Stuart Milk

Remembering Harvey Milk

Richard Burnett

Late San Francisco Mayor George Moscone and city supervisor Harvey Milk –the first openly gay politician elected in America– were key in passing San Francisco’s first gay civil rights ordinance shortly before they were assassinated 39 years ago, on November 27, 1978.

That morning, 32-year-old Dan White, upset that Moscone refused to reappoint him to his elected seat on the city’s Board of Supervisors (White had quit 17 days earlier), entered city hall through a side window carrying a .38-calibre revolver. White went into the mayor’s office minutes before Moscone was to announce White’s replacement and shot the mayor four times. Then White walked over to Milk’s office and gunned him down too.
The assassinated mayor’s 14-year-old son Jonathan was terrified by the killings and the ensuing White Night Riots (in which 12 police cruisers were torched) that erupted after a jury, following six days’ deliberation on May 21, 1979, found White guilty of voluntary manslaughter and not premeditated murder.
Fueling the outrage was the infamous “Twinkie defence” in which White’s lawyer claimed White had eaten too much junk food causing an imbalance in White’s brain. 
Jonathan was also scared because, like Harvey Milk, he was gay too. 
“I understood the gay subtext of the assassinations,” Jonathan Moscone told me when we spoke on the eve of the 25th anniversary of his father’s murder. “It was overwhelming, confusing and otherworldly. I was shell-shocked for a couple of years. You don't find closure when your father is killed – you live with it. It starts to not hurt and the goal is to make it less debilitating. It becomes part of the fabric of your life.”
Moscone also recalled Harvey Milk: “Harvey was a sweet and affable man” he said. “My dad was friends with Harvey and brought him home. I remember gay rights were very important at the time and Harvey was coming to the forefront and my dad was behind that, opening up the power structure in the city to represent all citizens. Gay life then was called an alternative lifestyle, and I think it's something that still marks San Francisco.”
Moscone, currently the Chief of Civic Engagement for the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco, added, “My dad was a local boy who made good and opened the doors of the city to create a powerbase that reflected all the citizens of the city – Mexicans, Chinese, blacks and gays. They never held office and my dad was elected by those people and gave them a voice. He said we must fight for the rights of people who can’t fight for themselves. That is the role of a democracy. That's what my dad did. He succeeded because of it, and he died for it.”
Jonathan was 14 when his father and Harvey were assassinated, and Harvey’s nephew Stuart Milk – who is also gay – was just 17. With Harvey’s campaign manager Anne Kronenberg, Stuart founded the Harvey Milk Foundation in 2009. They have traveled around the world spreading Harvey’s struggle for justice, equality, and civil rights, and Stuart – who has helped advance LGBTQ civil rights working alongside such world leaders as former US President Barack Obama and Nobel Peace Prize winner Desmond Tutu – was a Grand Marshal at the inaugural Canada Pride parade held in Montreal in August 2017. In Montreal, Stuart and I met for more than an hour at his hotel where Milk shared his thoughts on the assassinations of Harvey Milk and George Moscone. 
“I’ve done events with Jonathan who was very clear a few years ago that he did not want to participate anymore in the remembrance ceremonies,” Milk said. “I consider him a friend, he is doing great work in the arts community, but he does feel that in some ways that Harvey has overshadowed his Dad, and that is true.”
Harvey was not just an uncle, but Stuart’s mentor and hero.
“Obviously being gay myself, my uncle was the only person I could share being different with,” Milk recalled. “In 1972 he gave me an anthology of Native American stories and traditions that are often about someone who sees the world differently. In the book cover he wrote, ‘You and all your differences is the medicine that will heal the world even if when the world doesn’t realize that.’ And that became my compass towards accepting my difference.
“Harvey told his campaign manager Anne Kronenberg and his friends in San Francisco that I was gay, but he never brought that up with me. He only discussed with me the importance of being different. I didn’t realize that he knew I was gay until way afterwards. He behaved more as an uncle to me than as an activist.”
Milk added, “When Harvey died, it wasn’t just the loss of somebody I could tell anything to. I was in my freshman year at university, I was 17, and I was not out – back then hardly anybody was out – so his loss was a double whammy. We no longer had our weekly conversations, and we lost our generation’s beacon of light. But large numbers of people came out when he was killed, and I did as well.”
Milk was attending American University in Washington, DC, when Harvey was assassinated.
“We didn’t have cell phones, just landlines,” Milk said. “My parents had called me but by that time it was on the news and everybody was talking about it. I remember my residential advisor wanted to know if I was alright. In those days, in 1978, plane tickets were very expensive and I don’t come from a wealthy family, so we didn’t have the money for me to fly (to California). So a few days later we had a memorial in DC, and at Dupont Circle someone wrote in really big letters ‘Harvey Milk Lives.’ I did not do that, but everybody assumes it was me!”
