Photo History of San Francisco's Castro 1870 - Today / Strange photo history of "Milk," the Sean Penn movie / Other Strange Sites / e-mail Strange



Photo of Harvey Milk by Daniel Nicoletta

A Photo History of Charismatic Gay Pioneer

Harvey Milk

by Strange de Jim with photos by Daniel Nicoletta


Born May 22, 1930, to a Jewish family in Woodmere, New York, Harvey attended New York State College for Teachers in Albany from 1947 to 1951. During the Korean War he joined the Navy until 1955. He became a high school teacher and then an actuarial statistician at an insurance firm and a researcher in a Wall Street firm. He was a conservative Republican, a closeted gay man living with a series of younger gay secret lovers. Then Harvey met Hair director Tom O'Horgan and turned from Republican to hippie.

Harvey moved to San Francisco in 1973 with his lover Scott Smith, and they opened Castro Camera. Harvey was very gregarious and introduced himself to all the other merchants, impressing them by learning about them rather than trying to sell them cameras. Everyone from gay teens to little old ladies began coming into the camera store to talk about their problems, which Harvey loved trying to solve. Soon he was the unofficial Mayor of Castro Street, supporting all the residents, not just gay men. He even bought an ad for Castro Camera every week in the Catholic Most Holy Redeemer bulletin.

When he found the Eureka Valley Merchants Association wouldn't admit gay members, Harvey joined with the nice folks at Cliff's Variety to start the rival Castro Village Association, which held the first Castro Street Fair in 1974, attracting 5,000 visitors. All the merchants on the street had record sales. Suddenly gay people weren't quite so bad. Upset about his own problems with the city government, Harvey decided to run for the Board of Supervisor in 1973. He lost, but found he loved campaigning. He ran for Supervisor again in 1975 and for State Assemblyman in 1976, losing both times, but garnering an impressive number of votes.

Harvey was still a hippie with a ponytail in his first campaign.


Photo Leland Toy

Harvey went out in the morning and talked with voters at bus stops. He attended every meeting at which candidates were allowed to speak. He had a genius for grabbing votes and media attention, visiting all the radio and TV stations. Here is his human billboard on Market Street, catching the morning commuters.


Photo Dennis Peron
Harvey (r) with Dennis Peron, the Castro's local pot dealer at a Marijuana Initiative event in 1977. Dennis owned the Island Restaurant where Harvey held many political meetings and fundraisers. Harvey had cut his hair and shed his hippie image.


Photo Daniel Nicoletta
Young Medora Payne walked into the shop one day and insisted on helping Harvey in his state assembly campaign. Campaign manager John Ryckman called Medora's mother, who assured him there was no way to stop the little dynamo. Here's Harvey looking out the shop window at Medora and her mother on Valentine's Day.


Photo Dan Nicoletta
Harvey's protégé Dan Nicoletta wanted to include this shot of Harvey sharing a comic strip with Denton Smith. It illustrates the special easy relationship Harvey had with all the young men in the neighborhood.


Photo Strange de Jim
This is a photo I took in 2003 of Allan Baird. He and his wife have lived in the neighborhood all their lives. In the 1970s he was the Teamster official in charge of the Coors boycott. He approached Harvey about getting gay bars in San Francisco to boycott Coors. Harvey got Coors banned in gay bars throughout California. Allan knew he'd teamed up with a firecracker. When he asked Harvey what he wanted in return for his feat, he was impressed when Harvey didn't ask for help in his own political campaigns, but instead asked for nothing in return except that gay people be given jobs as truck drivers.  Allan agreed that was fair. The Teamsters were leery, but Allan insisted it was the right thing to do. He kept his word and hired gay drivers.

During Harvey's next campaign Teamsters came to the camera shop to make phone calls and stuff envelopes. They discovered gay people were just people. With Allan's help, Harvey, amazingly, became the first openly gay candidate to be endorsed by the Teamsters, firefighters and construction workers unions.


Photo Daniel Nicoletta
In 1977 candidates for Supervisor ran in their own districts, rather than competing citywide. Harvey Milk swept the Castro and became the first openly gay man to win a major public office in America. This is the victory celebration outside Castro Camera. Teamster official Allan Baird is the man in the center in the white sweater under his coat.


