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How a Murder Changed Gay Rights Forever

One of the first gay elected officials found his home in San Francisco and spent the 1970s fighting tirelessly for gay rights. His murder and legacy transformed the movement for equality.

At 10:20 AM on November 27, 1978 a man exited a car in front of San Francisco City Hall’s main entrance.

He paused to thank his driver, “Thanks for the ride, Denise. I’m just gonna talk with George and Harvey…I’ve just gotta see their faces…Then I’ll grab your keys to borrow the car.”

“Of course, Dan, it’s gonna be alright. You’ll be alright.”[1]

But as the car pulled away, he didn’t walk through the main entrance, with its newly-installed metal detectors. Instead, he walked around the block, descending the side staircase to the basement and trying the door there. No luck. A few minutes later, William Melia heard a window in the neighboring office slide open, then the sounds of someone climbing through, before catching a glimpse of someone running by his office.

He called out, “Hey, wait a second!”

The man stopped and came back to the office door, “Hey, I had to get in. My aide was supposed to come down and let me in the side door, but never showed up.”

"And you are?"

"I’m Dan White, the City Supervisor…Say, I’ve gotta go." And off he went.[2]

A moment later he greeted secretary Cyr Copertini, “Hello, Cyr. Can I see the Mayor?”

“He’s with someone now, but let me go check.” The secretary disappeared into the office. “Hey, George, Dan’s here to see you.”

“Oh, well alright. Give me a minute to think.” The mayor was apprehensive.

“Do you want someone in here with you?”

“No, I’ll see him alone.”

“Okay.” The secretary exited the office. “He’ll be with you in just a moment.”

About ten minutes later, a buzzer sounded. “You can go on in now, Dan.”

“Thanks, Cyr.”[3]

“Dan, how are you?”

“Well, George, well, I’ve been better. Look, I don’t wanna waste your time. So just give it to me straight, please, are you gonna reinstate me or not? I can’t stand hearing this or that through the grapevine. I’d like to hear it from you.”

“Look, Dan, I’m afraid I can’t do it. I’m sorry, but it’s done. You did resign, after all. I’m announcing your replacement in…oh, an hour or so.”

The soon-to-be-former city supervisor was at a loss for words. He felt a sudden pang like a headache.

“Now I know this isn’t what you wanted to hear, Dan. But how about we have a drink and talk about it?”

Dan White didn’t say a word, just shuffled toward the door to the office’s back room.

The mayor patted him on the shoulder as he went in, then headed to the bar cabinet. He lifted a glass whiskey decanter, removed the lid, and as he poured two drinks he asked, “So, Dan, what’ll you do next?”[4]

Mayor George Moscone was dead. But outside his office, [muffled sounds] it merely sounded like someone had trouble closing a car door. Then, within moments, Dan White burst, running, from the office’s back exit and down the hall.[5]

Arriving at the City Supervisors’ area, he encountered his colleague, “Hey, Harvey, can I speak with you a moment?”

“Sure, Dan, what’s going on?”

“Say, can we meet in my office?”


They crossed the hall. Dan opened the door, gestured for Harvey to go ahead, then shut the door behind them.

“Look, Harvey, I want to get my job back.”

“Well I think that’s up to Mayor Moscone.”

“I just got done speaking with him, and-”

“What did he say?”

“Well you know what he said.”

“What do you mean?”

“Now stop that, I know what you did. He was going to reinstate me, but you told him not to!”

“Now, Dan, I think there’s some kind of misunderstanding, I just- Hey!”[7]

“Denise, the car keys!”[8]

[Dianne Feinstein: “Both Mayor Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk have been shot and killed. The suspect is Supervisor Dan White.”]


At first, the events of November 27, 1978 seem like a purely local affair; a disgruntled San Francisco city supervisor shot the mayor and his colleague. Bizarre, yes, and tragic, but otherwise insignificant.

But in truth, this double-murder would prove far more consequential than anyone, especially Dan White, could have imagined. Even stranger, it wouldn’t be the mayor’s death which echoed through history, but that of the rookie city supervisor. To understand why, we have to understand the life of this man, an unlikely leader in what was by the 1970s perhaps the global capital for the gay rights movement, and whose legacy fundamentally altered the reality of LGBT politics and gay rights in America. We have to understand Harvey Milk.

