Almost every local knows the story of Harvey Milk and George Moscone, but memory is fickle, and sometimes we need a refresher. Unabashed gay man Milk ran a Castro District camera shop before winning a seat on the Board of Supervisors in 1977. But the city's jubilation over the election of America's first openly gay official wouldn't last long: Just 11 months later, conservative ex-Supervisor Dan White, who'd clashed with Milk and then-Mayor Moscone over gay rights issues and resigned his post, returned with a loaded gun and shot both to death.
The peculiar details of the story still linger: White's lawyers' claim that excessive junk-food consumption contributed to his crime; the "White Nights" riots that raged in S.F. after the shooter's seven-year manslaughter sentence was handed down; the paroled White's 1985 suicide; and the prescient tape-recorded statement from Milk, intended to be played if he were assassinated, which said, in part, "If a bullet should enter my brain, let that bullet destroy every closet door."
Twenty-five years after the killings, we can only speculate how San Francisco's political landscape might have been altered if the pair had lived. Would Milk, who ran three times before his election, have set his sights on higher offices? If Moscone had served his full mayoral term, would Dianne Feinstein (named acting mayor after Moscone's death) be senator today? Though the murders happened a generation ago, the men's influence still shows in this election year, perhaps most visibly in the mayoral campaign of Supervisor Tom Ammiano, whose candidacy echoed Milk's public assertion that if a gay man can win political office there's hope for all minorities willing to fight.
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The University of San Francisco's Performing Arts and Social Justice Program marks the assassinations' anniversary with the lecture and performance series "25 Years: Remembering George Moscone and Harvey Milk." Some of the writers who covered the event speak on a Nov. 9 panel moderated by KQED's Michael Krasny; a student production of Emily Mann's Execution of Justice, a play based on that coverage and transcripts from White's trial, runs Nov. 6-8 and 13-15. Most exciting, White's lawyers, Stephen Scherr and Douglas Schmidt, make a rare public appearance on Nov. 12 to discuss the infamous "Twinkie Defense."
The story lends itself to drama -- it's strange and gripping, operatic in scope. And that's not hyperbole: The tale informed Stewart Wallace's 1995 opera Harvey Milk (produced by the San Francisco Opera, whose members sing selections from it on Nov. 10), and the work of director Rob Epstein and producer Richard Schmiechen, whose documentary The Times of Harvey Milk screens Nov. 9. The bullets that ended the lives and careers of two fine politicians may not have destroyed every closet door, but they damn sure put a big, fat dent in America's tolerance for homophobic bigots.