The Gay Rights Movement And Harvey Milk

Categories: Civil RightsGay


People around the world face violence and inequality and sometimes torture, even execution, because of who they love, how they look, or who they are. Sexual orientation and gender identity are integral aspects of our selves and should never lead to discrimination or abuse. Lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) rights in the United States have significantly progressed over time, with the majority of the progress on LGBT rights having taken place in the late 20th century and early 21st century.

While the United States Supreme Court has legalized many LGBT rights, they continue to vary by jurisdiction, and discrimination in jobs and housing is still legal in most states.

Gay Rights in the U.S

The United States has no federal law outlawing discrimination nationwide other than from federal executive orders which have a more limited scope than from protections through federal legislation. This leaves residents of some states unprotected against discrimination in employment, housing, and private or public services.

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LGBT rights-related laws regarding family and anti-discrimination still vary by state. Since June 26, 2003, sexual activity between consenting adults and adolescents of a close age of the same sex has been legal nationwide, pursuant to the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Lawrence v. Texas. As of June 26, 2015, all states license and recognize marriage between same-sex couples as a result of the Supreme Court decision in Obergefell v. Hodges.

LGBT History

During the 19th and early 20th centuries, gay culture was undisclosed, relying on secret symbols and codes woven into an overall straight context.

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Gay influence in early America was primarily limited to high culture. The association of gay men with opera, ballet, couture, fine cuisine, musical theater, and interior design began with wealthy homosexual men using the straight themes of these media to send their own signals.

After the 1969 Stonewall riots in New York City, gay male culture was publicly acknowledged for the first time. A group of seven gay men formed The Violet Quill in 1980 in New York City, a literary club focused on writing about the gay experience as a normal plotline instead of a 'wicked' sideline in a mostly straight story. An example is the novel A Boy's Own Story by Edmund White. In this first volume of a trilogy, White writes as a young homophilic narrator growing up with a corrupt and remote father. The young man learns bad habits from his straight father, applying them to his gay existence.

Female celebrities such as Liza Minnelli, Jane Fonda, and Bette Midler spent a significant amount of their social time with urban gay men, and more male celebrities, such as Andy Warhol, were open about their relationships. Such openness was still limited to the largest and most progressive urban areas (such as New York City, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Boston, Philadelphia, Seattle, Chicago, Dallas, Houston, Atlanta, Miami, Washington, D.C., and New Orleans), however, until AIDS forced several popular celebrities out of the closet due to their illness with what was known at first as the 'gay cancer."

LGBT Culture

LGBT culture is a culture shared by lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, questioning, and queer individuals. It is sometimes referred to as queer culture (indicating people who are queer), while the term gay culture may be used to mean 'LGBT culture' or to refer specifically to homosexual culture. LGBT culture varies widely by geography and the identity of the participants.

Not all LGBT people identify with LGBT culture; this may be due to geographic distance, unawareness of the subculture's existence, fear of social stigma or a preference for remaining unidentified with sexuality- or gender-based subcultures or communities. The Queercore and Gay Shame movements critique what they see as the commercialization and self-imposed 'ghettoization' of LGBT culture.

In some cities, especially in North America, some LGBT people live in neighborhoods with a high proportion of gay residents, otherwise known as gay villages or gayborhoods, examples of these neighborhoods are Castro and West Hollywood in California, United States. Such LGBT communities organize special events in addition to pride parades celebrating their culture such as the Gay Games and Southern Decadence.

The Gay Rights Movement

The lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) social movements are social movements that advocate for LGBT people in society. These social movements focus on equal rights. In the 2000s the movement was specifically for marriage equality, in the 1960s and 1970s the main focus was on liberation.

The gay rights movement saw some early progress in the 1960s. In 1961, Illinois became the first state to do away with its anti-sodomy laws, effectively decriminalizing homosexuality, and a local TV station in California aired the first documentary about homosexuality, called The Rejected. Despite this progress, LGBT individuals lived in a kind of urban subculture and were routinely subjected to harassment and persecution, such as in bars and restaurants. In fact, gay men and women in New York City could not be served alcohol in public due to liquor laws that considered the gathering of homosexuals to be "disorderly." In fear of being shut down by authorities, bartenders would deny drinks to patrons suspected of being gay or kick them out altogether; others would serve them drinks but force them to sit facing away from other customers to prevent them from socializing.