Born to a Jewish family in New York, in 1930, Milk was expected to follow family tradition, working at the department store his immigrant grandfather, Morris Milch, had started. But even in his earliest years, Harvey knew he didn’t quite fit the traditional mold. It wasn’t as though he stuck out in some way. He was a junior varsity athlete, a popular guy by all accounts. But something about the social expectations for young men just didn’t quite fit.[9]

After high school, fitting in proved even tougher. He attended a college for teachers in upstate New York, but opted for the Navy after graduation, until he was forced out in 1955 after nearly four years of service, after being spotted in a park popular with gay men.[10] Homosexuality was still a crime in America.

So he returned to New York to teach. But after only two years, he moved to Dallas, Texas. Dissatisfied again, he returned to New York, once more only for a short time. And so began Harvey Milk’s wandering life: ping-ponging between New York, Dallas, Miami, and San Francisco, taking up jobs in department stores, schools, insurance companies, and investment banks.

In the words of one biographer and San Francisco contemporary Randy Shilts, “He was something of a drifter. It was as if Harvey spent his first four decades trying to figure out what he wanted to do when he grew up.”[11]


Perhaps Milk remained so unmoored because at any moment he could be found out and lose his job: as if living some secret double life as a criminal. So, he kept his distance, holding his work at arm’s length as a sort of self-defense mechanism. He was safe, but at the cost of never really finding a sense of belonging…for now.

Over the course of the 1960s, the politically conservative Milk found himself increasingly influenced by the hippie movement, until he reached his breaking point with America’s invasion of Cambodia on April 29, 1970.

On his lunch break, Milk left his desk at a downtown San Francisco bank and found a mass of protestors outside the Pacific Stock Exchange. Filled with an unfamiliar sense of purpose, Milk leapt in front of the crowd, pulled out his wallet, and set fire to a bank card: a denunciation of big business straight from a pinstripe-suited banker. The crowd went wild.[12] For Milk, something about this combination of righteous politics and public performance just…clicked.

But Milk’s boss gave him an ultimatum: cut his long hair or lose his job. Milk kept his hair, and within about a year he settled in this building in San Francisco’s Castro district, a burgeoning hub of gay emigrés from all over the country. On the first floor, he opened a camera shop; upstairs, his apartment, where Milk lived in domestic bliss with his partner Scott Smith: finally comfortable, finally belonging. That is, until in 1973 Harvey Milk was once more unsettled…by a visit from the tax man.

A California state bureaucrat walked through these doors behind me, into Castro Camera, and informed Milk he’d need to pay the state a substantial deposit to keep his business license. For Milk, it was as though a gangster was demanding payment for protection. He cursed the pseudo-mafioso out of Castro Camera and spent weeks hounding officials to reduce the fee. Harvey Milk was finally a man filled with a sense of purpose. He knew he had to run for office.[13]


But becoming the preeminent figure in a world-historical human rights movement doesn’t happen overnight. For one thing, Milk was late to the party. All those years spent holding everyone and everything at arms-length meant Milk lacked connections and credibility in the gay community. Moreover, he didn’t seem all that interested in gay issues anyways, focusing his campaign more broadly on social policy, public spending, and the perceived endemic corruption he witnessed firsthand in his camera shop.[14]

In turn, Milk was stuck in a catch-22. The social issues he campaigned on were dear to liberals, but he was hostile to the establishment, which was dominated by liberal leaders. Coupled with his lack of credibility or real interest in the gay movement, endorsements were hard to come by, and Milk fell flat in his first contest for public office, placing tenth in the five-seat race.[15]

But there were glimmers of hope yet. Tenth wasn’t so bad in a 32-person contest, and Milk had run his campaign on a shoestring budget.[16] Most importantly, though, he won more votes than anyone in the area around the Castro district.[17]

So Milk pivoted to focus on bolstering his credibility in his neighborhood and in San Francisco’s broader gay community by establishing a local business association, starting a political club for gay progressives, organizing gay bars to assist union brewery boycotts, and cultivating a reputation as the local go-to mediator and extra hand in anything from domestic squabbles to commercial disputes.[18]

Over the next few years, he campaigned squarely on his personal identity—once shunted to the back of a dark closet, now at the forefront of his public image—as _the _gay candidate for gay issues.[19] His popularity with the gay community only grew, even as he failed in two more contests for public office, stifled by establishment organizations and machine politics.[20] All that would change, however, four years later in 1977 when San Francisco voted to approve a massive election reform championed by the new liberal mayor George Moscone. Instead of citywide elections for a pool of supervisors, seats would now be elected on a district basis, empowering neighborhoods and grassroots candidates. Crucially for Milk, the fifth district coincided neatly with the Castro area.[21] Harvey Milk was now inevitable.