Since founding the Harvey Milk Foundation in 2009, Milk has met the families of assassinated leaders Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and John F. Kennedy.
“One thing I’ve learnt getting to know the Kennedy and King families, is that when it comes to foundations, there is a blood connection that people want,” Milk said. “People want to meet someone who was related.”
Milk continued, “Especially meeting the Kennedy family – Maria Shriver – I was able to hear their own stories and comparisons, too. I don’t know that we focused in on the murders, but (Ted Kennedy’s late daughter) Kara always said, ‘I’m compared to my uncles Robert and John, so when I speak people are always expecting Robert, John or Ted. It took me a long time to grow into my own.’ Maria Shriver told me, ‘It wasn’t until I started doing broadcast journalism that I realized my voice uniquely was important, and my connection to my blood relatives was an enhancement to that.’”
Milk’s legacy was also enhanced by renowned American filmmaker Rob Epstein’s 1984 Oscar-winning documentary The Times of Harvey Milk.
“I lived in San Francisco when he was elected and when he was murdered, and I was very affected by all of that,” Epstein told me in 2015. “I felt compelled to do a film to tell his story. I also knew him, I used to bring my camera film to his store all the time. And for Hollywood to acknowledge the film and Harvey in 1984 was a statement.”
Stuart Milk agrees. “The Times of Harvey Milk is still considered the gold standard of documentary films,” he said. “The thing that bothered me when I was young was Mary White saying in the film that something good will come of this. It doesn’t bother me today because I do think something good did come out of it – we had one of the most eloquent responses to violence, the candlelight vigil; all this work on Harvey’s legacy has come out of it; we had the May 21 verdict – the second set of bullets, if you ask me – which was a wake-up call to our country that if you are gay you don’t get treated equally.”
In other words, Milk does not believe his uncle died in vain.
“I don’t think he wanted to die, but I think he realized that most likely was going to happen,” Milk said. “Many of the death threats that he got were not anonymous, they were signed. He definitely knew he was going to be assassinated. We have two letters from Harvey – one to the family, (and) one to me and my brother that came in early November saying, ‘This will be the last time you hear from me.’ So Harvey knew there was a crescendo building.”
Stuart Milk doesn’t sound angry.
“I’m not an angry person,” Milk said. “I believe that the other side – the people who hate me, who hate my uncle and what he stood for – they have tremendous fear and we have to find a way to relieve that fear. Listen to words of our civil rights leaders who came before, like Dr. King who said, ‘Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.’”
When director Gus Van Sant’s Oscar-winning film Milk starring Sean Penn was released, Jonathan Moscone told me he hadn’t forgiven Dan White.
“No, why would I do that?” he asked me rhetorically. “I don’t forgive the man who took my father away from me. It was an insane act. More importantly, I don’t think about (White) and I don’t think about that day. But I’m glad the movie will make others think about it.”
Does Stuart Milk forgive Dan White?
“It’s not for me to forgive,” Stuart replied. “I do forgive the jurors who gave him the verdict. I was more angry at the jurors than I was at Dan White. I was more angry that these people cried for the person who killed my uncle than they did for my uncle. I was more angry at society that created this environment. That’s what the jury said: ‘Here is a quick slap on the wrist for what you did. Don’t kill those gays – beat them up, but don’t kill them!’ It was a horrible message.”
The Harvey Milk Foundation will honour their namesake in a series of 40th anniversary memorial events in 2018.
“San Francisco is a difficult spot to do anything around Harvey because everyone tries to claim him for their own,” Stuart Milk explained. “If you look at how my uncle has been memorialized, much more has been done outside San Francisco. He is (now) a global figure, he does not belong just to San Francisco, and there is a Harvey Milk Day (on May 22, also a state holiday in California), so we’ll probably use that to commemorate the 40th anniversary of Harvey’s service as an openly LGBT elected official.”
Stuart Milk is proud to maintain the legacy of his Uncle Harvey. 
“The most common question I get as a family member is if I’m sad that my uncle didn’t get to see a day like today where we have out LGBT journalists and Pride parades and prime ministers like Justin Trudeau marching with us, and we have openly LGBT people everywhere,” Stuart said. “My answer is always the same: My uncle actually did see this day. He dreamed of it. That’s what gave him the courage to go on every day knowing somebody was going to take a shot at him. He didn’t know who, he didn’t know where. But he saw this day and we are fulfilling his dream.”  6 Richard Burnett
For more information about the Harvey Milk Foundation, visit 
Read Burnett’s national queer-issues column Three Dollar Bill online at