The History of Harvey Milk’s Iconic Speech

Jake Hall, a queer freelance journalist, documents the life and influential political career of iconic LGBTQIA+ activist Harvey Milk

By Google Arts & Culture

by Jake Hall

Letter from San Francisco Board of Supervisor Member Harvey Milk to President Jimmy Carter Letter from San Francisco Board of Supervisor Member Harvey Milk to President Jimmy Carter (1978-06-25/1978-06-28) by National Archives and Records AdministrationU.S. National Archives

“My name is Harvey Milk, and I’m here to recruit you.” These provocative words would come to define the political career of Milk, an influential politician whose passionate speech at the 1978 San Francisco Gay Freedom Parade irrevocably changed the course of LGBTQ+ history.

Harvey Milk in Dress Navy (1954)

Harvey Bernard Milk was born in Woodmere, New York on May 22, 1930 to Lithuanian Jewish parents. After attending a college for teachers, where he studied maths and history, and graduating in 1951, Milk joined the U.S. Navy and fought in the Korean War.In 1955, after working his way up to the rank of lieutenant, he was forced to resign after being spotted at a gay cruising site and subsequently questioned.

Harvey Milk in 1978 at Mayor Moscone's Desk (1978)

Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, Milk’s politics were relatively conservative and he was not openly gay, but his involvement in the anti-war movement of the 1960s pushed his politics gradually left. His fascination with theatre and opera is also well-documented, especially in descriptions of Milk as a charismatic, theatrical public speaker. In 1970, his radical politics were consolidated when he was fired from his role as a financial analyst for burning his Bank of America card, in protest of the U.S. invasion of Cambodia.

Harvey Milk in front of Castro Camera (1977)

In 1972, Milk settled permanently in San Francisco, spending the remainder of his life savings on a photography store, Castro Camera. Its location, Castro Street, was already an LGBTQ+ community hub, so activists soon flocked to Milk’s store and transformed it into an unofficial community centre. Months later, Milk campaigned against what he saw as unjust taxation on small businesses. This taste of local politics led him to run for a seat on the city’s Board of Supervisors in 1973. 

Harvey's Human Billboard (1975)Original Source: HARVEY MILK ARCHIVES-SCOTT SMITH COLLECTION, HORMEL GAY & LESBIAN CENTER, SAN FRANCISCO PUBLIC LIBRARY

After a series of failed campaigns, Milk established the San Francisco Gay Democratic Club in 1976. His activism, fierce anti-corporate stance and dedication to tackling small-scale issues (his ‘pooper-scooper’ campaign) earned him a reputation as ‘The Mayor of Castro Street’ and, finally, an electoral victory in 1977.

Throughout 1978, Republican senator John Briggs sponsored an initiative to ban gays and lesbians from working in California’s public schools. Milk campaigned furiously throughout the year to ensure this didn’t happen, but the turning point came at San Francisco’s 1978 Gay Freedom Day Parade, which also saw the debut of Gilbert Baker’s Rainbow Flag. In a rousing, emotive speech, which he later sent directly to President Carter, Milk garnered public support for the LGBTQ+ community, which soon snowballed and led to the defeat of the initiative.

Harvey Milk Mural (2020)Original Source: Jay Galvin

Milk was assassinated months later alongside George Moscone, then-Mayor of San Francisco. His death triggered a global outpour of grief, as well as a series of uprisings, known as the ‘White Night Riots’ which erupted due to the lenient sentencing of his killer, fellow politician Dan White. His legacy lives on, as was his wish: in a final speech recorded in case of his assassination, he said, "If I’m killed, let that bullet destroy every closet door.”

Credits: Story

Jake Hall is a U.K.-based freelance journalist, and author of 2020 book ‘The Art of Drag’. They also dabble in consultancy and curation, homing in frequently on all things sexy, weird and queer. 

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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