Harvey Milk Day

What Is Harvey Milk Day

Harvey Milk Day is an annual celebration of Harvey Milk, a gay rights activist who was the first openly gay elected official in California. 

The day was established by the California Legislature in 2009 and is observed each year on May 22nd, which was his birthday. It’s a day where we remember him and teach about his life and his work to stop discrimination against the LGBTQIA+ community and other marginalised minorities.

Harvey Milk Day iconography

Who Was Harvey Milk

Harvey Milk was a groundbreaking figure in American history, and his impact on the LGBTQ+ community and civil rights movement cannot be overstated. 

He fought tirelessly for equality and justice, and he worked to empower individuals to live their lives authentically and without fear of persecution or discrimination. One of his most significant contributions was his advocacy for the rights of marginalised communities, particularly the LGBTQ+ community.

He was born on May 22, 1930, in Woodmere, New York, and raised in a middle-class Jewish family. After graduating from college, he served in the U.S. Navy during the Korean War and later worked as a high school teacher and stock analyst on Wall St.

Milk moved to San Francisco in 1972, drawn by the city’s vibrant gay community. He opened a camera store in The Castro and soon became involved in the city’s gay rights movement and decided to put himself forward for city and state offices. 

Harvey Milk
Harvey Milk at Gay Pride San Jose in June 1978 (Credit: San Jose Public Library)

He used his great skills as a public speaker and community organiser to build coalitions for liberal causes. Often joining workers and civil-rights leaders on his campaigns, he developed a reputation as “The Mayor of Castro Street.” He ran for public office several times before eventually beating 16 other candidates to be elected to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors in 1977.

As a supervisor, Milk was instrumental in the passage of a landmark gay rights ordinance, which prohibited discrimination based on sexual orientation in housing, employment, and other areas. This was a groundbreaking piece of legislation that paved the way for other cities and states to pass similar laws.

Harvey Milk's work also extended beyond the LGBTQ+ community, and he was a fierce advocate for other marginalised groups, including women and people of colour. He sponsored legislation to improve public transportation, affordable housing, and other issues affecting San Francisco residents, and he worked tirelessly to ensure that all members of the community had a voice in local government.

Tragically, his life was cut short when he and San Francisco Mayor George Moscone were assassinated on November 27, 1978, by Dan White, another member of the Board of Supervisors. Milk's death was a devastating loss for the LGBTQ+ community and for the civil rights movement as a whole.

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Today, Harvey Milk is remembered as a trailblazer and hero for the LGBTQ+ community. His dedication to equality and justice continues to inspire people around the world, and his work remains relevant in the fight for civil rights and social justice.

Milk's legacy is particularly important in today's political climate, where the rights of marginalised communities are under threat. Despite significant progress in recent years, our community still faces discrimination and persecution in many parts of the world, and in the US, our rights are being eroded by right-wing political bigotry. And we must use the example he set and the courage he showed to fight against those who try to oppress us. 

Milk's life and work are a reminder that change is possible, even in the face of adversity. His courage, determination, and compassion continue to be an inspiration to all who seek a more just and equitable world and his legacy remains relevant in the fight for social justice today.

Harvey Milk
Harvey Milk's Bullhorn amongst other artefacts, on display in the 'Our Queer Past: A Celebration OF San Francisco's LGBT History' exhibition at the GLBT History Museum

In recognition of his impact on American history, Harvey Milk was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian award in the United States, by President Barack Obama in 2009. This honour is a testament to Milk's enduring legacy and his ongoing importance in the fight for civil rights and social justice.

Cleve Jones

In 2020 Milk’s long-time friend Cleve Jones wrote in the San Francisco Chronicle:

"Harvey understood that LGBTQ people exist within every race and ethnicity — that we come from rich families and from poor and from every faith background. He imagined that our experience as queer people might give us insight and empathy for the struggles of others. He was a bridge builder, always seeking common ground.

"He built an army of foot soldiers that laid the groundwork for advances in equality and justice, not just for LGBTQ people, but also for many others. His death catapulted that movement, as we who followed in his footsteps channelled our anger, shock and pain to demand change, to fight for justice and to never surrender."

Harvey Milk Mural in The Castrol, San Francisco. Image by Jay Galvin
Harvey Milk Mural in The Castrol, San Francisco (credit Jay Galvin)

Harvey Milk Movie

Milk's life and work have been celebrated in numerous books, documentaries, and films, but by far the most influential of these was the 2008 Academy Award-winning movie "Milk," written by Dustin Lance Black, directed by Gus Van Sant and starring Sean Penn as Harvey Milk and Josh Brolin as Dan White. 

Not only did the movie bring his name and work to the consciousness of a whole new generation of people, but its success was one of the triggers for gay rights activist Daren I. Ball to petition then California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger to create a memorial day in his honour. 

The movie garnered 145 award nominations and won 66 awards, including Oscars for Sean Penn (Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role) and Dustin Lance Black (Best Writing, Original Screenplay).

Milk movie poster

US Navy Legacy

In late 2021 the U.S. Navy named a ship Harvey Milk. The huge oil replenisher was constructed in a San Diego shipyard as part of the John Lewis class of supply ships, which are all named for champions of civil rights.

The U.S. Navy Ship Harvey Milk is the first Navy ship to be named for an openly gay man.

Milk served in the Navy in the 1950s as a Navy diving officer aboard a submarine rescue ship during the Korean War, then as a diving instructor. He was discharged in 1955 as a lieutenant, junior grade. Milk himself said he was discharged because he was gay but the Navy maintains that he was honourably discharged.

US Navy portrait of then Ens. Harvey Milk.
US Navy portrait of then Ens. Harvey Milk.

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