Photo Daniel Nicoletta
On January 9, 1978 Harvey led his followers in a parade from Castro Camera to City Hall, where he was sworn in as Supervisor by Mayor George Moscone, with State Senator Milton Marks in attendance. This photo was used on the cover of my photo history San Francisco's Castro. .


Photo Daniel Nicoletta
Harvey proved to be an effective Supervisor, earning the respect of his colleagues for his concern for the working poor, the elderly, students, etc., as well as gay issues. He sponsored two measures in his brief time as supervisor. One was a Gay Civil Rights Bill, which Mayor Moscone signed with a lavender pen, and the other was a pooper-scooper law.


Photo Daniel Nicoletta
Supervisor Milk poses at city hall with Michael Wong, and activist for Chinese-American rights, who worked closely with Harvey for several years. Harvey believed in grassroots action, with all the disenfranchised groups banding together.


Photo Daniel Nicoletta
Harvey enjoyed his ceremonial duties. Here Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon, founders of The Daughters of Bilitis, the first national lesbian rights organization, are being presented with a Certificate of Honor from the City and County of San Francisco. From left to right are Del Martin, Supervisor Harvey Milk, Phyllis Lyon, Supervisor Carol Ruth Silver and Supervisor Ella Hill Hutch.

When former Miss America Anita Bryant got Miami, Florida's gay rights ordinance repealed, Harvey and protégé Cleve Jones led a 5-mile protest march from the Castro through Pacific Heights to Union Square. In 1978 California State Senator John Briggs began pushing Proposition 6, an initiative to ban gay people or gay sympathizers from teaching in California public schools. As Supervisor, Harvey toured the state debating Briggs, and the initiative was defeated.

Photo Daniel Nicoletta
Harvey's sense of exuberance and fun is shown here when Ringling Brothers made him a clown for a day. He jumped onto cable cars, telling tourists, "I'm a Supervisor. Can you believe it?"


Photo Daniel Nicoletta
Harvey also had a blast on his last birthday in 1978. He and his friends had a tradition of throwing pies in each others' faces, and here he has just been pushed into a giant pie made of styrofoam peanuts. Only Harvey suspected what was going to happen next. He tape recorded three copies of a will to be read in the event he was assassinated.


Supervisor Dan White

Harvey and fellow Supervisor Dan White started out as friends, but Harvey withdrew his support from a bill important to Dan, and after that Dan considered Harvey an enemy. He was the only Supervisor who voted against Harvey's gay rights bill.

Unable to support his family, Dan resigned from the Board, but then changed his mind. When he learned that Mayor Moscone wouldn't allow him to return, Dan crawled through a basement window at City Hall to avoid the metal detector, and shot and killed Mayor Moscone. Then he went to Harvey's office and killed him too. This was on November 27, 1978.


Photo Daniel Nicoletta
Here is that night's spontaneous silent 40,000-strong candlelight march from the Castro to City Hall, where Joan Baez sang "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.".


Photo Daniel Nicoletta
Harvey Milk and George Moscone lay in state in San Francisco City Hall. Over 10,000 mourners filed past the caskets. Mayor Moscone's funeral was at St. Mary's Cathedral. Services for Harvey were held first at Temple Emmanue-El and then at a packed Opera House, where Governor Jerry Brown, the California Chief Justice, Acting Mayor Dianne Feinstein, Divine, Tom O'Horgan and a White House representative were among the mourners.


Photo Daniel Nicoletta
Pictured here are Harvey's ashes, ready for burial at sea. They were wrapped in Doonesbury and Peanuts comic strips because Harvey loved the comics.


Photo Daniel Nicoletta
These are the "Milk Widows," Harvey's former lovers, on December 2, 1978, the day Harvey's ashes were scattered at sea. Pictured here, from left to right, are Scott Smith, Galen McKinley, Joe Campbell, and Billy Wiegardt.


Photo Robert Meslinsky
On May 21, 1979, after inept prosecution and brilliant defense, the jury convicted Dan White of manslaughter only, rather than murder, in the Milk and Moscone deaths. Angry crowds formed in the Castro and marched to City Hall.


Photo Daniel Nicoletta
Things quickly got out of hand. Through the broken doors of City Hall we see the police waiting for instructions.


Photo Daniel Nicoletta
Twelve police cars were set on fire during the riots. The scene didn't settle down until midnight when a line of police cars filled with angry cops drove to the Castro, where everyone in sight was beaten. They invaded The Elephant Walk (now Harvey's) on the corner of Castro and 18th, smashing fixtures and heads. A hundred rioters and police were hospitalized.


