall. He intended to kill Moscone and several others that he blamed for the mayor’s decision, including Harvey Milk. He first visited Moscone to plead for his job back. Eventually, he shot the mayor after Moscone refused to reinstate him. White then walked to Milk’s office. He shot Milk five times with the gun pressed against his skull for the final two shots. Afterwards, White fled City Hall and surrendered to the police.  

The Twinkie Defense

At trial, White’s defense attorney argued that his mental state was of diminished capacity due to depression. His attorney presented White’s consumption of sugary junk foods as evidence of his depression. The media later dubbed this argument the infamous “Twinkie Defense”.

Reaction to Sentencing

White was found guilty of voluntary manslaughter and sentenced to seven years imprisonment. The city’s gay population was outraged by the light sentence.
Later that night, the White Night Riots engulfed City Hall. This riot became the largest violent reaction by gay Americans since the Stonewall Riots. California eventually eliminated its diminished capacity law in response to public outcry over White’s sentence.  

Milk’s Legacy  

Harvey Milk only served as an elected official for 11 months before his assassination. However, he became a prominent symbol in the fight for gay rights. He is recognized for his accomplishments both in and out of office. Additionally, the perceived institutional disregard for the brutality of his murder has left its legacy.

Harvey Milk Day: May 22

In 2009, the State of California established May 22 as Harvey Milk Day. Harvey Milk's birthday is May 22. On this day, we remember his life, accomplishments, and the LGBTQ+ community’s continuing fight for recognition and equality under the law.

Additional Resources


Learn more about Harvey Milk and the causes he fought for with these books, movies, and other resources!

The Stonewall Riots

What Was Stonewall?

Books for Teens and Adults