[Editor’s Note: Kathy Olmsted is back for another guest post. Hurrah!]
On this day in 1979, Dan White, former police officer, fire fighter, and San Francisco County Supervisor, was sentenced to seven years in prison for assassinating two public officials, one of them openly gay. The lenient sentence provoked riots in San Francisco, a movement for tough sentencing laws, and, eventually, a revolution in attitudes toward gays and lesbians.
In the 1970s, thousands of gays and lesbians moved to San Francisco, which was becoming the gay mecca of the west coast. White represented conservative, working-class residents who resented the ways that their city was changing. He clashed many times with Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk, a national leader in the gay rights movement and the first openly gay elected local official of any large city in the United States. In November 1978, White resigned from the board of supervisors in a fit of pique, and then asked Moscone to reappoint him. Milk advised Moscone not to do so. On November 28, 1978, White entered San Francisco city hall through a window, apparently to avoid a metal detector. After a brief conversation with Moscone, White shot the mayor dead. Then he reloaded his gun and went to Milk’s office, where he executed his political opponent by shooting him in the head.
Milk’s friends were worried about the trial from the beginning. Although White’s “twinkie defense” seemed laughable (his lawyer argued that White had not known what he was doing because excessive junk food consumption had altered his brain chemistry), some jurors seemed compassionate to the killer. They wept openly in sympathy when his tape-recorded confession was played in court. If he had just killed Moscone, observers at the trial believed, he would have gotten the death penalty. But by killing Milk, he seemed to trigger the homophobia of the jury. The manslaughter verdict enraged thousands of San Franciscans, who gathered at city hall. “He got away with murder!” the crowd chanted, as people began to break windows and set police cars on fire.
California soon got rid of the “diminished capacity” or “twinkie” defense, and began passing draconian sentencing laws, culminating in 1994 with Three Strikes. White was released in 1984, and committed suicide less than two years later.
This week, Mark Leno, one of several openly gay members of the California State Legislature, succeeded in persuading the Assembly to pass a bill designating May 22, Milk’s birthday, as “Harvey Milk Day.” If it gets through the Senate, Gov. Schwarzenegger may well sign it. And last week, the California Supreme Court voted to legalize gay marriage. The four-member majority included three justices appointed by conservative Republican governors.
[Editor’s Update: You can find an account of the White Night Riot here.]