Four Decades Ago, Harvey Milk Was the Victim of a Homophobic Homocide

After Harvey Milk was assassinated in San Francisco, the Voice’s Arthur Bell looked at homophobia in New York City: ‘The gay-rights bill should be a matter of common decency, not one of political maneuverings — from either side’


Before the world ever heard of the “Twinkie defense,” author Randy Shilts reported on what residents of the Castro District felt led to the murders of San Francisco mayor George Moscone and supervisor Harvey Milk: “It was just plain, old-fashioned homophobia.”

Published a week after the murders occurred on November 27, 1978, Shilts’s article included a brief bio of both Milk, the first openly gay elected official on the national scene, and his murderer, Dan White, a conservative member of San Francisco’s board of supervisors. Shilts’s concise report (he would go on to write three bestsellers, including 1987’s And the Band Played On: Politics, People, and the AIDS Epidemic) ends with a bitter quote from a young man on the street: “You just can’t do a thing like this without somebody doing something back.” (Those words would prove prophetic when White was found guilty on the reduced charge of voluntary manslaughter, which led to the White Night Riots in May of 1979.)

A week later, Voice columnist Arthur Bell reported on a local vigil for Milk, as well as efforts to pass Intro 384 through the New York City Council, a bill “which would legally protect gays from being discriminated against in employment, public accommodations, and housing.” He quotes debate from the hearings: “Manhattan Councilwoman Jane Trichter hit the nail on the head when she claimed that ‘what is operating here is a fear of that which is different.’ That which is always the same, was provided by Bronx Councilwoman Aileen Ryan, whom [journalist] Murray Kempton called ‘a most unmovable, hard, dumb woman.’ ” Bell also paints a portrait of Councilman Vincent Riccio of Brooklyn: “He proceeded to attack the gay community with a viciousness indigenous to tyrants who build support out of hate. From the balcony came hissing, but the sound was like rhumba music to Riccio’s ears.” 

In the aftermath of the Milk and Moscone killings forty years ago, Bell took a cynical look at politics that still resonates today: “Threatening, boycotting, educating is not the way to get power from political assholes. Money and favors are. If offered a house in Quogue or a judgeship in Queens, there is no doubt in my mind that several zealot anti-gay gnomes would suddenly open their hearts, if not their homes, and allow the gay vote to tiptoe in.”