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Why Is Harvey Milk Still Dangerous, 46 Years After He Was Assassinated?

The Temecula Valley school board in Southern California wants to erase gay rights leader Harvey Milk from history, defaming him as a “pedophile” in the process.

Milk remained involved in grassroots gay activism, which was facing a backlash by the religious right across the country. The growing antigay climate had real consequences. Random attacks on gays in the Castro increased. Upset by the lack of police protection, groups of gays began patrolling the neighborhood themselves. On June 21, 1977 conservative thugs attacked Robert Hillsborough, a gay man, yelling “Faggot!” while stabbing him fifteen times, killing him. A few weeks later, 250,000 people attended the Gay Freedom Day Parade, fueled by anger as well as by gay pride.

Milk’s leadership in these mobilizations, plus his previous campaigns, gave him an advantage when he ran again for supervisor in 1977. Equally important, voters had just approved a city charter change to elect supervisors by geographic districts instead of citywide. The new District 5, centered in the Castro area, was Milk’s home base. That November, Milk was finally elected to the Board of Supervisors, beating sixteen other candidates, half of them gay. This time he had an effective campaign manager, a large cadre of volunteers, and the endorsement of the San Francisco Chronicle.

Milk’s victory made national news. He became a close ally of Mayor George Moscone, a progressive who had been elected two years earlier. Together, they challenged the power of the big corporations and real estate developers that were gentrifying the city and changing its skyline. They supported rent control, unions, small businesses, neighborhood organizations, and a tax on suburban commuters. Milk made sure that he responded to constituency concerns, such as fixing potholes and installing stop signs at dangerous intersections.

In fact, soon after taking office he sponsored two bills. The first outlawed discrimination based on sexual orientation. Milk was responding to his core constituency, San Francisco’s gay community, which had endured years of bigotry from employers, landlords, and other institutions. The second bill dealt with an issue that, according to polls, voters considered the number-one problem in the city: dog feces. Milk’s ordinance, called the “pooper scooper” law, required dog owners to scoop up their pets’ excrement. After it passed, Milk invited the press to a local park, where, with cameras rolling, he intentionally stepped in the smelly substance. The stunt attracted national media attention as well as extensive local press coverage, as Milk had anticipated. He later explained why he pulled off the photo op: “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.”