10 Things You Didn’t Know About Harvey Milk

Honoring our heroes.

Politician, fearless activist and all-around inspiration: Harvey Milk is still a heroic figure nearly 40 years after his assassination.

When he and San Francisco mayor George Moscone were murdered by Dan White, who was only convicted of manslaughter, grief and outrage rippled through the city. In 1984, the Oscar-winning documentary The Times of Harvey Milk chronicled his life and death. Twnety-four years later, Gus Van Sant dramatized Harvey’s saga in Milk, which won the Academy Award for Best Actor (for Sean Penn) and Best Original Screenplay (for Dustin Lance Black).

Yet there are still facts about Milk that we overlook. Here are 10 things about the man you might not know—some are funny, some are inspiring, and some are unsettling.

1. He was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2009.

Presidential Medal of Freedom photo

“His name was Harvey Milk, and he was here to recruit us—all of us—to join a movement and change a nation,” said President Obama. “In the brief time in which he spoke – and ran and led – his voice stirred the aspirations of millions of people.”

2. His yearbook quote read Glimpy Milk—and they say WOMEN are never at a loss for words”


3. The first street named after Harvey Milk was established in 2012.


A street in San Diego was the first to have the honor.

4. He served in the Navy.


Decades before the repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, a 21-year-old Milk was a diving instructor at a navy base in San Diego. His mother, Minerva Kerns, also served in the Navy—and fought for more opportunities for women in the military.

5. The Jonestown Massacre occurred ten days before Milk’s death.

jim jones george moscone
People’s Temple leader Jim Jones actually led the Housing Authority for Mayor Moscone before fleeing to Guyana, though Milk made it clear he didn’t trust the charismatic demagogue.

Days before murdering Milk and Moscone, Dan White resigned—and then quickly asked for his job back. The press had a field day—until the Jonestown massacre grabbed everyone’s attention. White reportedly told his aides: “You see that? One day I’m on the front page and the next I’m swept right off.”

6. Harvey got Jane Fonda to help bring down the Briggs Initiative.


The 1977 measure would have banned homosexuals from being public school teachers in California but, thanks to Milk’s tireless efforts, it was soundly defeated.

It also sparked thousands of gays and lesbians to come out to their friends and family, marking the first time America learned we were indeed everywhere.

7. We Have Broadway’s Hair to thank For Harvey coming to San Francisco

In the late 1960s, Milk was a producer for several New York productions, including Hair and Jesus Christ Superstar. While on tour with the cast of Hair in San Francisco, he fell in love with the city and moved there in 1972.

8. Robin Williams was originally in talks to play Harvey Milk.

robin williams
Milk was originally greenlit in 1991 with Oliver Stone as an executive producer. In ’92, Van Sant signed on, with Williams set to star. Sixteen years later, the role went to Penn.

9. Victoria Hazlewood Lord’s 8mm footage of Milk at a 1973 rally was seen for the first time in 2013.


The 40-year-old footage screened at the Outfest Legacy Awards under the title Harvey Milk Supervisor Rally.

10. Harvey Milk predicted his own assassination.

Facing death threats every day, Milk recorded several version of his will, “to be read in the event of my assassination.” On one tape, he prophesied, “If a bullet should enter my brain, let that bullet destroy every closet door.”

What other facts about Harvey Milk did we overlook?