IN 1977 HARVEY MILK was elected to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. Although he was not the first lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender person elected to a government office in the country, he was the first LGBT person elected in San Francisco. (Throughout this book I use the term “LGBT” to be inclusive of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender individuals. However, the vast majority of LGBT candidates and elected officials are gay or lesbian, and my conclusions most directly apply to gay and lesbian candidates and officeholders.) His election and 1978 assassination brought to an end a decade-long struggle for LGBT people in San Francisco, and began a new period of activism for many LGBT people around the country.
Milk began his career in electoral politics in 1973, when he first ran for a seat on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. He had no money to run but was convinced he could gain support from the LGBT community and liberals. Although gay issues provided him with some inspiration to run, he was also motivated by the issues of government regulations on small business and the lack of funding for public schools. In that first election he came in tenth, with 17,000 votes, out of thirty-two candidates. Following his defeat, he cut his hair and vowed to never again smoke marijuana or go to a gay bathhouse, saying, “You have to play the game, you know” (as quoted by Randy Shilts in The Mayor of Castro Street: The Life And Times of Harvey Milk). In 1975 Milk made his second run for the Board of Supervisors. He tried to point out to LGBT groups that all their support for moderate candidates had failed to result in a single gay appointment or the passage of a gay civil rights law. He argued, “Let them come to us. The time of being political groupies has ended; the time to become strong has begun.”
Milk was defeated again but he had not lost his political ambitions. Instead he rode a wave of LGBT openness that was beginning to sweep the country, in part, following the event of two state legislators coming out and publicly declaring their homosexuality. San Francisco mayor George Moscone appointed Milk to the city's Board of Permit Appeals, making Milk the country's first openly gay appointed official. However, Milk was soon fired from the position when he decided to run for the 16th District seat in the California Assembly. At the time many LGBT leaders endorsed Milk's opponent and vehemently attacked Milk, arguing that he would be shunned in the state legislature. Even so, Milk argued in his stump speech that “a gay official is needed not only for our protection, but to set an example for younger gays that says the system works; … we've got to give them hope.” In the end Milk lost by 3,600 votes out of 33,000. He took the defeat hard but vowed to fight on.
Before running for the third time for the Board of Supervisors in 1977, Milk helped form a new group called the San Francisco Gay Democratic Club to provide