He finally landed his long-sought seat in the 1977 election, but success was bitter-sweet. Over the past seven years, Harvey Milk—the uncertain drifter—was finally finding his place, discovering harmony between his private life and public image. But as a fun experiment quickly transformed into year after year of endless campaign, Scott Smith no longer recognized the man with whom he’d fallen in love, opened a camera shop, and built a home.[22] So Harvey Milk’s personal life fell apart, just as he found public success by placing his personal identity squarely at the center of his politics: a deeply-felt irony, but one which he wouldn’t let slow him down.

As a city supervisor, he proved a master of publicity and a refreshingly down-to-earth local problem solver, most famously combined when he gained national attention as the “pooper scooper supervisor,” going on tv to explain his efforts addressing the city’s epidemic of public dog droppings, whereupon he closed the segment by- Oh man, I just stepped in sh-.[23]

In Milk’s own words, “All over the country, they’re reading about me and the story doesn’t center on me being gay. It’s just about a gay person who is doing his job.”[24]

But of course, Milk had campaigned as the gay candidate for gay voters, and one of his first major proposals was a human rights ordinance banning discrimination against homosexuals—a key step for a community so frequently and randomly brutalized by police. To get anywhere, though, he’d have to go through a committee chaired by Dan White, a former cop and recently elected supervisor. White was about as conservative as you could get in San Francisco politics, campaigning against “social deviates” who had made San Francisco into a “cesspool of perversion.”[25]

But in those early months of their political tenures, Milk and White actually got along really well. For example, White invited only three of his ten fellow supervisors to his son’s baptism, one of whom was Harvey Milk. And while he’d railed against “social deviates” during his campaign, in office he showed signs of being more moderate and measured.[26] In fact, White was happy to trade support for Milk’s gay rights bill in exchange for his help on one of White’s own efforts. So Milk’s bill passed the committee, but when the time came to return the favor, Milk reneged on his promise, proving the decisive ballot in a narrow 6-5 vote against Dan White’s most prized bill.[27]

Furious at the betrayal, White tried to stop Milk’s ordinance from going to a final vote but to no avail. It passed, 10-1. White was the only holdout.[28]


Despite the local victory for gay rights, though, trouble was brewing in California. John Briggs, a conservative state senator, had placed Proposition 6 on the November ballot: an initiative that, if passed, would require the dismissal of any public school employee not just for being gay, but for speaking positively about homosexuality or any homosexual person in public. He’d gotten the idea from a similar bill recently passed in Florida.[29]

Briggs set the tone for his campaign with claims that “the teaching profession is terribly attractive to the homosexual” and that “most of them are seducing young boys in toilets.”[30] Importantly, California wasn’t yet the deep blue state it is today—polls predicted Prop 6 winning relatively easily.[31] The gay community and their allies would need to put up one hell of a fight.

But there was no consensus about how to do that. Milk’s clash with the establishment once more reared its head, as mainline liberals and old-school gay activists argued against the bill as a civil liberties issue, not a gay rights issue—the government was peering into people’s bedrooms, and that, naturally, was bad.[32]

Milk agreed that civil liberties were a core part of the argument against Prop 6, but he saw the old guard’s approach as a dead end for gay rights. As he saw it, they were implicitly apologizing for their sexuality, asking voters to please ignore it. He knew firsthand from his forty years spent in the closet that splitting one’s identity between public facade and private truth was a recipe for internal torment, not to mention that homosexuals in hiding could hardly hope to be handed real political equality.

So Harvey Milk started his own campaign against Briggs’ initiative. With the help of a few key aides, he organized about 800 volunteers to go door to door.[33] When Briggs agreed to a two-on-two debate on the measure, it was obvious the state’s only openly-gay elected official had to be on-stage. And together with Sally Gearhart, a lesbian professor of women’s studies, they demolished Briggs and his partner on public television with a combination of facts debunking Briggs’ homophobic myths about teachers and powerful appeals to the constitutional rights of gay men and women.[34]

On November 7th, 1978, Prop 6 lost in dramatic fashion: 58% to 42%.[35] It had been a statewide battle with national attention, and Harvey was its standard bearer. Just eleven months after he’d taken office as a Supervisor, he had achieved real political prominence. At the time, the only question was just how high, and how quickly, he could climb.


