November 27, 1978: Remembering Harvey – Harvey Milk Assassinated On This Day In San Francisco


At 11 a.m. on a beautiful Monday morning, on November 27, 1978,  San Francisco Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk were shot and killed in cold blood by disgruntled former Supervisor Dan White.”

San Francisco ground to a halt. Many offices and businesses closed. People wept openly in the streets. Strangers hugged each other, trying to offer comfort. But there was no comfort.

That was 38 years ago, and there is still no comfort today.

Harvey moved from New York City to settle in San Francisco in 1972 amid a migration of gay men to the Castro District. He took advantage of the growing political and economic power of the neighborhood to promote his interests, and three times ran unsuccessfully for political office. His theatrical campaigns earned him increasing popularity, and Milk won a seat as a city supervisor in 1977, his election made possible by and was a key component of a shift in San Francisco politics.

Milk served almost 11 months in office and was responsible for passing a stringent gay rights ordinance for the city. 

But Harvey Milk left us a legacy. He profoundly influenced gay and lesbian politics, and was a champion of human rights. Milk once said, “…you’ve got to keep electing gay people…to know there is better hope for tomorrow. Not only for gays, but for blacks, Asians, the disabled, our senior citizens and us. Without hope, we give up. I know you cannot live on hope alone, but without it life is not worth living. You and you and you have got to see that the promise does not fade.”

Milk became an icon in San Francisco and a martyr in the gay community worldwide. In 2002, Milk was called “the most famous and most significantly open LGBT official ever elected in the United States”. Anne Kronenberg, his final campaign manager, wrote of him: “What set Harvey apart from you or me was that he was a visionary. He imagined a righteous world inside his head and then he set about to create it for real, for all of us.

Harvey’s martyrdom is a painful reminder of the length and difficulty of the journey to freedom. A journey we still take today and must continue fighting until we achieve full equality.

Harvey Milk a true LGBT hero and legend. His actions and words must never be forgotten. To this day we must listen to them, learn from them and follow them.

This is Harvey’s legacy to us.

You see there is a major difference–and it remains a vital difference–between a friend and a gay person, a friend in office and a gay person in office. Gay people have been slandered nationwide. We’ve been tarred and we’ve been brushed with the picture of pornography. In Dade County, we were accused of child molestation. It’s not enough anymore just to have friends represent us. No matter how good that friend may be.

The black community made up its mind to that a long time ago. That the myths against blacks can only be dispelled by electing black leaders, so the black community could be judged by the leaders and not by the myths or black criminals. The Spanish community must not be judged by Latin criminals or myths. The Asian community must not be judged by Asian criminals or myths. The Italian community should not be judged by the mafia myths. And the time has come when the gay community must not be judged by our criminals and myths.

Like every other group, we must be judged by our leaders and by those who are themselves gay, those who are visible. For invisible, we remain in limbo–a myth, a person with no parents, no brothers, no sisters, no friends who are straight, no important positions in employment. A tenth of a nation supposedly composed of stereotypes and would-be seducers of children–and no offense meant to the stereotypes. But today, the black community is not judged by its friends, but by its black legislators and leaders. And we must give people the chance to judge us by our leaders and legislators. A gay person in office can set a tone, can command respect not only from the larger community, but from the young people in our own community who need both examples and hope.

The first gay people we elect must be strong. They must not be content to sit in the back of the bus. They must not be content to accept pablum. They must be above wheeling and dealing. They must be–for the good of all of us–independent, unbought. The anger and the frustrations that some of us feel is because we are misunderstood, and friends can’t feel that anger and frustration. They can sense it in us, but they can’t feel it. Because a friend has never gone through what is known as coming out. I will never forget what it was like coming out and having nobody to look up toward. I remember the lack of hope–and our friends can’t fulfill that.

I can’t forget the looks on faces of people who’ve lost hope. Be they gay, be they seniors, be they black looking for an almost-impossible job, be they Latins trying to explain their problems and aspirations in a tongue that’s foreign to them. I personally will never forget that people are more important than buildings. I use the word “I” because I’m proud. I stand here tonight in front of my gay sisters, brothers and friends because I’m proud of you. I think it’s time that we have many legislators who are gay and proud of that fact and do not have to remain in the closet. I think that a gay person, up-front, will not walk away from a responsibility and be afraid of being tossed out of office. After Dade County, I walked among the angry and the frustrated night after night and I looked at their faces. And in San Francisco, three days before Gay Pride Day, a person was killed just because he was gay. And that night, I walked among the sad and the frustrated at City Hall in San Francisco and later that night as they lit candles on Castro Street and stood in silence, reaching out for some symbolic thing that would give them hope. These were strong people, people whose faces I knew from the shop, the streets, meetings and people who I never saw before but I knew. They were strong, but even they needed hope.