Photo Daniel Nicoletta
Lesbian activist Sally Gearhart and Harvey Milk protégé Cleve Jones spoke the very next night at a big Harvey Milk Memorial Birthday Party, which had already been scheduled for Castro Street. The police kept out of sight, with a command post on the second floor of Cliff's Hardware & Variety, and the evening passed peacefully. In an odd way the gay riot and the police riot seemed to cancel each other out, and relations returned more or less to normal.


Photo Daniel Nicoletta
Harvey Milk's assassination has been remembered each year with a candlelight march, and his birthday has also been celebrated. This is the birthday party at the Harvey Milk Gay Democratic Club Annual dinner May 22, 1980. (The Gay Democratic Club changed its name to honor Harvey in 1978.) From left to right are Harvey's successor Supervisor Harry Britt, Jane Fonda, Tom Haydn, and Bill Krause (Congressman Phil Burton's aide). They led the attendees in singing happy birthday to the late Harvey. Teamster leader Allan Baird took Ms. Fonda to task for drinking a Coors in her latest movie, heedless of the boycott. She apologized.


Memorials to Harvey Milk

Photo Strange de Jim

Most of Harvey Milk's ashes, as shown above, were scattered at sea by his friends. However, a small portion of them were buried under this plaque in the sidewalk in front of his old camera store at 575 Castro. It says:

Harvey Milk

May 22, 1930 - November 27, 1978

Harvey Milk made history as the first openly gay elected official in California, and one of the first in the nation, when he was elected to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors in November 1977. His camera store and campaign headquarters at 575 Castro Street and his apartment upstairs were centers of community activism for a wide range of human rights, environmental, labor and neighborhood issues. Harvey Milk's hard work and accomplishments on behalf of all San Franciscans earned him widespread respect and support. His life is an inspiration to all people committed to equal opportunity and an end to bigotry.

"You gotta give 'em hope!"

Photo Strange de Jim Today the Rainbow Flag flies over Harvey Milk Plaza at the entrance to the Muni underground train station on the corner of Castro and Market Streets. The Plaza was dedicated on September 15, 1985, by Mayor Dianne Feinstein, Board of Supervisors President John L. Molinari and Harvey's successor Supervisor Harry Britt.


Photo Strange de Jim
These are the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence at the May 21, 2006, ceremony unveiling a bronze plaque and three sets of photos memorializing the life of Harvey Milk.


Photo Strange de Jim
This is Harvey Milk Plaza after the ceremony. For lots of colorful photos of the occasion and close-ups of the photos and plaque click here.


Photo Strange de Jim
The Harvey Milk Civil Rights Academy, formerly Douglass School, covers the whole block on 19th St. between Collingwood and Diamond. The name was changed in 1996 after heated debate. Today the school has 250 students from all over the city, grades K-5, and teaches tolerance and nonviolence, celebrating diversity.


Photo Strange de Jim
This is one of the mosaics that graces the front of the Harvey Milk Civil Rights Academy, For more photos click here.


The Harvey Milk Center for Recreational Arts, in the southwest corner of Duboce Park, provides facilities for drama, dance, music, exercise and photography. It was renamed after Harvey in 1979.


Photo Daniel Nicoletta

This is the celebration for the unveiling of the mural on the back of the Harvey Milk Center for Recreational Arts. Renovations have resulted in this mural being painted over. Now the back of the building has a quote:

The American Dream
starts with the neighborhoods.
- Harvey Milk.


Photo Strange de Jim
In 1981 the local branch of the San Francisco Public Library was renamed in honor of Harvey Milk. It houses an extensive gay collection.


Photo Strange de Jim
Here I am inside the Harvey Milk Branch on St. Patrick's Day in 2007. In 2008 the branch closed for two years of renovations.


Harvey Milk High School in New York City is for at-risk gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender students, and has an excellent reputation.


Photo Strange de Jim
Artist John Baden, yours truly and Harvey Milk protégé Dan Nicoletta pose September 28, 2007, in front of the Harvey Milk mural John painted on the wall of Given Gifts, 575 Castro, on the site of Harvey's old camera store.


Photo Daniel Nicoletta
In May of 2008 this bust of Harvey Milk was placed in San Francisco's City Hall at the top of the grand staircase.


