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Politics & Government

40 Years After Assassination Of First Openly Gay Elected Official In California


Colorado this month elected the country's first openly gay governor. And voters nationwide sent a record number of LGBT candidates to offices at all levels of government. This all comes 40 years after the assassination of the first openly gay elected official in California, Harvey Milk. From member station KQED in San Francisco, Scott Shafer reports on how Milk's murder transformed national politics.

SCOTT SHAFER, BYLINE: The success of LGBT candidates in the midterm elections would have been hard to imagine four decades ago. In California, a conservative state senator named John Briggs was pushing a statewide ballot measure - Prop 6 - to ban gay and lesbian teachers. Harvey Milk, an openly gay member of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, led the fight against the proposition, debating Briggs around the state.


HARVEY MILK: And if in your statements here, and in all these newspapers, and tonight, that child molestation is not an issue - if it is not an issue, why do you put out literature that hammers it home? Why do you play on that myth and fear?

SHAFER: That November, voters overwhelmingly defeated the Briggs Initiative. But three weeks later, there was this announcement from the president of the city's Board of Supervisors, Dianne Feinstein.


DIANNE FEINSTEIN: Both Mayor Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk have been shot and killed. The suspect is Supervisor Dan White.

I remember this so well.

SHAFER: Feinstein, now a U.S. senator, found the body of her colleague, Harvey Milk.

FEINSTEIN: And it's still traumatic because I tried to get a pulse in his wrist and put my finger in a bullet hole. And it was clear he was dead. And that changed the world.

SHAFER: It also changed the trajectory of Cleve Jones, a 24-year-old intern for Supervisor Milk. He thought the murder meant the end of the gay rights movement. That night, he organized a candlelight march from the Castro up Market Street.

CLEVE JONES: We marched to Civic Center and filled it with candlelight. And I remember standing in that huge crowd and realizing that, of course, it wasn't over. It was, in fact, just beginning.

SHAFER: It was a kind of political awakening for many who came of age in the years that followed. Today the seat Milk held when he was killed is occupied by another openly gay man, Rafael Mandelman.

RAFAEL MANDELMAN: As someone who was 5 years old when he was shot, I am continually grateful, not just for Harvey but for the folks of that generation who really did change the world.

SHAFER: But first, Mandelman notes, Milk changed himself. The closeted former Wall Street stockbroker left New York and came to San Francisco, where he could open a small business and be out.

MANDELMAN: Today young, queer professionals certainly can be in San Francisco and be out and proud and work at sales force or, you know, in real estate or banks or any aspect of American business and do just fine.

SHAFER: Mandelman is hoping to build on Milk's legacy of progressive politics. But he worries that as queer people are priced out of gay neighborhoods like the Castro, it dilutes their political power.

MANDELMAN: You know, I am the only LGBT person on the Board of Supervisors. And that is less representation than our community has had in decades. That's a little concerning to me.

SHAFER: But there is much more LGBT representation where it would've been hard to imagine 40 years ago, from rural Minnesota to Kansas and Arizona. Gwen Craig, who came to San Francisco in the 1970s and worked with Harvey Milk before he was killed, traces it all back to Milk pushing people to come out of the closet.

GWEN CRAIG: I do think that he sort of started this path that made it possible for the openly gay officials that were elected in this last round. And it makes me so proud.

SHAFER: And surely would have made Harvey Milk proud, too. For NPR News, I'm Scott Shafer in San Francisco.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Corrected: November 24, 2018 at 11:00 PM CST
A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that George Moscone was the first openly gay elected official in California. In fact, Harvey Milk was the first openly gay elected official in California.