But as Milk’s star was on the rise, his once-friendly, now bitter colleague Dan White’s was plummeting. White cared seriously about public service but lacked Milk’s knack for and love of the political game, unwilling to put himself at the center of the public’s attention or, obviously, to successfully manage the horse-trading of politics.[36]

Even worse, the Supervisor position was part-time, paying nowhere near enough for White to support himself and his family. But where others either had private-sector employment or independent wealth, White’s only other work had been as a firefighter or a policeman, and he legally couldn’t hold multiple government jobs at the same time. He was, simply, out of luck—ironically not unlike Milk, whose prior success as a small businessman had evaporated over the course of his all-consuming political career.

Yet where Milk could envision the path before him—perhaps the State Assembly in a few years, or even the mayoralty—White saw no future in politics. His only concern was district eight. Frustrated and seeing no path to improving his finances, White delivered his resignation to Mayor George Moscone on November 10th, 1978, three days after Milk’s big win.

When his constituents heard about White’s resignation, many urged him to reconsider, and on November 14th, he visited the mayor, hat in hand, begging to undo his resignation. Moscone was sympathetic to his pleas, and promised White his job was safe.

But when Milk heard the news, he called the mayor and urged against White’s reinstatement. Moscone, who now relied on Milk and the well-organized gay community for political support, not only agreed but took Milk’s advice on who to appoint as a replacement.

Milk, though, wasn’t as subtle as he’d thought. Before calling Moscone, he’d phoned the city attorney’s office to inquire about the legality of White undoing his resignation. By sheer chance, Dan White was in that very same office, and overheard Milk’s plot of opposition.[37] So when he soon discovered that Moscone would not, in fact, give him his job back, he saw Milk as the culprit.

Thus it was with these two pieces of knowledge—that he’d lost his job permanently and that Harvey Milk had intervened against him—that Dan White, armed with a .38 Smith & Wesson revolver and ten spare rounds in his pocket, climbed through a basement window of San Francisco City Hall at 10:30am on Monday, November 27th, 1978.[38]


After escaping City Hall in his aide’s car White called his wife, briefly met with her and admitted what he’d done, then drove to the nearby police station where he used to work. There, he offered a tearful, devastating confession, although he insisted that he hadn’t planned or premeditated the act.[39]

[“I just shot him”]

When court proceedings commenced, the prosecution sought the death penalty. But in doing so, they incidentally shot themselves in the foot, as selecting jurors who wouldn’t shy away from sending a man to the chair also slanted the jury towards conservatives more likely to sympathize with the former cop and Vietnam veteran White, especially measured against the liberal Moscone and gay liberal Milk.[40]

If it weren’t for mistakes like these, it’s hard to imagine the defense could have made their story stick, because their whole argument was that White lacked the mental presence to premeditate his crime because he’d been too depressed and eating too much junk food. According to one so-called “expert witness”:

“There have been some studies…where they have taken so-called career criminals and taken them off all their junk food and put them on milk and meat and potatoes, and their criminal records immediately evaporated.”[41]

Seriously. And if you want to dive deeper into the many fumbles of the prosecution and bizarre excuses of the defense, we go into all that on the bonus podcast for this video, which you can get on our Patreon. Go check it out.

Anyways, believe it or not, the jury bought this “Twinkie Defense.” On March 21st, 1979, Dan White was convicted to a mere seven years in prison not for murder, but for “voluntary manslaughter,” which I didn’t even know existed until making this video. [42]

People, understandably, weren’t happy. That night, a massive crowd gathered here outside City Hall. Police cars were smashed and rioters attempted to break into the building itself. The episode would go down in history as the “White Night” riots, an echo of the Stonewall uprisings in New York ten years earlier.[43]

Dan White was, without question, a deeply unwell individual who needed help. And personally, I think the death penalty is wrong. But there is no reasonable interpretation of White’s actions that doesn’t involve him premeditating these murders. And it’s hard to argue that homophobia and White’s all-American image had nothing to do with the verdict and light sentence.