And the young gay people in the Altoona, Pennsylvanias and the Richmond, Minnesotas who are coming out and hear Anita Bryant on television and her story. The only thing they have to look forward to is hope. And you have to give them hope. Hope for a better world, hope for a better tomorrow, hope for a better place to come to if the pressures at home are too great. Hope that all will be all right. Without hope, not only gays, but the blacks, the seniors, the handicapped, the us’es, the us’es will give up. And if you help elect to the central committee and more offices, more gay people, that gives a green light to all who feel disenfranchised, a green light to move forward. It means hope to a nation that has given up, because if a gay person makes it, the doors are open to everyone.

So if there is a message I have to give, it is that if I’ve found one overriding thing about my personal election, it’s the fact that if a gay person can be elected, it’s a green light. And you and you and you, you have to give people hope.

Harvey Milk was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2009.

We miss you Harvey Milk and thank you for everything you have done for us.


Will Kohler

Will Kohler is a noted LGBT historian, writer, blogger and owner of A longtime gay activist, Will fought on the front lines of the AIDS epidemic with ACT-UP and continues fighting today for LGBT acceptance and full equality. Will’s work has been referenced in notable media venues as MSNBC and BBC News, The Washington Post, The Advocate, The Daily Beast, Hollywood Reporter, Raw Story, and The Huffington Post

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2 Responses

  1. Mike in Asheville says:

    Beautiful post. (33 years, not 32.)

    I was a freshman at Berkeley that roller-coaster fateful fall in 1978.

    Roller-coaster because just 3 weeks before the assassination of Harvey and Mayor Moscone, it was a pretty heady time for the gay/lesbian community — thanks to Harvey Milk.

    On November 7, 1978, Californians voted down the Briggs Initiative by a million votes. Through the summer and early fall, the Briggs Initiative had 60+% support — had the initiative passed, all gay and lesbian public school teachers, counselors and administrators would have been fired from their jobs and none hired. The vile John Briggs wanted to bring Anita Bryant style homophobia and bigotry to California.

    During the summer and early fall, it was very dark and gloomy. It seemed certain that the Briggs Initiative would pass, further harming and stigmatizing our community.

    Harvey then took control of the campaign. In those late days of the campaign, and facing daunting odds, Harvey figured a way out: get big league politicians from both parties to denounce the initiative for its blatant discrimination.

    (I met Harvey that September, he was working a No on Briggs station in the Castro, handed me a brochure, and reminded me to make sure I voted and got others to vote. I was a little thrilled as I so happily watched him the year earlier give his victory speech on TV — I was a high school senior in the East Bay. He was a true hero to me — I knew my life was going to be a little easier because he was there demanding equality for me too.)

    After working so hard behind the scenes, Harvey’s efforts paid off. By the end of September 1978, former Governor (and presidential candidate) Ronald Reagan, Governor Jerry Brown (in his 2nd term), President Carter and former President Ford, all came out publicly denouncing the Briggs Initiative for its discrimination. Reagan actually spoke against the initiative at his own campaign stops.

    That election night, was full of victory and happiness. The roller-coaster had shifted the mood of the gay/lesbian community as sharply and swiftly as a roller-coaster does. The happiness and relief was everywhere in the city and area.

    And then that awful and fateful day just 20 days later. I was eating my lunch in Sproul Plaza when I overheard the news — I just sat there and cried.

    But Harvey’s legacy did not die with him, indeed his bravery and courage instilled a groundswell of new and stronger support. Harvey’s heroism provided the guidance needed to lift us up from the sadness and move us forward.

    God bless you Harvey, I think of you often.

  2. When I watched the movie Milk my life was forever changed. It was the right movie at the right time about something that never should have happened. And here we are, all these years later, and still we are struggling as LGBTQ people for basic human rights and dignity. Thank you Harvey for standing up. Your courage gives me strength to be my authentic self.

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