Of Lithuanian ancestry, Harvey Milk was born Glimpy Milch in Long Island, New York. He graduated from Albany State College in 1951 and joined the United States Navy; he was dishonorably discharged for homosexuality.
Like many gay people of the time, Milk later moved to San Francisco in 1972, where he settled with his lover Scott Smith and opened a camera store in the Castro gay village. He emerged as a community leader, founding the Castro Valley Association of local merchants, and represented the neighborhood businesses in dealing with the city government.
Despite a national climate of hostility against gay people, he ran for office several times. He emerged as a figurehead for San Francisco's large gay community, and was called the "Mayor of Castro Street." He was elected city supervisor in 1977, the first openly gay elected official of any large city in the US.
He was assassinated on November 27, 1978 at City Hall, together with mayor George Moscone, by former city supervisor Dan White. White had resigned previously following the enactment of a gay rights bill which he had opposed.
A huge throng turned out for Milk's and Moscone's funeral cortège, along a route decorated with rainbow flags.
White was convicted of manslaughter on the grounds of diminished responsibility and sentenced to seven years and eight months, a sentence widely denounced as lenient and motivated by homophobia. Lawyers had prevented anyone pro-gay from serving on the jury, and had brought in a psychologist to show evidence of the depression - namely that the consumption of junk food was out of character for the normally health-conscious White (leading to a common misunderstanding that junk food was blamed - see Twinkie Defense). White later committed suicide while on parole.
Milk had foreseen his risk of assassination and had recorded several audio tapes to be played in that event. On one of the tapes, he made his famous quotation, "If a bullet should enter my brain, let that bullet destroy every closet door in the country."
After the sentence, the gay community erupted into the White Night riots; more than 160 people ended up in hospital.
Harvey Milk is widely regarded as a martyr for the gay community and the gay rights movement. Many Queer community institutions are named for Milk, including the Harvey Milk Institute and the Harvey Milk Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Democratic Club in San Francisco, as well as a number of Queer-positive alternative schools in the United States.
A number of pieces of music have taken Harvey Milk as their subject. Blue Gene Tyranny's Harvey Milk (Portrait) (1978) is a piece for magnetic tape which manipulates a recording of a speech Milk gave in 1978. In 1995 the opera Harvey Milk by composer Stewart Wallace and librettist Michael Korie was premiered.