10 Things You Didn’t Know About Harvey Milk

Honoring our heroes.

Politician, activist, inspiration: Harvey Milk is still a heroic figure nearly 40 years after his assassination on November 27, 1978.

After Milk and San Francisco mayor George Moscone were murdered by Dan White, grief and outrage gripped the LGBT community. In 1984, the Oscar-winning documentary The Times of Harvey Milk chronicled Milk’s life and death. It was followed, 24 years later, by Gus Van Sant’s Milk, which won the Oscar for Best Actor (for Sean Penn) and Best Original Screenplay (for Dustin Lance Black) in 2008.

But there is still much about Milk that we overlook: Here are 10 Harvey Milk facts you might not know.

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

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    “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 2009. “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 “And they say WOMEN are never at a loss for words.”

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    Milk graduated from Bay Shore High School in Bay Shore, New York, in 1947. He didn’t come out as gay until he was 40.

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

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    A street in San Diego was the first to have the honor, and Portland, Oregon, and Salt Lake City, Utah, followed suit. San Francisco has named several locations after him, including Harvey Milk Plaza, where Market and Castro Streets intersect.

  4. The Navy named a ship after him.

    Decades before the repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, 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.

    In 2016, Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus announced a Military Sealift Command fleet oiler was being christened the USNS Harvey Milk.

    “It will further send a green light that honesty, acceptance and authenticity are held up among the highest ideals of our military,” said Milk’s nephew, Stuart Milk.

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

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    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—and celebrity backing from Fonda and others—it was soundly defeated.

    The Briggs Initiative 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.

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    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.

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    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. The U.S. Post Office issued a Harvey Milk stamp.

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    The stamp was issued on May 22, 2014, celebrated internationally as Harvey Milk Day.

  10. Harvey predicted his own assassination.

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    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.”