In fact, when he was elected, Harvey Milk was acutely aware of the danger inherent in being a prominent gay man. In fact, in one of his several wills he recorded, “to be played only in the event of my death by assassination,” he said, “I fully realize that a person who stands for what I stand for—an activist, a gay activist—becomes the target or potential target for someone who is insecure, terrified, afraid, or very disturbed themselves.”[44]

As with any martyr, Milk was a human being, riddled with contradictions and vices ranging from normal to reprehensible. His political ambition was not without a heavy dose of ego, he habitually neglected his romantic partners, and he mismanaged his personal affairs—ultimately destroying his private life which he sought through politics to publicly protect.

But it was this very strategy of Milk’s—of emphasizing rather than staying quiet about his sexuality—that would later define the gay rights movement. To some critics, though, this represented—and still represents—a dangerous threat to liberalism and individual rights and equality: that such identity-based politics risk toppling the delicate balancing act of legal equality for all, regardless of identity. And such concerns sometimes, perhaps often, have good reason to them.

But as Milk eventually, and rightly, saw it—after decades of aimless drifting, his identity held at arm’s length, hidden in a closet—public expression of identity was strategically and morally essential to realizing the promise of equality in an as-yet unequal system. Otherwise, any freedom could only ever be partial.

Sometimes it’s easy to forget just how recent all of this is, but modern threats to gay rights vindicate Milk’s philosophy. In fact, it was less than 20 years ago that Milk’s home state of California voted to ban gay marriage, which was ultimately legalized across the country less than ten years ago. And today, most notably in Florida but in other states as well, state legislatures have enacted their own versions of Prop 6, banning teachers from discussing sexual or gender identity in classrooms, using John Briggs’ own pernicious, disgusting rationale: that lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people somehow pose a threat to the American social fabric.

There’s a great deal of hope to be found in his life and even his death, but perhaps the greatest tragedy of his story is that fifty years later, America still needs a leader like Harvey Milk.


A. Testimony of Denise Apcar,

B. Testimony of William Melia,

C. Testimony of Cyr Copertini,

D. Confession of Dan White,

E. Testimony of Rudolph Nothenberg,

F. Testimony of Carl Carlson,

G. Randy Shilts, The Mayor of Castro Street,

H. Lillian Faderman, Harvey Milk: His Lives and Death (Yale University Press: 2018).

I. John Geluardi, “Dan White's Motive More About Betrayal Than Homophobia,” in SFWeekly, 30 January 2008.

J. Matthew S. Bajko, “Naval records indicate SF library's Milk discharge paperwork a fake,” Bay Area Reporter, 12 February 2020.

K. “Harvey Milk Meets John Briggs,” for KPIX-TV, 6 September 1978.

L. “The Trial of Dan White: The Diminished Capacity ("Twinkie") Defense,”

M. “Harvey Milk tape recording,” 1978,


  1. A ↩︎

  2. B ↩︎

  3. C ↩︎

  4. D ↩︎

  5. E ↩︎

  6. F ↩︎

  7. D ↩︎

  8. A ↩︎

  9. G, ch.1 ↩︎

  10. J. ↩︎

  11. G, ch.2 ↩︎

  12. G, ch.3 ↩︎

  13. G, ch.5 ↩︎

  14. H, 76-82. ↩︎

  15. H, 83. ↩︎

  16. H, 81-82. ↩︎

  17. G, ch.5 ↩︎

  18. G, ch.6 ↩︎

  19. H, 89-93. ↩︎

  20. H, 109, 126. ↩︎

  21. H, 133-134. ↩︎

  22. G, ch.10-11 ↩︎

  23. H, 158-159. ↩︎

  24. G, ch.12 ↩︎

  25. H, 159, 160-161. ↩︎

  26. I. ↩︎

  27. H, 162-164. ↩︎

  28. H, 164. ↩︎

  29. H, 171-172. ↩︎

  30. K. ↩︎

  31. H, 177. ↩︎

  32. H, 175. ↩︎

  33. H, 176. ↩︎

  34. H, 182. ↩︎

  35. H, 184. ↩︎

  36. H, 161-163, 207-208. ↩︎

  37. D ↩︎

  38. H, 213. ↩︎

  39. H, 217-218. ↩︎

  40. H, 224-225. ↩︎

  41. L. ↩︎

  42. H, 226. ↩︎

  43. H, 227. ↩︎

  44. M. ↩︎


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