Harvey Milk

Jul 27, 2020 | International | 0 comments

After Stonewall: The LGBTQ+ Community in the 1970’s

Joe Biden, credit: Gage Skidmore

A look at the experience of the LGBTQ+ community in the 1970’s, from the beginnings of the modern Pride Parade to the tragic killing of Harvey Milk.

8min Read

8min Read

A look at the experience of the LGBTQ+ community in the 1970’s, from the beginnings of the modern Pride Parade to the tragic killing of Harvey Milk.

In June 1970, one year on from the Stonewall Riots the landmark event was commemorated with a Gay Rights March. This wasn’t the huge celebration Pride would become in the years to come – it was still a protest. The LGBTQ+ community was still dealing with great oppression. Stonewall brought about change but it was by no means an overnight change for the better. Stonewall veterans Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera were founding members of S.T.A.R. (Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries). As early as 1973 it was becoming evident the queer experience was being rewritten as primarily white and male. During the Gay Rights March of 1973 in New York Sylvia stormed the stage. “Y’all better quiet down” she said, as people tried to boo her off. She was having none of it.


‘I have been beaten. I have had my nose broken. I have been thrown in jail. I have lost my job. I have lost my apartment for gay liberation and you all treat me this way? What the fuck’s wrong with you all? Think about that!’


Sylvia’s speech was very telling of the contemporary erasure of trans women in the gay rights movement. It was not until recent years that I first heard of Stormé DeLarverie, a black lesbian who was also one of the key figures at the riots.

It was also in the early 70’s mainstream media began to turn the tides on representation.  Sitcom creator Norman Lear was revolutionary in featuring an out gay man in an episode of All in the Family in 1971 and a recurring drag character. Its spinoff, The Ropers, featured a transgender character who for the time was less of a punchline as had been the trend in the preceding years, instead being portrayed in more human terms. 

1973 saw the first reality tv show in America with An American Family, a precursor to the likes of The Osbornes and Keeping up with the Kardashians. Notable among the cast was the out and proud Lance Loud, who became a high profile public figure due to this. 

In the UK the “camp queen” was a trope that was extremely popular throughout the 70’s. John Inman’s Mr Humphreys character in long running sitcom Are You Being Served? Was an example of this, a gay man who was simultaneously the subject of the joke but also being in on it. This sent out the message that it was alright to be gay on British TV as long as you were non-threatening and played the role of the sissy. These 70’s camp characters were accepted once they hid everything that was outside the stereotype. An outlier in this regard was Kenny Everett, who was blatant, unapologetic and overtly sexual on his shows. 

Back in America, a subculture was emerging that was a refuge for the disenfranchised and outcasts in society. Disco emerged out of the soul of the 1960’s and the need for hedonistic escapism from the post-Vietnam and Nixon-powered America.  The disco movement shone brightly from the dawn of the 70’s to the very end when the “Disco Sucks” protest brought it to a very abrupt ending in 1979. 

Politics also turned the tide in the 70’s, especially when Harvey Milk rose to prominence. He had spent time in New York where he had befriended some gay radical activists, and considered this a call to arms. Harvey Milk had had a variety of jobs throughout his life including that of a lifeguard, theatre producer and schoolteacher before moving to San Francisco in 1972. Here, in both 1973 and 1975, he ran for public office but was inexperienced as a politician and lost the election. Despite this he continued being a prolific activist and worked hard to ensure the wellbeing of the people of Castro, his neighbourhood in San Francisco. Third time was a charm for Harvey Milk and he was successfully elected in 1977.  He was affectionately known in the area as the ‘Mayor of Castro Street’. He made several high-profile political contacts including the then-mayor of San Francisco George Moscone, future mayor Willie Brown, and Dianne Feinstein who would go on to win a seat in the Senate. 

Harvey Milk was tragically shot to death on 28 November 1978 by Dan White who had also been elected in the same year as Milk. They often clashed over their differing ideologies, with White arguing that the city was in moral decline. That same night he entered the mayor’s office via an open window and killed Mayor Moscone. White later turned himself in at the police precinct he had worked at while he was previously on the police force. 

White was sentenced to manslaughter and served only six years in prison. His conviction of manslaughter was a blow to the LGBTQ+ community as it was felt it devalued Harvey Milk’s life, with many in the LGBTQ+ community arguing that he should have been convicted on a murder charge. The manslaughter conviction was viewed as discriminatory, suggesting that White was given a lesser sentence just because Milk was gay. In 1985 White was released and soon after took his own life.

Further challenges were faced by the LGBTQ+ community from the right in the shape of Anita Bryant, a Christian singer and jingle singer on an orange juice advert.  Bryant campaigned for an organisation called Save Our Children whose purpose was to have gay teachers removed from schools as they were perceived by Bryant and her followers as spreading the “homosexual agenda”. This is not dissimilar to the campaign of hate recently experienced by Minister for Children, Disability, Equality and Integration Roderick O’Gorman, an openly gay Green Party TD.

Bryant became a popular figure. She would travel around singing wholesome songs intermingled with her orange juice jingle. On one occasion she was met with a pie in the face. Anita Bryant’s organisation Save Our Children’s slogan was “Homosexuals Cannot Reproduce, So They Must Recruit”. 

Alan Rockway was one of the key opponents to Anita Bryant. He spoke out against her and was instrumental in blocking Anita Bryant and Save Our Children’s campaign. He helped define historic anti-discrimination employment legislation protecting LGBTQ+ people in the workplace. Years later the Rockway Institute would be founded in his name to carry on his legacy. 

As the 1970’s came to a close, it was clear that the LGBTQ+ community had come a very long way. However, the party lifestyle and liberties they had been attained were to be challenged by a dark cloud on the horizon. The AIDS crisis was right around the corner and Conservative Republican Ronald Reagan was about to take residence in the White House.  Ireland also entered the arena with our first gay rights marches in the early 80’s. Join me in our next part when I’ll be looking at how echoes of the 80’s are still impacting LGBTQ+ life today, and also further examining the LGBTQ+ community’s relationship with music. 


Related Articles


Follow Us


Join our mailing list

This will allow you to keep up-to-date with our very latest articles, straight to your inbox.

Leave a reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.