Photo by Strange de Jim

And 2008 saw the premiere of Gus Van Sant's Milk starring Sean Penn, which is winning awards for Best Actor and Best Picture. Go to the official site

For my own personal experiences with the movie go to

Daniel Nicoletta Remembers Harvey Milk

Daniel Nicoletta in Harvey's camera shop 1978 (Photo by Denton Smith)

Lucas Grabeel who plays him in Milk.

Daniel Nicoletta on the set of Milk, Feb. 2008 (Photo by Strange de Jim)

Our photographer Daniel Nicoletta, one of the people closest to Harvey, shares his feelings: "My life as a photo-documentarian of the journey of the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender communities of San Francisco really began in 1975, at age 20, when Harvey Milk and his lover Scott Smith asked me to work in their Camera Store at 575 Castro. Castro Street was an exhilarating epicenter of social, political, economic and artistic synergy then, and my long romance with San Francisco began there. Harvey and Scott were like gay parents to me, and the funhouse environment that was Castro Camera gave way to my initiation into political activism as well as freelance photography. Harvey and Scott took a genuine interest in my photography and love of theatre, and with wry amusement they coached me in the nuances of gay life. They enjoyed hearing about my sexual exploits. They took delight in my naivete, and were determined to deconstruct my last traces of self-doubt (I had only recently come out). They succeeded.

Scott Smith and Harvey Milk, photo by Marc Cohen

"It's important to remember that Harvey and Scott were artists. Both men were photographers, and both had a keen sense of the artistic and the theatrical, which informed their politics and their lives. A deep and lovely metaphysical imprint remains on my soul from their mentorship. Now when I think of Harvey and Scott I know that a sense of delight in history is one of the greatest tools they taught me. I still hear Harvey ranting, 'If it isn't fun, it isn't worth it,' which was his antidote to the intensity he was experiencing as his political career accelerated. It's often debated to what degree Harvey and Scott were spiritual men. They were very pragmatic, but their love of creativity and their devotion to paving the way for a better future for queers and all disenfranchised people provide the clues necessary to answer that question."


Works featuring Harvey Milk

. The Mayor of Castro Street by Randy Shilts, who became the first openly gay San Francisco Chronicle reporter, is an excellent account of the life of Harvey Milk.


. The Times of Harvey Milk, based on The Mayor of Castro Street, won the 1984 Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature.


. The premiere of the musical The Harvey Milk Show by Dan Pruitt and Patrick Hutchison was in 1991.



1996 saw the debut of the three act opera Harvey Milk written by Stewart Wallace.


. Hincle, Warren (1985). Gayslayer! The Story of How Dan White Killed Harvey Milk and George Moscone & Got Away With Murder, Silver Dollar Books.


. Weiss, Mike (1984). Double Play: The San Francisco City Hall Killings, Addison Wesley Publishing Company


Wikipedia has an excellent bio at

Uncle Donald was a friend of Harvey Milk and has one of the oldest Castro web sites with extensive coverage of Harvey's life. See

San Francisco's GLBT Historical Society has a wealth of information on Harvey. See

The James C. Hormel Gay & Lesbian Center on the third floor of the San Francisco Main Library also has a wealth of Harvey Milk information. See

The offical site of Gus Van Sant's Milk, starring Sean Penn is at

Harvey Milk, Second Sight, photos of the early Harvey Milk. See

Harvey Milk Opera. See

YouTube excerpts of Harvey Milk "Hope Speech." See

YouTube clip of NBC Nightly News the day of the Milk/Moscone assassination. See

"Harvey Milk: The Forgotten Populist." See

"I Remember Harvey" by Ron Williams. See

"Harvey Milk, Hero and Martyr" on KQED's Castro page. See

The producer's site for the documentary The Times of Harvey Milk. See

"Harvey Milk, a Reflection" by Harvey's successor Harry Britt. See

Milk movie: photos and videos of the making of the film and the subsequent openings, award ceremonies, etc. See

. Milk is out on DVD (Left) and Blu-ray (right) .


Click to see my photo history of San Francisco's Castro.


Heck, you might as well check out all my books.

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Photo History of San Francisco's Castro 1870 - Today / Strange photo history of "Milk," the Sean Penn movie / Other Strange Sites / e-mail Strange

© 2008, 2009 by Ash-Kar Press