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In 1977, Harvey Milk was elected to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, becoming the first openly gay man elected to public office in the United States. Milk grew up in New York, quiet about his homosexuality. He studied mathematics and graduated from New York State College for Teachers in Albany before joining the Navy during the Korean War. After his Navy service, he worked as a teacher and as an insurance actuary before experiencing considerable success as a researcher for a Wall Street firm. Throughout the 1960s he lived openly in a gay relationship, although he kept his gay life hidden from his family. Later, he left his financial job and moved with a new life partner to San Francisco. Together they opened a camera shop in the city's Castro District. By this time Milk's views had become more and more left of center; he decided to run for public office.
In 1973, Milk ran for a position on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. Although he lost this election, he learned the importance of building coalitions. He allied with other small-business owners, Teamsters, construction-workers unions, and firefighters, for a solid voting base. He ran for office again in 1975. During this campaign, he worked hard—promoting voter registration, organizing a community-building street fair in the Castro, and writing regularly in the local newspaper. He lost the election for a second time, but the mayor appointed him to the Board of Permit Appeals, making him the first openly gay commissioner in the country. In 1977, Milk ran a third time for the Board of Supervisors and won. He was the first openly gay person elected to any office in the country.
One his first tasks was to promote passage of a citywide Gay Rights Ordinance that protected homosexuals from being fired from their jobs. He also worked to protect those with little power from real estate developers and large corporations. When a political opportunist began a campaign for a ballot initiative that would have made it mandatory for schools to fire any homosexual teachers or any school employees who supported gay rights, Milk used his celebrity to call for homosexual people to educate others about their lives and their presence. At a 1978 speech commemorating the anniversary of the Stonewall Riots, he urged gay people to "come out":
I ask my gay brothers and sisters to make a commitment to fight. For themselves, for their freedom, for their country. . . . We will not win our rights by staying quietly in our closets. . . . We are coming out to fight the lies, the myths, the distortions. We are coming out to tell the truth about gays, for I am tired of the conspiracy of silence, so I am going to talk about it. You must come out. Come out to your parents, your relatives.
Harvey Milk's public position elicited hate mail and death threats. On November 27, 1978, a former member of the Board of Supervisors, Dan White, who had clashed with Milk on gay rights and other issues, entered City Hall and assassinated first Mayor George Moscone and then Harvey Milk, shooting Milk five times at close range. That evening, tens of thousands of grieving people gathered and walked from the Castro to City Hall holding candles in honor of Harvey Milk. Milk was cremated, and his ashes were scattered in the city he had adopted and served. Some of his ashes are buried under the sidewalk at the former site of his camera store.
Although he was gone, his life and death left a profound legacy. He once said:
You've got to keep electing gay people . . . to know there is better hope for tomorrow not only for gays, but for blacks, Asians, the disabled, our senior citizens and us. Without hope, we give up. I know you cannot live on hope alone, but without it life is not worth living. You and you and you have got to see that the promise does not fade.