The increased visibility and activism of LGBT individuals in the 1970s helped the movement make progress on multiple fronts. In 1977, for instance, the New York Supreme Court ruled that transgender woman Renée Richards could play at the United States Open tennis tournament as a woman. Additionally, several openly LGBT individuals secured public office positions: Kathy Kozachenko won a seat to the Ann Harbor, Michigan, City Council in 1974, becoming the first out American to be elected to public office. Harvey Milk, who campaigned on a pro-gay rights platform, became the San Francisco city supervisor in 1978, becoming the first openly gay man elected to a political office in California.

Harvey Milk

The film Milk is a 2008 American biographical film based on the life of gay rights activist and politician Harvey Milk, who was the first openly gay person to be elected to public office in California, as a member of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. The film depicts the struggles Milk faces as an openly gay man running for public office, as well as the challenges he faced in his personal life, with partners, colleagues, the other board members and the general public.

Harvey B. Milk born May 22, 1930, was an American politician and the first openly gay elected official in the history of California, where he was elected to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. Although he was the most pro-LGBT politician in the United States at the time, politics and activism were not his early interests; he wasn't open about his sexuality nor was he really active in civil issues until he was 40, after his experiences in the counterculture movement of the 1960s.

In 1972, Milk moved from New York City to the Castro District of San Francisco amidst a relocation of gay and bisexual men. He took advantage of the growing political and economic power of the neighborhood to promote his interests and unsuccessfully ran three times for political office. Milk's dramatic campaigns earned him increasing popularity, and in 1977 he won a seat as a city supervisor.

Milk served almost eleven months in office, during which he sponsored a bill banning discrimination in public accommodations, housing, and employment on the basis of sexual orientation. The Supervisors passed the bill by a vote of 11-1 and was signed into law by Mayor Moscone. On November 27, 1978, Milk and Mayor George Moscone were assassinated by Dan White, who was another city supervisor.

Milk's Contributions

Before entering into the world of politics, Harvey Milk was an active member of the Castro Street community. Milk rallied gay bars on Castro Street to participate in a strike against beer distributors who refused to sign a union contract. In return, Milk asked union organizers to hire more gay drivers. He also helped form the Castro Village Association in response to the Eureka Valley Merchants Association's attempt to prevent two gay businessmen from opening an antique shop. Milk was a staunch believer that gay community members should support gay businesses, Milk organized the Castro Street Fair in 1974 to attract more customers. During that first year, 5,000 people came to street festival, in 1977, 70,000 people came.

It was said in the film, in a conversation between Harvey Milk (Sean Penn) and Scott (James Franco) "Politics is like the theatre, it doesn't matter so much about winning. You make a statement you say ‘I'm here' You get their attention and it'll be fun.".

During his time in office, Milk successfully pushed to get a law passed that would prohibit discrimination in housing and employment based on sexual orientation. He also pushed the city to hire more gay/lesbian police officers. In 1978, California State Senator John Briggs wrote a bill known as Proposition 6 or the Briggs Initiative to ban gay/lesbian teachers from teaching in California public schools and to fire anyone who supported gay rights. Milk campaigned against it and delivered his famous "Hope Speech" at the Gay Freedom Day Parade. 250,000-375,000 people came from all over the country and caught national attention. The proposition lost by more than a million votes.

Despite his short career in politics, Milk became an icon in San Francisco and a martyr in the gay community. In 2002, Milk was called 'the most famous and most significantly open LGBT official ever elected in the United States." Before his untimely death, Milk asked Gilbert Baker, an artist and gay rights activist, to create an emblem that represents the movement and would be seen as a symbol of pride. Baker designed and stitched together the first rainbow flag, which he unveiled at a pride parade in 1978. The following year, in 1979, more than 100,000 people took part in the first National March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights.

Updated: Feb 22, 2024
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The Gay Rights Movement And Harvey Milk. (2024, Feb 20). Retrieved from

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