Undaunted by repeated election losses, Harvey Milk advanced his tenacious campaign in 1977’s electoral race for San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors with a strategy to broaden his appeal beyond the gay community by addressing an intersectionality of issues. He sought to reform the tax code to attract business, create low-incoming housing, establish daycare centers for working mothers, and secure discrimination bans against LGBTQ people seeking employment and public housing. The gamble paid off, and Milk harnessed the support of the city’s queer voting bloc alongside other constituencies to finally win his seat at the table.
His tenure as a city supervisor began in January 1978. As city supervisor, Milk rallied his colleagues to support his legislative ideas, making good on his promise to defend a gay person’s right to public housing and employment. Support for the bill was almost unanimous with only one dissenting vote from Dan White — the man who would later assassinate Milk and San Francisco’s mayor George Moscone.
The significance of his ascendency into politics wasn’t lost on Milk, his supporters, or his opponents. He used momentum from his victory to take his message nationwide, partnering with unlikely allies like President Jimmy Carter and former California Governor Ronald Reagan to quash California’s Prop 6, which would have banned gay teachers and anyone supporting gay rights from working in public schools. Milk’s prominence soon put him in the crosshairs of some of the most destructive forces in the push against gay liberation. Chief among them was Anita Bryant, the former beauty queen and singer who became an overzealous homophobe who once pronounced that she would “lead such a crusade to stop [gay activism] as this country has not seen before.”
But there was at least one moment of pure celebration during Milk’s short time as city supervisor; one scene from the picture book of feverish activity that was his life that stands out in my mind: the day that Harvey Milk was mayor.
In March 1978, Mayor Moscone left San Francisco for a trip to Europe and left Milk in charge of his office as acting mayor. On the seventh of that month, the city supervisor took his seat at the desk as one of California’s most powerful politicians. Even today as our notions of queerness and electability expand, the idea that an openly gay public official can win an election feels radical. And it’s clear that Milk’s triumph paved the way for other LGBTQ politicians to take seats in the nation’s highest offices: Senator Tammy Baldwin (D-WI), Senator Krysten Sinema (D-AZ), Representative Mark Takano (D-CA), Representative Sharice Davids (D-KA), Governor Kate Brown of Oregon, Governor Jared Polis of Colorado, and the Democratic presidential hopeful Mayor Pete Buttigieg of Indiana, to name a few.
Few accounts exist from this small snapshot of Milk’s career, but I did find one anecdote hiding in the metadata of a picture of the supervisor from Wikipedia, which was apparently added by the image’s photographer, Daniel Nicoletta:
When Harvey was acting mayor for one of the days that Mayor George Moscone had to be out of town, it was like the Marx Brothers in the mayor’s office … When I came in to photograph Harvey that day, I was greeted by Harvey with an option of receiving any commission my heart desired, and in the background, Jim Rivaldo [manager of Milk’s election campaigns] and some other friends of Harvey’s were having fun playing with the mayor’s paper-shredding machine, which was built into his huge wooden desk.
There also exists a handwritten note that Milk wrote on the mayor’s stationery during his time in the office. It’s one of the few primary sources available from that day, and is included in Swann Auction Galleries’s “Pride Sale,” a curated auction of material related to the queer community and the gay rights movement on June 20, 2019. The message reads:
Don & Tony
Thought you should have a memo from the 1st up front gay mayor of any city — it’s for real!!!
Addressed to his friends Don Amador and Tony Karnes of Los Angeles, the missive demonstrates the pure elation of Milk’s day as mayor. It also represents the network of gay organizers that Milk had cultivated throughout the decades. Don Amador was a leading activist who, inspired by Milk, attempted to win office in Los Angeles. Unfortunately, he lost both his 1977 race for California State Assembly and his 1980 bid for Los Angeles City Council. Beginning in 1976, he taught the nation’s first Gay Studies course at California State University in which he argued that King David, Alexander the Great, Michelangelo Buonarotti and Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky were gay, and that Thomas Jefferson framed a Virginia bill in 1776 to make homosexuality punishable by castration.
Looking at these photographs and the note from Milk’s time in the mayor’s office, I’m reminded of his Gay Freedom Day speech on April 25, 1978. Given roughly a month after his day as mayor and only five months before his murder, the speech calls for the end of ignominy for LGBTQ people, and the beginning of a political awakening:
Gay brothers and sisters … You must come out. Come out … to your parents … I know that it is hard and will hurt them but think about how they will hurt you in the voting booth! Come out to your relatives … come out to your friends … if indeed they are your friends. Come out to your neighbors … to your fellow workers… to the people who work where you eat and shop … come out only to the people you know, and who know you. Not to anyone else. But once and for all, break down the myths, destroy the lies and distortions. For your sake. For their sake. For the sake of the youngsters who are becoming scared by the votes from Dade to Eugene.
Swann’s first ever “Pride Sale,” a curated auction of material related to the LGBTQ+ experience and the gay rights movement, takes place on June 20, 2019. A corresponding exhibition of works on offer will run from June 15 through the sale.