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Gay History – November 8, 1977: Harvey Milk Elected to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors

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November 8, 1977 – Harvey Milk after is elected to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, making him the first openly gay man to be elected in a major U.S. city. Although he was the most pro-gay politician in the United States at the time, politics and activism were not his early interests; he was neither open about his sexuality nor civically active until he was 40, after his experiences in the counterculture movement of the 1960’s.

Although he was a newcomer to the Castro District, Milk had shown leadership in the small community. He was starting to be taken seriously as a candidate and decided to run again for supervisor in 1975. He reconsidered his approach and cut his long hair, swore off marijuana, and vowed never to visit another gay bathhouse again. Milk’s campaigning earned the support of the teamsters, firefighters, and construction unions. Castro Camera became the center of activity in the neighborhood.

Milk favored support for small businesses and the growth of neighborhoods. Since 1968, Mayor Alioto had been luring large corporations to the city despite what critics labeled “the Manhattanization of San Francisco”. As blue-collar jobs were replaced by the service industry, Alioto’s weakened political base allowed for new leadership to be voted into office in the city. George Moscone was elected mayor. Moscone had been instrumental in repealing the sodomy law earlier that year in the California State Legislature. He acknowledged Milk’s influence in his election by visiting Milk’s election night headquarters, thanking Milk personally, and offering him a position as a city commissioner. Milk came in seventh place in the election, only one position away from earning a supervisor seat.  

Moscone appointed him to the Board of Permit Appeals in 1976, making him the first openly gay city commissioner in the United States. Milk, however, considered seeking a position in the California State Assembly. The district was weighted heavily in his favor, as much of it was based in neighborhoods surrounding Castro Street, where Milk’s sympathizers voted. In the previous race for supervisor, Milk received more votes than the currently seated assemblyman. However, Moscone had made a deal with the assembly speaker that another candidate should run—Art Agnos. Furthermore, by order of the mayor, neither appointed nor elected officials were allowed to run a campaign while performing their duties.

By the time of Milk’s 1975 campaign, he had decided to cut his hair and wear suits. Here, Milk (far right) is campaigning with longshoremen in San Francisco during his 1976 race for the California State Assembly.

Milk spent five weeks on the Board of Permit Appeals before Moscone was forced to fire him when he announced he would run for the California State Assembly. Rick Stokes replaced him. Milk’s firing, and the backroom deal made between Moscone, the assembly speaker, and Agnos, fueled his campaign as he took on the identity of a political underdog.

Milk’s continuing campaign, run from the storefront of Castro Camera, was a study in disorganization. Although the older Irish grandmothers and gay men who volunteered were plentiful and happy to send out mass mailings, Milk’s notes and volunteer lists were kept on scrap papers. Any time the campaign required funds, the money came from the cash register without any consideration for accounting.

Milk spent long hours registering voters and shaking hands at bus stops and movie theater lines. He took whatever opportunity came along to promote himself. He thoroughly enjoyed campaigning, and his success was evident. With the large numbers of volunteers, he had dozens at a time stand along the busy thoroughfare of Market Street as human billboards, holding “Milk for Assembly” signs while commuters drove into the heart of the city to work.

In the end Harvey Milk lost the Assembly seat by fewer than 4,000 votes.

Anita Bryant’s public campaign opposing homosexuality and the multiple challenges to gay rights ordinances across the United States fueled gay politics in San Francisco. Seventeen candidates from the Castro District entered the next race for supervisor; more than half of them were gay. The New York Times ran an exposé on the veritable invasion of gay people into San Francisco, estimating that the city’s gay population was between 100,000 and 200,000 out of a total 750,000.

Milk’s most successful opponent was the quiet and thoughtful lawyer Rick Stokes, who was backed by the Alice B. Toklas Memorial Democratic Club. Stokes had been open about his homosexuality long before Milk had, and had experienced more severe treatment, once hospitalized and forced to endure electroshock therapy to ‘cure’ him.  Milk, however, was more expressive about the role of gay people and their issues in San Francisco politics. Stokes was quoted saying, “I’m just a businessman who happens to be gay,” and expressed the view that any normal person could also be homosexual. Milk’s contrasting populist philosophy was relayed to The New York Times: “We don’t want sympathetic liberals, we want gays to represent gays … I represent the gay street people—the 14-year-old runaway from San Antonio. We have to make up for hundreds of years of persecution. We have to give hope to that poor runaway kid from San Antonio. They go to the bars because churches are hostile. They need hope! They need a piece of the pie!”

On election day, November 8, 1977, he won by 30% against sixteen other candidates, and after his victory became apparent, he arrived on Castro Street on the back of his campaign manager’s motorcycle—escorted by Sheriff Richard Hongisto—to what a newspaper story described as a “tumultuous and moving welcome”.

Since the race for the California State Assembly, Milk had been receiving increasingly violent death threats. Concerned that his raised profile marked him as a target for assassination, he recorded on tape his thoughts, and whom he wanted to succeed him if he were killed, adding: “If a bullet should enter my brain, let that bullet destroy every closet door”.

Sadly, we all know how the rest of this story ends.

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Will Kohler

Will Kohler is a noted LGBT historian, journalist and owner of Back2Stonewall.com. 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 Daily Beast, Hollywood Reporter, and Raw Story,

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